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With 7 million Km2 of rainforest, more than 3 million animal species and 2,500 tree species, Latin America presents the biggest and most bio-diverse ecosystem on Earth. It harbours more than half of the world’s primary forests and a third of its freshwater resources. This is what makes the region’s natural environment the greatest carbon sink on the planet, retaining carbon dioxide and producing oxygen and water, and a vital site in the global battle against climate change. Nevertheless, the advancement of extractive and agribusiness projects, accompanied by a generalized climate of impunity and violence, is bringing the entire ecosystem to the brink of collapse. Far from being an isolated case, private interests and states’ passivity are colluding with environmental and human rights all around the world, from Africa to Asia and Central Europe. On the occasion of Earth Day, takes the opportunity to acknowledge the work of civil society organizations, indigenous communities, and activists that are standing in firm opposition to this human-led environmental degradation. As Environmental Human Rights Defenders, they are courageously standing alone to protect not only their lands, lives, and culture, but also the very ecosystem upon which life on Earth depends.


The Rio Cauca, also known as Patron Momo, is the second-largest river in Colombia. Its waters flow through seven different departments and sustain the life, economy, and culture of millions of people. The river is now been obstructed by the construction of Hidroituango, a hydro-electrical mega-project financed by the Gobernación de Antioquia y Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), in Antioquia, Colombia. The infrastructure project, contrary to the claims of economic progress and advancement, has caused severe violations of the cultural, economic, and social rights, including the right to health, of the communities living in the area. Furthermore, the project was accompanied by the militarization of the area, resulting in restriction of freedom, harassment, persecution, and forced displacement becoming a new threatening norm. The Movimiento Ríos Vivos is one of those Environmental Human Rights organisations on the frontline to protest against this unbounded violation of environmental and human rights. In fact, given the incapacity of the Colombian government to ensure the respect of the rule of law, Movimento Rios Vivos has slowly emerged as a source of resistance to the violent advancement of the corporate project. Starting with few people protesting, the movement is now a national reality that counts 15 social organisations composed of women, young activists, farmers, fishers, indigenous communities, and all of those affected by the Hidroituango project, united by the desire to restore social and environmental justice in the region.

The movement, since its inception in 2010, has faced repeated threats and repression, attempting to undermine its human rights and environmental work. Some of its members have been killed, while its vice president Richard Zapata, secretary general María Rojo Villa and Luz Ángela Agudelo have been victims of repeated threats and intimidation, as reported by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. Far from being an isolated case, being an Environmental Human Rights Defender is one of the most dangerous activities in the world. Only in 2022, 194 defenders working on environmental rights have been killed in 15 different countries, accounting for 48% of all the killings of defenders, according to Front Line Defenders 2022 Global Analysis Report. Furthermore, Environmental defenders are systematically criminalized and repressed by the very states responsible for their protection, mainly through the weaponization of law to silence their legitimate right to protest. In general, land, indigenous peoples and environmental rights defenders were recognized as the most targeted sector in 2022, with arrest, detention, and legal action recorded as the most prominent forms of violations, followed by physical attacks and death threats.


The right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment was recognized by the UN as a human right in 2022 and represents the precondition for the enjoyment of other rights, such as life, health, and food. As John Knox, former special rapporteur on environmental and human rights issues, explains, the relationship between environment and human rights should follow a virtuous circle: the protection of human rights helps to protect the environment, while a healthy environment ensures the enjoyment of human rights. In this process, the protection of the rights of environmental human rights defenders is pivotal: without those individuals and groups, and the respect of their rights, the protection of the environment would simply be impossible.

In line with this awareness, several legal frameworks and international standards have been set to close the cycle of violence and environmental harm characterizing the regional and global scenario. At the regional level, the Escazù Agreement represented the first environmental agreement specifically for Latin America and the Caribbean, containing specific provisions for environmental HRDs. Additionally, in 2022 the EU has advanced a set of proposals, under the name of Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, for a new law aimed at fostering sustainable and responsible corporate behaviour and anchoring human rights and environmental considerations in companies’ operations and corporate governance. Finally, at the international level, the first UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders was appointed in 2022, marking a crucial step in the international recognition of this category. While these are all fundamental achievements, the substantial protection of EHRDs and the respect of legal parameters are constrained by the negligence of states, more interested in pursuing economic interests than in aligning with environmental and human rights standards.

PROTECTDEFENDERS.EU’s SUPPORT recognizes the fundamental role played by Environmental, Land, and Indigenous defenders in the world and their need for tailored support. They are recognised as one of the most at-risk categories and are granted priority consideration in the implementation of our programmes. Our outreach efforts have increased since the inception of the Mechanism and even more in the past year, reaching land, indigenous and environmental rights defenders. This was the case, for example, of an emergency grant provided to Luis Francisco Gonzalez Cabrera, a peasant leader and member of an association promoting peasants’ rights and environmental protection, who was risking his life because of his work. Thanks to the grant, provided in the framework of, the defender, together with his family, was able to relocate and safely continue his advocacy work. Similarly, the OMCT, in addition to monitoring and reporting activities, organized a field mission to assist in the trial of two Mexican land rights defenders, that have been criminalized because of their peaceful human rights work on behalf of communities belonging to the Pueblo Maya Tseltal de Chilón. While the two defenders were found guilty, their sentence was minimized and they were allowed to remain free thanks to the international solidarity demonstrated by the observation mission of OMCT,

Through its support is contributing to ensure that environmental defenders are treated with justice and that their struggles and voices are met with the value and recognition they deserve, making the struggle for climate justice and for a sustainable planet a unified and global endeavor.