Issue Brief: Environmental Defenders

This USAID Issue Brief on Environmental Defenders provides an introduction to the range of issues facing environmental defenders worldwide, followed by a discussion of key areas of engagement and donor support that demonstrate possible responses to protect the rights and well-being of environmental defenders.

Environmental defenders are people who “take a stand and peaceful action against the unjust, discriminatory, corrupt, or damaging exploitation of natural resources or the environment.”[1] They are made up of diverse groups and individuals, including Indigenous Peoples, rural communities, local conservation and forest monitors, environmental activists, human rights advocates, journalists, lawyers, and women and youth leaders.

The grievances of environmental defenders are enmeshed in broader governance challenges—including many areas of continuing focus for USAID programming and core USAID policy concerns, such as the Strategy on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance, Biodiversity Policy, Climate Strategy 2022-2030, Policy on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, and the U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption.

Unfortunately, environmental defenders are under threat. In 2020, there were 227 reported killings of environmental defenders, a rate of nearly 5 per week, and the worst year on record. Global Witness and its partners documented 2,177 killings of environmental defenders from 2002-2022. [2] The actual numbers are very likely higher as some deaths go unreported by official sources or the circumstances are difficult to verify.


[1] Global Witness. 2021. Last Line of Defence: The Industries Causing the Climate Crisis and Attacks Against Land and Environmental Defenders.

[2] Ibid.