Story | 07 Sep, 2021

The stories and voices of environmental defenders across the globe: Special issue of Policy Matters

Excerpt from the special issue of the CEESP publication Policy Matters 22

The September 2021 CEESP Newsletter focuses on the stories and voices of environmental defenders: this is the topic of the special issue of Policy Matters, launched during the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille, France.

In 2019, before the COVID epidemic shook the world, members of IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP) came together to begin developing this special issue, which evolved into a landmark, three-volume series with an interdisciplinary mix of academic articles, poetry, music, art, videos and photos. It is an open-access, peer-reviewed journal, published electronically and in print by IUCN CEESP. 

content hero image


Women protesting the construction of a dam in India. © KAREN ROBINSON/ INTERNATIONAL RIVERS

The motivation for devoting an entire issue of Policy Matters to the topic of environmental defenders is clear. Global Witness (2020) reports that environmental defenders are being murdered at record numbers globally, with almost four defenders – defending their customs, territories, human rights, and environmental health – killed per week. In 2020, 331 environmental and human rights defenders were murdered, a majority of whom were acting in defense of their ancestral territories and forests (Front Line Defenders, 2020). 

John Knox, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, noted that “[t]here is now an overwhelming incentive to wreck the environment for economic reasons. The people most at risk are people who are already marginalized and excluded from politics and judicial redress, and are dependent on the environment […]. Everywhere in the world, defenders are facing threats. There is an epidemic now, a culture of impunity, a sense that anyone can kill environmental defenders without repercussions”. Mining, agribusiness, illegal logging, and even conservation are among the mega-projects threatening environmental defenders and their territories. Land claims are often swept aside to pave the way for controversial ‘development’ projects that increasingly have the ‘green’ stamp of approval.

At the same time, there is growing evidence about the outsized role that Indigenous peoples and local communities – many of whom are environmental defenders – play in the governance and conservation of the world’s biodiversity and nature.¹ At the IUCN World Conservation Congress, members discussed Motion 039, on “protecting environmental human and peoples’ rights defenders and whistle-blowers”. As such, it is crucial that the conservation community takes a stand on the dire situation of environmental defenders worldwide and recognises and upholds their rights.

Our goal with this issue is to provide a broad and diverse perspective on the current reality of the struggle of environmental defenders, stressing the urgent need to change the mindset of the conservation community and spread awareness of these issues, hopefully resulting in practices that are at the same time respectful of Indigenous peoples and local communities and more effective at nature conservation itself.

Each of the three volumes within this Special Issue contains contributions from academic scholars, activists, community groups, and artists dealing with the complex struggles of Indigenous land rights and environmental conservation – focusing specifically on environmental defenders themselves. Contributions are mostly in English, with some multilingual (English, French, Spanish, Zulu) contributions (poems, songs). We’ve tried to give voice to the regions of the world where defenders are the most at risk.

Environmental Defenders: Special edition of CEESP Policy MattersPhoto: CEESP

Policy Matters Volume 1: Defenders and the many faces of repression.

The first volume highlights the struggles, pains and successes of some environmental and and defenders around the world.

Special issue of Policy Matters: the stories and voices of environmental defenders across the globePhoto: TBD

Policy Matters Volume 2: Grassroots in action

In the second volume, authors look at initiatives taken by defenders to protect the environment and themselves, in often adverse contexts.

Policy Matters 22 Vol 3 Policy Matters 22 Vol 3 Photo: IUCN

Policy Matters Volume 3: Conservation and the need for greater defenders protection

In the third volume, we present calls for action and examples of initiatives that have been taken to support environmental defenders.

This special issue of Policy Matters seeks to cultivate tangible change within the conservation community and to inspire self-reflection on the role each of us plays, vis-a-vis our own responsibilities towards protecting local and indigenous environmental defenders worldwide, in the current conservation system and in our work.


We acknowledge each and every defender who, day after day, put their lives in peril in the defence of nature and their community. We hope that this special issue brings awareness to their plights and their struggles and serves as a catalyst for transformative action.

  • Ameyali Ramos (IUCN CEESP)
  • Philippe LeBillon (University of British Columbia)
  • Caroline Seagle (IUCN CEESP)
  • Masego Madzwamuse (IUCN CEESP)
  • Kristen Walker Painemilla (IUCN CEESP)
  • Iryna Petriv (Independent)
  • Liliana Jauregui (IUCN Netherlands)

ICCA Consortium (2021). Territories of Life: 2021 Report. ICCA Consortium: worldwide. Available at:; WWF, UNEP-WCMC, SGP/ ICCA-GSI, LM, TNC, CI, WCS, EP, ILC-S, CM, IUCN (2021).

Front Line Defenders. 2020. FLD Global Analysis 2020. Available at:, Accessed 21.09.2021.

The State of Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ Lands and Territories. [Accessed 8 August 2021].