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News > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > About Greta Thunberg and the silenced environmental leaders

About Greta Thunberg and the silenced environmental leaders

María Mónica Monsalve (MSCCCD10), journalist from Colombia and IDS student invites us to reflect on the struggles of murdered environmental leaders in the world and in their country, Colombia.

Frankie Fouganthin [CC BY-SA (]
Frankie Fouganthin [CC BY-SA (]

Last year Greta Thunberg went from being a kid that skipped school to strike every Friday to become one of the most recognized leaders of the fight against climate change. Nowadays, it seems almost impossible to think about climate justice without thinking about her, and it was not surprising that she was elected by Times magazine as the Person of the Year 2019. Somehow, Greta has achieved what scientists, journalist and communicators, all together, could not: talk about climate change as something that is interfering with our daily lives; and make it an emotional discourse.

What people seem to love about her – besides her evident encouragement for climate action- is that she was able to shake, anger, and outrage a lot of men who consider themselves “very wise” but could not tolerate seeing a girl become a leader, they could not think of her as a voice to be followed.

Silenced voices

We should remember that Greta is also a successful voice among a lot that were silenced. A voice that was able to ask the United Nations for her future when more than 100 people could not even ask their governments to safeguard their environment without being murdered.

In 2018 the NGO Global Witness documented 164 killings of land and environmental defenders. Cases that make it clear that environment and climate change are extremely linked to the right to belong to a land. Not only to have it as private property but to decide what to do with it. These people were murdered because they were opposing mining (including drilling for oil), logging, and even hydroelectric projects, which shows, somehow, that climate change is not an abstract subject: it is real, a tangible problem.

Colombia, and Daniel Abril Fuentes

My country, Colombia, has been leading – shamefully- in the number of environmental activists killed according to the reports of Global Witness since the organization started. In 2015, 26 environmental and land defenders were killed, in 2016 it increased to 37 and in 2017 it stepped down to 24, a number that was repeated in 2018. Although Colombia has never been the first country on this list, it has always remained in the second and third place.

Once, while talking to a close friend of Daniel Abril Fuentes (an environmental leader from Casanare that was murdered in 2015), I was told that Daniel´s iconic fight was around water conservation. His region, Casanare, located in the Orinoco, in the central east of Colombia, has faced different droughts throughout history. A problem that became worse and even more dangerous to fight against because the region has always been the desired exploration and drilling points for oil companies. Daniel - his friend told me - had led several protests asking the Colombian state to let people decide what to do with their territory. He, and the people that followed him, wanted to tell the government that development did not mean oil exploitation. But because of this, he was persecuted. For this - his friends believe - he was also killed.

By who? Perhaps this is one of the most difficult questions to solve. Both, in Colombia and the world, it seems that the murders of environmental leaders who demand climate justice were led by “an invisible” hand. Nobody knows. No one answers. Impunity reigns.

Moreover, in Colombia, my country, Global Witness, decided to make a “sui generis” report due to the lack of response on who committed these crimes against environmentalists. Together with the Vance Center, they asked the Colombian prosecutor to provide information on 122 cases of murders of environmental leaders that have been reported since 2011. The impunity rate they found is defeating: 92% of the cases are still unsolved.

How Dare You?

The invitation, therefore, is to continue supporting Greta in her fight; that is also our fight. But instead of seeing only her or listening to her words alone, try to think about all the other environmental leaders that are in recondite regions of the world trying to speak up against climate change. See in Greta those who risk their lives just because they wanted to decide what to do with their land, with their territory. But not only see in Greta the activists who have died, but those alive and that keep asking for a change despite the risk. See in Greta, too, epic people like Vanessa Nakate, leader of Fridays For Future in Africa, who was recently deleted from a photograph in Davos that brought together several young climatic leaders. See in Greta the fights of brave people as Daniel Abril.

In one of her speeches, Greta said a phrase that was so famous that it even became a  meme - one of the best cultural indicators of this era: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood,” she stated, “how dare you?". But the world has already dared to steal the lives of those brave enough to fight for the environment. Climate change is no longer destroying the future, but the present of several. It is no longer a problem of the future, of the next generation, or a problem to come. It is a problem that people are facing daily: in their water, in their crops, in whether they should have kids or not; in the kind of textiles we wear as clothes. Every time we see Greta let us remind ourselves about every fight: our fight against climate change.

Find out more by watching this video by El Espectador "Defensores del medio ambiente: Colombia ocupa el segundo puesto en asesinatos a nivel mundial" (Environmental defenders: Colombia ranks second in murders worldwide).

This is part of a series of blogs written by current IDS masters students and PhD Researchers. Look out for other blogs in this series, including: Barricades and democratic tsunami in Barcelona; Muxes, the third gender that challenges heteronormativity; That Night a Forest Flew; Eco-anxiety and the politics of hope: a reflective opportunity to build resilience; About Greta Thunberg and silenced environmental leaders; From alleged offenders to confessed sufferers: Participatory process in action; Women’s struggle in Afghanistan: An Insight from a Human Rights perspectives; Feminist Latin American movements demanding sexual and reproductive health and rights; India’s Progressing Ambitions in Development Finance; The British voting system for disabled voters is broken: How to fix it… plus others to follow on- Rwanda on a participatory theatre project, and USAID’s digital strategy.

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