A global analysis of violence against women defenders in environmental conflicts


Excerpts from publication by Dalena Tran & Ksenija Hanaček in Nature


Women environmental defenders face retaliation for mobilizing against extractive and polluting projects, which perpetrate violence against Indigenous, minority, poor and rural communities. The issue matters because it highlights the gendered nature of extractive violence and the urgent need to address the systemic patterns of violence that affect women defenders, who are often overlooked and underreported. Here we analyse violence against women defenders in environmental conflicts around the world. We use data from the Environmental Justice Atlas and employ log-linear and binomial regressions to find statistically significant patterns in displacement, repression, criminalization, violent targeting and assassinations committed against women defenders in extractive conflicts.

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Statistical results indicate that violence against women defenders is concentrated among mining, agribusiness and industrial conflicts in the geographical South. Repression, criminalization and violent targeting are closely linked, while displacement and assassination appear as extreme outcomes when conflict violence worsens. Women defenders experience high rates of violence regardless of countries’ governance accountability and gender equality. This work contributes to the broader sustainability agenda by highlighting the need to address the impacts of extractive activities on women.


Extractivism refers to projects extracting natural resources for exportation. It is an inherently unequal process often inciting extractivist violence, or the institutionalized use of brute force to displace and dominate communities for extractive and polluting projects such as mines or plantations. The extractive process frequently involves militarizing communities and assassinating environmental defenders, those advocating to protect environmental and human rights5. Such violence is typically justified by dehumanizing people and denying them agency through systematically excluding them from economic, social, political and cultural activities (for example, through classism, racialization and gendering). Extractive violence is also connected to ecocide, the notion that environmental destruction is criminal and has devastating genocidal impacts on affected communities dependent on the health of their environments for physical, spiritual, and cultural wellbeing. Genocidal outcomes are those exterminating and persecuting groups, assimilating survivors and erasing their culture.

Current literature describes a connection between colonial extractive attitudes, ecocide and genocide of Indigenous peoples, minorities, the poor and rural communities1. Ecocide typically begins with land grabbing, or forcefully dispossessing communities of their lands and natural resources. Such usurpation is secured through legal and institutional structures such as land ownership regimes disrupting common law tenure. This colonial control is also reinforced through covertly and overtly discriminatory ideological and discursive practices. Ensuing ecological destruction then becomes genocidal when causing conditions fundamentally threatening a group’s cultural and physical existence. More specifically, direct physical violence gives way to indirect forms of extermination through undermining place-based livelihoods, such as deforestation causing food instability, pollution causing health impacts, or structural inequalities increasing vulnerability to violence and ecological consequences.

There has been increasing attention to the ecocide–genocide nexus through environmental defender killings as well as slow violence wherein people suffer from long-term environmental harms. This study contributes an ecocide–genocide–gender connection to such literature. Violence against women environmental defenders (WEDs) is overlooked, and extractive violence is gendered. Corporations and states typically concentrate power among men during project negotiations, limiting women’s autonomy and normalizing their oppression. WEDs face retaliation because mobilizing defies gender expectations of docility (lack of retaliation) and sacrifice (absorption of extractive consequences).

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Questions for this article

Protecting women and girls against violence, Is progress being made?

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Assassinations are the most visible form of direct violence, but all threats to women defenders are difficult to document owing to censorship and a lack of dat. Lacking documentation of violence against women especially is also prevalent owing to discursive discrimination against women treating the loss of their lives as normal, deserved and ‘ungrievable. To address this gap, this article examines 523 cases from the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas) involving WEDs, 81 of which involve WEDs assassinated for their advocacy. Routine assassinations of WEDs are not isolated incidences, but rather political tactics forcefully making way for extractivism. Media reports often focus on gruesome details to sensationalize yet trivialize WEDs’ struggles, often not recording names, let alone their struggle. Patterns of extractive violence against women thus remain overlooked.

In this Article, we address the following questions: (1) Where and under which circumstances do WEDs experience different forms of violence leading up to their assassinations? (2) How do structural patterns of violence affect women defenders? Log-linear regression traced distributions of violence against WEDs across conflict types, commodities and impacts. Binomial regression then addressed structural patterns in countries where WEDs were assassinated. This article contributes global patterns of violence against WEDs. We broaden analyses to circumstances leading up to and including assassinations because ecocide is not limited to killings, but rather encompasses displacement, repression, criminalization and violent targeting. Given our statistical approach and the nature of the material, we are aware of the potential dehumanization of WEDs’ circumstances and denial of their agency. However, quantitative data analysis using a large, representative sample is necessary for strengthening arguments that patterns of violence against women defenders found in qualitative, locally focused case studies are not outliers, but rather are occurring worldwide.

Regarding circumstances informing WED assassinations, extrajudicial killings predominantly occurred in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Many cases were in the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico (Fig. 1). Even in Southern cases, some in Costa Rica, Kenya, Rwanda and Saint Lucia targeted Global North expatriates. The data are skewed towards the Philippines. There were 19 WED assassination cases, more than double compared with Colombia in second place. Some Philippines cases were massacres or serial killings, assassinating 26 WEDs across 19 cases, whereas cases elsewhere targeted one or two at a time.

Figure 2 shows that the types of conflict with high statistical significance (P ≤ 0.05) of violence against WEDs were biomass and land, mineral extraction and industrial and utilities conflicts. The distribution of violence throughout biomass and land conflicts (n = 146) was that nearly half of all corresponding cases involved repression (41%), criminalization (43%) and violent targeting (48%) of women defenders. . . .

Discussion (excerpts)

. . . . Overall, an ecocide–genocide–gender connection is thus apparent in how assassinations and extractive violence were situated within contexts producing gender-specific vulnerabilities for women defenders. Ecocidal dispossession of lands and resources, as many of the EJAtlas cases corroborate, often began upon intrusion of masculinized extractive industries into communities. Genocide caused cultural and physical erasure of peoples standing in the way of extractivism, and ecocide further accomplished such erasure through undermining women’s agency. As occurred in the deadliest countries towards WEDs, changing land ownership regimes8 used patriarchal ideologies to foster ecocidal conditions (extermination, persecution, survivor assimilation and cultural erasure) emboldening violence in subtly gendered manifestations of repression, criminalization, violent targeting and assassination.

The ecocide of Indigenous peoples across Southeast Asian EJAtlas cases, for example, has distinctly gendered aspects. Many Southeast Asian Indigenous peoples formerly had alternative gender cosmologies beyond man–woman binaries and with relatively more egalitarian power relations. Colonization goes beyond territorial invasion. Consequently, colonization and ensuing extractive land grabbing brought new legal, administrative and market structures concentrating (often militarized) power among men. We argue that, through discrimination and violence, these institutions committed ecocidal–genocidal–gendered violence by exterminating and persecuting Indigenous community leaders, erasing formerly egalitarian gender roles and relations, and assimilating survivors into marginalized, binary and unequal gendered labour and social divisions.

Ecocide rewrites WEDs’ histories and bodies as inferior and deserving of extermination. Ecocidal control of populations2 then occurs as fear of and actually experienced gendered (lethal) violence not only deters mobilizations but also creates impunity as women are less able to mobilize safely and openly. Moreover, while most cases do not explicitly report WED involvement or violence, this reflects representational and mobilization inequalities. For instance, there is a difference in how Indigenous and non-Indigenous women defenders negotiate and are impacted by extractive violence in different ways. Such intersectional differences exist and should be explored in future work.