The Persecution of Environmentalists

Father Neftali, Judi Bari, Felipe Arreaga, Alexsandr Nikitin, and Joab OmandiEnvironmental rights advocates risk harassment, torture and even death, simply for standing up for the Earth. Reports of injustice perpetrated against environmentalists may sound like medieval tales of brutality, but these horror stories are taking place today in countries all around the world.

Amongst the countless environmentalists who have been persecuted for their ecological efforts is Joab Omondi. In the 1980s, when he was a student in Kenya, Joab was tortured by the authorities simply because he campaigned to protect the wetlands near his home.

In China, many people are being detained and tortured for standing up for the environment. People who are jailed for things like conservationism are commonly framed as criminals, accused of being separatists, or charged under national security laws.

In the summer of 2011, three environmentally concerned brothers were incarcerated in China on trumped up charges. Rinchen Samdup and Chime Namgyal ran an award-winning NGO devoted to protecting the Himalayan environment. Rinchen was sentenced to a five-year jail term and Chime, a disabled person, was given 21 months of labor and re-education.

The two brothers are reportedly being tortured while in prison. A third brother who petitioned for their release was also tortured and received a 15-year jail sentence on the basis of fabricated evidence.

United States

The documentary “Who Bombed Judi Bari?,” reviews the tragic fate of an environmentalist who peacefully campaigned in defense of old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Bari was an effective organizer who successfully exposed the truth about a powerful and corrupt industry. Bari showed us that when billions of dollars are at stake, people are capable of savage inhumanity.

The film reveals a dark and sinister side to corporate hubris. It shows just how far some unscrupulous actors will go to protect their interests, but it is also the story of one woman’s perseverance and ultimate victory. However, this was a triumph that came at great personal cost.

Bari was repeatedly harassed and subject to death threats, which culminated in an assassination attempt. On May 24, 1990, as Bari and her friend, Darryl Cherney were driving to Earth First!’s Redwood Summer, a shrapnel-wrapped pipe bomb went off under their car. The explosion nearly killed Bari and it injured Cherney.

To add insult to injury, both Bari and Cherney were arrested following the blast and charged with explosives violations. Despite great personal risk, Bari refused to fall silent. Before she could be vindicated, Bari died from breast cancer.

Justice was finally served twelve years after the bombing and five years after Bari’s death. A federal jury awarded the late Bari and Cherney $4.4 million for violations of their rights, illegal search and false arrest. A total of seven law enforcement officials were found to have broken the law and violated civil rights in the framing of the two women.


Environmentalists suffered during a crackdown in Russia after newly elected president Vladimir Putin came to power. In 1996, as head of the Federal Security Service (former KGB), Putin charged Alexsandr Nikitin, a scientist and former Russian naval captain, with acts of treason for sharing his concerns about the nuclear hazards of Russian nuclear submarines.

“The espionage charges brought against Mr. Nikitin violated international human rights standards and Russia’s own constitution,” said Dr. William F.  Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA.

“Putin’s hostility toward those who would expose the environmental pollution caused by Russia’s military industrial complex should not only concern those  who want to avoid future Chernobyl-style nuclear accidents and other massive  environmental catastrophes, it should concern anyone who values the future of a democratic Russia,” said Carl Pope, Executive Director of Sierra Club.

In 1996, Aleksandr Nikitin was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, the first in post-Soviet Russia. In 1997, Nikitin was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for environmental heroism.


In Mexico, corrupt courts are often used to curtail the activities of environmental activists. Felipe Arreaga was an active member of the OCESP, an organization that was created to peacefully campaign against deforestation due to illegal logging. It is widely reported that these illegal logging operations were linked to senior state government officials.

In 1999, two OCESP members, Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, were detained by the military and tortured to force them to confess to firearms and drugs offenses. The two were convicted on the basis of fabricated evidence. In 2000, Montiel was awarded several international prizes, including the  Goldman Environmental Prize. In 2001, President Fox ordered their release in the face of massive national and international pressure.

On November 3, 2004, Felipe Arreaga was arrested, and charged with a murder he did not commit. Amnesty International declared Felipe a “prisoner of conscience” and feared that his arrest and the issuing of arrest warrants against fourteen former members of the OCESP are reprisals against the organization for its environmental activism.

In June of 2004, Isidro Baldenegro and Hermenegildo Rivas, Tarahumara indigenous anti-logging activists, were finally released from prison after prosecutors concluded that there was no basis for the weapons and drug charges filed against them. Several officers have now been charged with planting marijuana and weapons during the initial arrest.

El Salvador

As reported by Friends of the Earth, Salvadoran environmentalists are fighting for a ban on destructive mining projects. For their efforts, they risk incarceration, injury and death. Since 2009, people have been threatened, assaulted, or intimidated in response to their efforts to protect El Salvador’s water, resources and livelihoods from harmful mining projects.

Father Neftalí is an anti-mining organizer who has been repeatedly subject to harassment and death threats.  On January 20, 2012, Father Neftalí was tied up in his home by three men. They searched through all of his possessions and took his computer, cell phones, and an external hard drive. It is suspected that this was about intelligence gathering as no money was stolen.

Father Neftalí is a member of the National Roundtable against Metallic Mining (the Mesa, in Spanish). In a press statement, the Mesa said: “[We] condemn the wave of persecution against environmentalists and human rights defenders who like, Father Neftalí, have suffered similar treatment since the beginning of the anti-mining struggle in El Salvador.”

Although Father Neftali is still alive, others have not been so lucky. In 2009, three similar activists were savagely murdered for opposing mining in El Salvador:

  1. Gustavo Marcelo Rivera, co-founder of the Asociación Amigos de San Isidro Cabañas was tortured and murdered in June 2009.
  2. Ramiro Rivera, president of the Environmental Committee of Cabanas for the Defense of Water and Culture, was murdered along with Felicita Echeverria in December 2009.
  3. Dora Alicia Recinos Sorto, 8 months pregnant, was murdered in December 2009, by assassins who were in search of her husband. Her small child was also injured.

After years of difficult struggle by the Mesa and local communities, they have succeeded in forcing the government to undertake a strategic environmental impact assessment of mining in the country. Although it is being challenged in the courts, mining permits were even denied to some of the most egregious offenders.

These are but a few examples of the countless thousands that have worked to defend the Earth. Even now there are thousands of environmental activists that are incarcerated or being threatened with death simply because they are trying to protect a forest, a mountain or a stream.

A society that does not defend those who protect the Earth is a bankrupt society. Peacefully defending the planet is not a crime, it is a virtue. Just as we recognize people for their brave defense of human rights, we must also recognize people for defending the planet.

Victory is not easily achieved and it is sometimes won at great cost. We owe it to those on the ecological front lines to remember their dedication, courage and resilience. Perhaps we could even strive to cultivate those qualities in ourselves.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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