In the days before he was gunned down in the doorway of his home in the Brazilian Amazon, environmental activist and union leader Chico Mendes knew he was a marked man. He had heard that a meeting of ranchers had been called to plan his death; he had seen, in his truck’s rearview mirror, the pistoleiros who followed him. Mendes told friends in December 1988 that he wouldn’t live until Christmas. He was shot dead a few days later.
In the 25 years since Mendes’s death, he has become an environmental icon, heralded as the “Patron of the Brazilian Environment.” ”In leading this struggle to preserve the Amazon, Chico Mendes had made a lot of trouble for a lot of powerful people,” Andrew Revkin wrote in The Burning Season, his book about Mendes. ”He was to the ranchers of the Amazon what César Chavez was to the citrus kings of California.”
But Mendes wanted something else. A month before his death he wrote, “I’d at least like my murder to serve to put an end to the impunity of the gunmen who have already killed people like me.”
That hasn’t happened. It is still incredibly dangerous to be an environmental activist in Brazil. And new research shows that violence against environmentalists has now escalated to an all-time high — not just in Brazil, but globally.
Between 2002 and 2013, at least 908 people were killed because of their environmental advocacy, according to “Deadly Environment,” a new report from the investigative nonprofit Global Witness. That’s an average of at least one environmentalist murdered every week, and in the last four years, the rate of the murders has doubled. In 2012, the deadliest year on record, 147 deaths were recorded, three times more than a decade earlier. “There were almost certainly more cases,” the report says, “but the nature of the problem makes information hard to find, and even harder to verify.”