Remembering Environmental Defenders

05/27/2014 07:07 pm ET | Updated Jul 26, 2014

On Memorial Day, there is nothing more haunting, tranquil and inspiring as listening to taps being played at a cemetery honoring the men and woman who died defending our rights to create a better world. Whether at Arlington National Cemetery or the cemetery in Watervliet, Michigan where I grew up, on Memorial Day a community of people come together to remember these defenders and reflect on what it means to stand for rights, even in the face of great opposition and the threat of death.

Here in the United States, our rights make it easier for environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth and activists to advocate, stand up and even get arrested without fear of death or torture for environmental protections. But around the world, where people are fighting for the basic rights to defend their corner of the planet, they face intimidation, hardship, torture and even death.

In April, UK-based Global Witness released a report revealing the death of 448 environmental activists in Brazil since 2002. These activists were defending their homes, livelihoods and our environment from the unfair and unsustainable pursuit of agricultural and energy resources. While these deaths are tragic, they are only the tip of the iceberg. At least 908 people in 35 countries have been killed since 2002 and dozens more have been subject to imprisonment, government harassment or silencing for defending their rights to just and healthy world. This isn't counting the death created by the wars, acts of violence, civil unrest, and social upheaval created by corporate and national interests seeking more and more natural resources to exploit.

Personal danger is not what most environmentalists have in mind when they take up the cause of protecting nature and the people who rely on it in their daily lives. But from Laos and the Philippines to Brazil, the list of environmentalists who have paid for their activism with their lives is growing. It is a grim toll, especially when one considers that environmental rights are human rights. And those who escape with their lives fare little better.

As recent as the Sochi Olympics, Russia jailed Igor Kharchenko whose work monitored the environmental effects of Olympic construction. Heavy-handed police crackdowns and inflammatory rhetoric in Canada, Nigeria, Australia, Tibet, Guatemala, Ecuador and the Philippines demonstrate the rights to protect our environment are under assault. In the United States, companies like TransCanada and Shell Oil can use lawyers to threaten and intimidate land owners to give-up their land or racketeering laws to silence opposition. Standing up for what's right transcends borders, age, ethnicity or gender. And despite the risks, more and more people are finding the courage to take a stand. From the Mexican family taking on illegal logging and drug barons, to the Salvadoran priest who denounced environmental injustices, vowing to "...defend mother nature," or Nebraskan moms stopping a pipeline, we are reminded about the true meanings of environmentalism.

So in addition to honoring our nation's uniformed fallen this week, I ask that you also consider those around the world who fight for the planet without uniforms, who fight injustices often without support and those who have fallen in the pursuit of a healthy and more just planet. These environmental defenders will always be heroes and friends of the Earth.