Nonhle Mbuthuma - Xolobeni, South Africa
Nonhle Mbuthuma - Leader of Amadiba Crisis Committee
During the apartheid era, the five villages of Amadiba were united in their opposition to South Africa’s discriminatory political system. Two decades on, they are riven by a deadly conflict over an Australian company’s plan to open a titanium mine.
Nonhle Mbuthuma leads the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which opposes the excavation of dunes and plains along the Wild Coast by an Australian mining company. She fears the project would force villagers off their farms and damage the region’s ecology.
The Amadiba chieftain, who is from a less-affected village further inland, supports the mining plan, which claims to have a low impact and bring in revenues of £140m each year.
The conflict has led to beatings, threats and suspicious deaths of members of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, including the murder last year of the group’s previous leader Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe.
Mbuthuma has been warned she is next on the hit list. But she is pushing ahead with a legal challenge that aims to assert the right of consent for indigenous groups.
“We have told the company many times that we don’t want their mine. How many times do we have to say no?” she asks.
Isela González - Creel, Mexico
Isela González - Director of Alianza Sierra Madre NGO
Two bodyguards shadow Isela González when she goes to visit indigenous communities in Creel, amid the old-growth forests of the Sierra Madre.
The security is provided by the state government following a cluster of assassinations of prominent activists, including Isidro Baldenegro López, a Tarahumara leader who won the Goldman environmental prize for his conservation work.
González can list the names of the logging, mining and drug bosses who have warned her life is at risk if she continues a legal campaign to ensure the land rights of native communities.
Mexico is rapidly becoming one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environment and land activists. In 2017, 15 defenders were killed (a fivefold rise over the previous year), pushing the nation up from 14th to 4th place in the grim global rankings.
The former nurse and anthropologist blames a corrupt government for awarding concessions in indigenous territory without the consent of the local people.
She knows a hit could come at any time, but says she owes it to both the dead and future generations to continue.
“I keep doing this because some of these men and some of these women are not with us anymore. I am just telling a story; this is their story,” says “I believe in this fight and I believe we need to change as a country and I believe the world needs to change.”
Ramón Bedoya - Riosucio, Colombia
Ramón Bedoya - Campesino
When paramilitary assassins murdered his father in December, 18-year-old Ramón Bedoya inherited the family finca, a biodiversity zone, and an increasingly violent struggle against palm oil.
His home in Cocó is testimony to the surge of killings of human rights and environmental activists that followed the 2016 peace accord between the Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia (Farc) and the government. That deal was hailed as an end to the world’s longest-running civil war, but paramilitaries and plantation owners have filled the vacuum with deadly consequences for campesinos and indigenous groups opposed to monocultures.
Bedoya’s father, Hernan had led local resistance to palm oil and used part of his plot to recuperate native ecosystems. He was shot 15 times while he was riding his horse to the vet in Pedeguita y Mancilla.
Ramon believes the killing was ordered by government officials along with the hired muscle of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), a narco-army that claims to be the country’s largest paramilitary group.
Concerns that the young man may be their next target have prompted the federal government to provide him with two bodyguards and a bullet-proof 4x4.
Having helped his father build the finca, Bedoya plans to continue his work. “I want to finish what he started,” he says. “We campesinos can win. There are many of us and we are ready to fight for our rights. It’s our land and we are not going to give it up.”
Maria do Socorro Silva - Barcarena, Brazil
Maria do Socorro Silva - President of Cainquiama (Association of Caboclos, Indigenas and Quilombolas da Amazônia)
As an activist in Pará, Maria do Socorro Silva is working in the deadliest state for Earth defenders in Brazil, the most murderous country in the world.
She leads Cainquiama, a coalition of tens of thousands of the Amazon’s most persecuted forest dwellers – indigenous, quilombo and riverine people – in campaigns for land rights and a clean environment.
Two of her fellow activists in the Cainquiama organisation have been killed since December. Socorro has suffered death threats, home intrusions and had a pistol barrel prodded against her face.
The primary challenge of the quilombola (descendents of rebel slaves) is against the world’s biggest alumina refinery, the Norwegian-owned Hydro Alunorte, and the Albras bauxite mine that supplies it.
After a flood this year, local courts and health inspectors finally recognised what she has argued for years – the plant has an illegal waste pipe that is a source of contamination for neighbouring communities. But the struggle and threats from local politicians continue.
“Everyone knows what happened in Barcarena, but they turned a blind eye,” she says. “They do not like what we do. That is why we are being threatened … But I’m not afraid. I’m a quilombola. The struggle of slavery runs in my blood.”
Marivic ‘Tarsila’ Danyan - Mindanao, Philippines
Marivic Danyan - T’boli villager
When the Philippine army’s 27th infantry battalion attacked her village on 3 December, Marivic Danyan lost her husband, father and two brothers in little more than two hours.
In the outside world, this made headlines as the worst massacre of environmental and land defenders in 2017. The government of President Rodrigo Duterte claimed the village was a base for insurgents.
For Danyan, it was a personal tragedy and another injustice against her community, the T’boli, who have been struggling for decades against a coffee plantation linked to one of the most powerful families in the Philippines.
She said her father – the former village chief, Victor Danyan – was angry when the community’s forest was cleared but had patiently waited 25 years for the plantation’s lease to end. When the lease was extended without the prior consent of the community, he protested by cutting down some coffee trees and instead planting corn. The military attack followed months later.
Under Duterte, the Philippines has become the second most murderous country in the world for land and environment defenders with 48 killings last year.
The 28-year-old, who is the first person in her village to graduate from high school, vows to continue the struggle.
“I don’t have a choice,” she says. “Blood has been spilled and we are ready to give our lives. I won’t use violence. I will use the law, but I will continue to fight.”
Samuel Loware - Kidepo, Uganda
Samuel Loware - Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger
Being shot earlier this year was one of the lowest points in the career of Ugandan wildlife ranger Samuel Loware, but it was not the worst. In 2009, his commander was shot in a gun battle with Sudanese poachers. He also saw two soldiers die on an operation against buffalo hunters.
All three incidents highlight the rising risks of his profession. Rangers are now dying at a rate of 100 a year, according to Thin Green Line, an NGO which lobbies for greater protection for nature’s frontline protectors.
Conflicts are increasingly militarised as wildlife becomes rarer and more valuable, while poachers are armed with ever more advanced weaponry. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the most dangerous country for rangers.
But the Kidepo Valley national park, which Loware has been guarding since 2000, is also vulnerable because it sits close to Uganda’s border with South Sudan. As well as fending off local poachers, Loware has to defend zebras, elephants, ostriches and other species from raiders from the Sudanese People’s Liberation army, who are armed with AK47s and Kalashnikovs. Most just want food. Some supply lucrative markets for ivory and bone-marrow to China and Vietnam.
Loware is paid less than £150 a month. He has thought of quitting, but believes someone must be a guardian of nature. “I decided that for the love of conservation, for the love of the rest of my colleagues and for the love of the country, let us work.”
Fatima Babu - Tuticorin, India
Fatima Babu - English professor and environmental activist
Police in Tamil Nadu shot and killed 13 anti-pollution protesters on 22 and 23 May 2018, the single worst massacre of environmental defenders anywhere in the world over the past 12 months.
The demonstrators were opposing plans to double the size of the Sterlite copper smelter, which has been blamed for respiratory diseases and cancer cases in the nearby city of Tuticorin.
Fatima Babu, an English teacher turned environmental activist, has led resistance to the factory for more than 20 years. She says she has been singled out as an enemy of the company and opponents have tried to smear her reputation. The plant is now suspended, but the human cost was too high for her to feel any satisfaction.
She believes the violent response of the authorities aimed to silence dissent ahead of more industrial projects in the region.
“Something is happening in the world. Activists are being branded as terrorists, but we are not against the country. We’re very patriotic. That’s why we are doing this,” said the 65-year-old. “This phenomenon of destroying people and the planet for profit is not just happening in India. It’s across the globe. We need to come together for future generations. We need to be strong and courageous and hold on to our values.”
Robert Chan - Puerto Princessa, Philippines
Robert Chan - Lawyer and executive director of the Palawan NGO Network Incorporated (PNNI)
Environmental action does not come much more radical, effective or dangerous than the citizen arrests orchestrated by Robert Chan.
The Filipino lawyer has organised a group of eco-vigilantes who risk their lives enforcing regulations against illegal fishermen and loggers in Palawan, an island in the heart of the Coral Triangle.
The results of the past nine years are evident in the PNNI’s headquarters, which are stacked with confiscated goods: more than 600 rusty chainsaws, half a dozen handmade guns, fishing dynamite, bottles of cyanide, bundles of barbed wire and entire boats.
This success has come at a heavy cost. Several members have been assassinated.
“We have had eight dead, dozens injured and countless threats,” says Chan, who is at such high risk that he no longer dares to leave the group’s headquarters.
But he continues to coordinate others and to wage legal and media campaigns against mines and other projects that could damage one of the world’s hotspots for marine life.
“We had to do enforcement work because the government wasn’t doing it,” he said “We can’t stand watching our resources being destroyed in front of our faces.”
Birhan Erkutlu & Tuğba Günal - Alakır Valley ,Tukey
Birhan Erkutlu and Tuğba Günal - Artists and forest guardians
Birhan Erkutlu and Tuğba Günal had all the first-world creature comforts of a modern European city, yet moved into the forests of Antalya and risked their lives to protect the rivers and trees from a hydropower project.
Despite threats, gunshots and lawsuits, they have had a potent influence. From their isolated woodland home in Alakir Valley, they have used drones, lawsuits and social networks to rein back the most destructive plans of a power company.
The political climate is hostile. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called opponents of development projects traitors. The risks were evident in Antalya last year when two anti-quarry campaigners – Aysin and Ali Büyüknohutçu – were murdered in their homes after winning a court injunction against a marble company.
Shoots have also been fired towards their home, but Erkutlu and Günal refuse to be intimidated. They notched up a partial victory last December when the source of the Alakir river was declared a strict preservation zone and two dam projects were cancelled.
Although they originally left Istanbul to escape the world, the couple now see themselves as part of a global movement against the destruction of nature.
“We have become guardians here without intending to,” says the dreadlocked Erkutlu. “If we weren’t here, none of this would be here. The more people who do what we do, the more areas will be guarded. Local people are not so educated and they are very afraid. But if you know the laws you can struggle. We are just two people from Istanbul. If we can do this, anybody can.”