By Celine Barclay
For Christians, Jesus is the archetypal martyr, nailed to a wooden cross. We might draw a visual parallel between Jesus’s crucifixion and the murder of environmental activists, whose tree hugging pose, with arms outstretched, prefigures their martyrdom for having resisted illegal logging. While we might be cautious when drawing parallels between Jesus’ death and that of environmental activists for reasons that will be examined below, nevertheless, some interesting points arise from the comparison.
We might call these activists martyrs insofar as their deaths have often conferred greater attention to the cause they defended than their activism during their lifetime. As Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist executed after criticizing the activities of the multinational oil companies in Nigeria said, “I am more dangerous dead”. Yet whilst some environmental martyrs have received media attention, particularly through documentary series, they have hardly become household names. Their invisibility in the public eye seems discordant with the startling number of murders each year. According to Global Witness, between 2008 and 2018 some 1,427 environmental activists were killed. Over this period, the rate of killings has increased with over three every week in 2018 alone. Statistically, the rate of killings is twice that of war correspondents.
So why the continued invisibility? The reason becomes apparent when we take a closer look at the profiles of most of these environmental martyrs. The majority of the assassinations take place in the tropics and sub-tropics, where those resisting illegal logging, or the violation of land rights, are often members of indigenous communities, who fade into the background of international press priorities. As an Ashaninka survivor said of four fellow indigenous people murdered by an illegal logging gang, “these people were dead to the eye before they were killed”. In other words, the global North would rather turn a blind eye to these environmental martyrdoms for the sake of convenience; we place more value on the resources we extract to satisfy our consumption practices, than on the human lives those practices destroy in the process. There seems to be a disjunction, then, between the temporally and spatially widespread fame of the martyrdom of the lone figure of Jesus, and the silent anonymity which muffles the deaths of so many indigenous environmental activists.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus and his suffering become a singular point of reflection. This focus on, and even glorification of suffering in the context of a movement such as climate activism might be regarded as detrimental. There is a danger that sensationalising the plight of an individual gives greater attention to their suffering than to the cause they defended. To this extent we might question the value of labelling these activists martyrs.
Another reason to question any comparison between these fallen activists and martyrs concerns the striking religious connotations of the term, when scientists are effectively unanimous in declaring human activity to be the cause of climate change. The traditional opposition between science and religion might make us wary of making “martyrs” out of activists who have died defending the environment in light of scientific facts, rather than beliefs.
While on the one hand, it might admittedly seem odd to make a comparison between Jesus, a religious figure, and an environmental activist, this hesitance overlooks the political dimension of Jesus’s martyrdom as well as the religious dimensions of environmental activism--particularly where indigenous communities are concerned. Although resisting illegal logging has broader implications for global warming in the prevention of the deforestation of the ‘lungs of the planet’, there are also spiritual motivations linked to their belief in the sanctity of the environment they inhabit.
The link between religion and activism is even stronger in the case of the ecology monks in Cambodia. In order to deter against deforestation, their strategy involves the ordination of trees. Once felled, these trees are effectively martyred through this humanisation. According to Rob Nixon there is deep identification between the fallen martyr and the felled tree in environmental activism. This identification is concretely demonstrated in the case of the ordained trees but can also be observed in the anthropomorphic language associated with trees, such as “limbs”.
This identification between the activists and the environment they defend goes both ways: in the discourse of environmental activists, the martyrs to the cause are considered to live on in the natural environment they tried to protect. For example, in a tribute to Berta Cáceres (another murdered environmental activist) it was said that, “she is present in the soul of our rivers and the spirit of our birds”. As with the humanisation of the trees, the suffering of the martyr becomes intrinsically linked to the cause they defend. This seems to counter the objection that martyrdom might allow suffering to overshadow the movement: in the case of environmental activists, their deaths become synonymous with the destruction of the environment they protect through this two-way identification between environment and martyr.
On a less metaphorical level, this identification of trees and human lives is strengthened by the material consequences of environmental activism. Given that deforestation is one of the leading causes of climate change, the defence of the forest from illegal logging not only saves trees, but humanity itself. Deforestation is ultimately self-destructive for humanity. In this sense, the metaphor equating the fallen tree with a fallen humanity moves from the merely symbolic to the literal. Chico Mendes reflected that, “at first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
Didn’t Jesus die to save humanity from its sins? Perhaps he had more in common with environmental ‘martyrs’ than first meets the eye.
OCS Media Team
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