Unequal and Under Threat: Economic Inequality and the Dangers to Environmental & Human Rights Defenders
by Scott Squires
In many countries with large endowments of natural resource wealth, resource extraction is considered to be the primary driver of economic development and a major contributor to GDP. Often, however, natural resource extraction is environmentally degenerative and engenders backlash among indigenous communities, conservationists, outspoken members of the human rights community, and other civil society organizations. Unfortunately, environmental and human rights defenders who speak out against such development projects are often subjected to intimidation, censorship, and violence. Increasingly, these activists are murdered for their work.
But what are the root causes when an activist is murdered or silenced for speaking out against natural resource extraction and large-scale development projects? How are neoliberal development models implicated in the dangers posed to activists, and how do conditions of in- country inequality affect the likelihood activists will be murdered? Based on linear regression analysis, I contend there is a correlation between in-country economic inequality and the threat level environmental human rights defenders face. Furthermore, this paper uses case studies to demonstrate the conditions environmental activists face in Honduras and South Africa—two countries with extreme levels of inequality. Finally, this paper makes recommendations to the international community to protect threatened activists.
Keywords: environmental law, environmental defenders, human rights, inequality, Global South