On July 10th 1985 a small group of us from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) were in the Faroe Islands preparing to launch inflatable dinghies to interrupt a drive hunt of pilot whales. Returning from a road patrol to identify in which bay a hunt would occur, I was met by ashen faced colleagues. News had reached us that the Rainbow Warrior had been bombed and Fernando Pereira, the photographer had been killed.
I was the photographer on board the Warrior on the 1979 anti-whaling campaign in Iceland and a few of my EIA colleagues that day were regular Warrior crew members. It hit us hard.
Faroe Islands 1985 by Dave Currey/EIA
Fifteen years later in 2000 my phone rang. “We’ve been badly beaten and now we’re with the police” explained Faith, another Greenpeace veteran, now working for EIA, calling from a police station in South Kalimantan, Indonesia. She and Ruwi, from our partner Indonesian NGO Telapak, had been kidnapped by the nephew of timber baron Abdul Rasyid who we had exposed as destroying Tanjung Puting National Park with industrial scale illegal logging. They were being held for their own safety by some detectives, but the office was surrounded by Rasyid’s men.
The days that followed tested our campaigning skills, involving pressure on ministers and hard diplomacy from the British Ambassador. Ruwi had been threatened with death and it was vital all our lobbying, including that from the UK, insisted on safe passage for both of our colleagues. The ambassador and others made some crucial calls and three days later we chartered a plane and got them out. The case helped provide enough publicity to act as a springboard to future successful action against illegal logging.
Most environmental activists don’t have the resources of a western NGO and at EIA we have always tried to use our “western” label to provide support and (sometimes) anonymity to our friends in more dangerous circumstances. It is often safer for a westerner to stick their head above the parapet than a local.
A report by Global Witness revealed at least two environmental activists are being murdered every week. Last year around 40% of known activist murders were of indigenous people and of the 908 known cases between 2002 and 2013 in only 1% have the perpetrators been successfully prosecuted.
Even in that most eco-friendly country Costa Rica environmentalists are being murdered without any recourse from the law. In 2013 Jairo Mora, a 26 year young turtle conservationist was kidnapped, beaten and dragged behind a car until he died. The apparently solid case against the 7 alleged turtle egg poachers collapsed in trial. Since 1989 ten murders of environmentalists remain unsolved.
These deaths are not random acts of violence; they follow an upward trend of total impunity by some. Fossil fuel companies put millions into climate change denial think tanks, Chinese ivory traders flout laws and regulations while funding armed poachers, timber companies and regional timber barons clear land owned by indigenous people. Some countries even use anti-terror legislation to target environmental activists.
It’s all about power, money and fear; perhaps like most problems our world faces today. Bit by bit we can hope for some changes such as solid agreement at the Paris Climate Change Summit later this year, domestic and international bans on sales of ivory and increased protection in law for indigenous people. We can hope.
But just for now I’m going to remember Fernando Pereira, Jairo Mora and the hundreds of brave great people who have lost their lives doing more than simply hoping. I’m going to shed a tear for the next wonderful person who will die in their attempt to protect our planet. And with a personal indulgence I’m going to feel very sad today because I reckon that is the only way I can understand what we are really losing.