Why violence against women environmental defenders is undercounted

A woman with her children pass on February 22nd, 2019, near a mural depicting Berta Caceres, a Honduran Indigenous environmental activist shot dead for opposing the construction of a dam.  | Photo by Orlando Sierra / AFP via Getty Images

More than 200 environmental activists are killed every year around the world. Often, the victims are Indigenous peoples defending their land. Other times, they’re small-scale farmers fending off industrial agriculture. Or they’re just people who happen to live in a place where logging and mining threatens their homes and livelihoods.

When their deaths do make headlines, we don’t often learn much about their lives. In many cases, even names and gender are missing from reports. There might not be as much attention paid to rural or marginalized communities. Or gender isn’t perceived as something that might have played a role in how that person was treated. That omission can sweep patterns of gender-based violence under the rug, researchers say.

An analysis of environmental conflicts around the world over the past decade, published yesterday in the journal Nature Sustainability, found at least 523 cases involving violence against women. Of those cases, 81 women were murdered. That includes Cheryl Ananayo, a woman who opposed a gold and copper mine in the Philippines — by far the country with the most documented violence against women environmental defenders — who was reportedly killed by “unidentified gunmen” in 2012. Women like Ananayo were targeted in roughly half of all cases of violence in the study tied to mineral extraction, which often includes key materials for electronics like copper and gold.

Ananayo’s death and the fight she led are documented in an online map called the Environmental Justice Atlas. It’s a project that got started in 2012 at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. Researchers Dalena Tran and Ksenija Hanaček scoured the Atlas to determine how many women environmental defenders have been targeted and killed. But the paper they published this week probably still undercounts deaths, in large part because there just wasn’t much data on gender available.

The Verge spoke with Tran about why she hunted down this information and what that has to do with the gadgets and other goods we consume every day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is it important to know how many women are among those killed for their environmental activism each year?

The thing is, that’s just how the violence has continued to exist — because there’s so much widespread impunity. People can get away with this because we kill everybody who doesn’t let them get away with it. And the more that we don’t know, the more that they can keep doing it right under our noses.

In the day-to-day, it’s very hard to see, and it’s very intentional that we don’t see women disappearing.

How is the violence different when women are targeted?

Because it happens to women, for some reason, even if we are women, it makes it an issue that we think is more distant. We don’t see how gender connections can affect literally everyone regardless of what gender they are. It’s a lot of systemic issues and a lot of everyday violences that build up. The murders don’t just happen because they happen. They happen because there’s a long-standing history and many layers of circumstances that lead up to these assassinations occurring. And a big part of that is influenced by gender. And of course, that differs between every single context, but there are certain marginalizations that come with having different kinds of gender — no matter if you’re a woman defender or if you’re a different gender-identifying person.

What makes it difficult to know the gender of those killed?

Gender is not even explicitly mentioned in most reporting. That’s why actually the numbers that I have are much lower than I suspect they should be. I only could include the cases that I explicitly knew there were individual women that were named, and I knew who they were. There were quite a lot of cases that I couldn’t include because I just didn’t find any articles mentioning anything about them.

That’s the thing about reporting, too, that I found disheartening. We only know the gruesome facts about literally what happened on the day of their murder, like how they got smashed. But we don’t know who they were. And that’s really sad.

Are you finding that the violence that women and genders other than men are facing is heightened at all or more severe?

I do think so, especially as we’re seeing a kind of scary pattern across the world of populist movements and authoritarianism and general extremism really growing. Of course, we have a lot more reporting, too, so we’re more aware of things happening. But that still can’t account for how scary the direction we’re going in is.

What impact do you hope this research has?

Just the bare minimum impact would just be to have more people really question what’s going on around them. Of course, there’s a shock value in this kind of thing. I really don’t want to sensationalize these killings, but rather just bring maybe more of a thought into peoples’ heads. Just like what exactly is behind this receipt in my hand. If you go shopping, what’s on that receipt, to you, that’s a number. But to somebody else, they could have died for that.

We often have the attitude in tech or in environmental causes that we can just make tech and the problems will go away. We’ll just manufacture the solution to all these resource issues, climate issues, etc. But it’s not magic. And it’s not alchemy. All of the materials to create these technologies come from somewhere. And that somewhere is usually a very bloody place.

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