By Bill Kovarik
They were abbots, nuns and priests. They were journalists, union members, teachers. They were farmers, villagers, teenagers.
And now they are, mostly, forgotten.
A few of the deaths provoked international outrage in their day. Karen Silkwood (1974); Chico Mendes (1988), Dorothy Stang (2005), Ken Saro-Wiwa (1995), José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo, (2011).
But the majority died in total obscurity, shot in their cars, stabbed in the remote jungle, beaten to death in back alleys.
They were killed by shadowy figures serving the timber tycoons of the Amazon, the mining moguls of Mindanao, or the oil-mad dictators of Nigeria.
Most of the murders have never been seriously investigated, much less solved.
You can look down the list and see the names, and the monumental horror of it all hardly even registers. Who was “Boy” Billanes? We know he backed the idea of “Genuine Development” in the Philippines. We know he was shot in Koronadal City market. But who was he? What did it take for him to stand up and say that the environment, and the people, had suffered too much?
Who was Father Fausto Tentorio, the Italian priest killed in the Philippines? Who was Phra Supoj Suwajano, abbot of a Buddhist monastery killed in 2005? Who was Wilson Pinheiro, who was killed defending the Amazon rain forest in 1980?
They are among a list of hundreds of murdered environmental leaders. It’s a sobering list, made even more disturbing by a now-visible growth rate.
The question is: Does this represent a new artifact of international communication, as distant parts of world becomes more transparent and accessible to each other? Or is there another trend? Are environmental leaders being picked off in the last rush for the world’s remaining resources? Both explanations, it seems, might be true.
Louis Pasteur once said:
“Two contrary laws seem to be wrestling with each other… The one, a law of blood and death, ever imagining new means of destruction and forcing nations to be constantly ready for the battlefield — The other a law of peace, work and health, ever evolving new means of delivering man from the scourges which beset him.”
Pasteur confessed apprehension about which law would ultimately prevail, but he was determined to extend the law of humanity.
We should be similarly determined today.
Human rights groups and religious organizations are trying to keep track of the murders of environmental leaders, but their efforts are not enough. Interpol has a division of environmental crime, but they do not investigate crimes against humanity. We need a serious international investigation.
What’s also not acceptable is the right-wing extremist notion, once far more common, that environmentalists are the killers. Because they aren’t using X (DDT, nuclear power) or because they try to enforce minimal environmental standards, they (somehow) are responsible for holding back development, the supposed lack of which (somehow) kills people. This idea is sometimes known as “green power, black death,” and it is, flatly, based on a grotesque lie.
In fact, the ones dying — the heroes of this struggle to save what is left of the environment — deserve to be remembered for who and what they were
Imagine what these environmental leaders, these real world men and women, were able to envision in their lives. Imagine the deep historical significance of the cause for which they sacrificed. Imagine that someday, this will be appreciated.
And with that in mind, let’s also imagine a new type of monument to those who sacrificed for the law of peace. The message is the greater good of humanity and our global environment. The medium would be something durable, maybe Amazon timber or Philippine gold or Indonesian copper. Maybe it should be covered with crude oil from Africa and sprinkled with stock certificates from New York, London, Ottawa, Jakarta, Tokyo, Zurich and Hong Kong..
We need something to remind us, and every politician in every capital of every nation in the world, what the people and the environment have suffered, and what we all must learn if we are to avoid repeating this painful history.
Bill Kovarik is a journalist and a professor of communication. He has created a list of slain environmentalists for the Environmental History Timeline, and suggestions are welcome.