The recent murder of Tortuguita “Little Turtle” in January in Atlanta’s Cop City was the first time US police shot and killed an environmental activist. Far from a singular event, what’s happening at Cop City is part of a global land-defense movement that uses human bodies to occupy lands threatened with pollution and disturbance in order to protect the areas. Recent events at Cop City spark an opportunity to fully understand the violence that land-defense protests face.
Here are five actions to pay attention to around the world.
United States—Defend the Forest and Stop Cop City
How it started: The 300-acre Weelaunee Forest sits on the outskirts of Atlanta, GA. Thanks to the forest’s proximity to the city, Atlanta has one of the country’s highest percentages of tree canopy, boosting its resilience to climate change. The forest also has a painful history; it was taken from the Native Muscogee people by the state of Georgia then served as a slave plantation and later a prison farm. Today, the Atlanta Police Department wants to turn part of the forest into a tactical training compound called Cop City. Another part of the forest, Intrenchment Creek, is at risk of being sold to ShadowBox Studios, a film production company that would use 170 acres of forest to create an enormous soundstage—and make Atlanta the new Hollywood. Thus far, Atlanta’s local communities have had no say in the matter.
Current Action: Land defenders have been camping in the forest for months to stop construction and have faced violent police retaliation. On January 19th, violence escalated. That morning, local police confronted protesters in a militarized raid fashion, ultimately killing Tortuguita. Atlanta police continue to push the narrative that they are keeping Atlanta “safe” with the Cop City training compound and that the compound can co-exist in harmony with environmental stewardship. In truth, however, if it comes to pass, Cop City will make way for a more heavily policed Atlanta.
Canada—Fairy Creek Old-Growth Logging Protests
How it started: British Columbia is home to old-growth trees that stretch close to 200 feet high and are 140 years old or older. Old-growth forests provide habitat for many ecosystems, protect biodiversity, and capture carbon, mitigating climate change. However, the wood from these forests is economically valuable, bringing in nearly $1.3 billion annually for Canada’s forestry sector. Environmental groups believe that old-growth forests are being logged at unsustainable rates, and a 2020 report shows that many forests in British Columbia are at risk of extinction. Fairy Creek—an area in the southern part of Vancouver Island—remains one of the last unprotected forested areas on the island and is a focal point of logging protests.
Current Action: The Fairy Creek protests started in 2020 and are a response to the government’s broken promise to stop logging in the province. In what has been called the most significant act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, protesters have been blocking roads to Fairy Creek and leading demonstrations on highways in major metro areas. Thus far, over 1,200 people have been arrested. The logging firm, Teal-Jones, appealed for an injunction to stop the protests, which police enforced with excessive force, denying media access. Between 2020 and 2023, RCMP spent nearly $18 million on policing resistance to stop protestors at Fairy Creek.
Brazil—Indigenous Guards of the Amazon Rainforest
How it started: For decades, Indigenous Amazonians have struggled to protect their land from degradation, illegal land grabs, and extractive industries, such as gold mining and big oil. Many Indigenous groups, such as the Yanomami people, have been threatened with narcotics trafficking, illegal mining, and unauthorized air transport, particularly under the Bolsonaro administration, which encouraged such activities. According to Indigenous rights and environmental groups, these activities have had a detrimental effect on the social and health outlooks of the Yanomami people. Earlier this year, the Brazilian government—now under the leadership of Lula da Silva— declared a national emergency, describing the Amazon and Yanomami people’s current situation as genocide. In 2022, the Amazon rainforest saw record deforestation—the highest in six years. Estimates show that 13.2 percent of the Amazon’s biome has been lost, and the Amazon as a whole is approaching an irreversible tipping point—or transition from rainforest to degraded savanna and shrubland, which would release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
Current Action: “Indigenous guards” are stepping up to protect ancestral lands. Groups such as All Eyes on the Amazon, dubbed “TOA,” have stopped 52 illegal mining projects and helped to protect 79,000 acres of untouched forest. The Indigenous guards have started using data- and image-optimization technology to implement real-time land monitoring to “guard” over seven million hectares of the rainforest. In addition, the new Lula da Silva administration launched a national campaign to drive out the thousands of illegal miners from Indigenous lands. Most recently, a ministry created for Indigenous peoples launched a special forces operation in early February to crack down on illegal mining mafias.
Tanzania—Eviction of the Serengeti’s Maasai People
How it started: This series of protests is the latest development in the Maasai’s ongoing history of displacement. The Maasai want to stay on their ancestral lands—a portion of which lies in the Serengeti’s Ngorongoro conservation area. A protected region in Northern Tanzania, the Serengeti comprises several game reserves and the Serengeti National Park and is home to the Indigenous Maasai people. In recent months, the Maasai have been protesting their forced removal by the Tanzanian government, which plans to lease 1,500 square kilometers of the Serengeti to the Otterlo Business Corporation for tourism and game hunting and is forcing the Maasai out with violence. In 1992, the Tanzanian government allowed the same corporation to take 4,000 hectares of land, which 50,000 Maasai people called home. In 2009, 3,000 Maasai were forcibly displaced at gunpoint, and between 2015 and 2017, close to 300 traditional Maasai homes were burned, leaving close to 20,000 people unhoused. The Tanzanian government believes that the conservation area is becoming overpopulated with Maasai and their livestock, leading to environmental degradation, and it is using the guise of “conservation” to justify state violence against this Indigenous group.
Current Action: In October 2022, the East African Court of Justice announced the eviction of the Maasai, setting a dangerous precedent according to which conservation can trump Indigenous people’s rights. Maasai activists who protested were threatened and fled to neighboring countries like Kenya. In December, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was due for a week-long visit to Tanzania to assess the situation, but the visit was postponed for fear that the Tanzanian government would not welcome an outside investigation. As of now, Maasai continue to protest to remain on their ancestral land.
Germany—Lützerath’s Coal Mine Expansion
How it started: In Western Germany, the small, recently deserted village of Lützerath is being demolished to expand a lignite coal mine owned by German multinational energy company RWE AG. Lignite coal is responsible for 20 percent of Germany’s carbon emissions. Though studies show that the need for Lützerath’s coal is non-existent, the German government and RWE AG believe that lignite coal is necessary to secure the country’s energy future. Lützerath is supposed to have 280 million tons of such coal underneath it. Coal mining will steer Germany away from its climate goals outlined in the Paris Agreement, but RWE AG has strong influence; the energy company successfully pushed back the closure of two thermal power plants, and it struck a deal with the Green party that allows for the demolition of another abandoned village.
Current Action: After Lützerath residents left due to their immanent removal by RWE AG, climate groups and activists occupied the village to stop land clearance and demolition. At the start of this year, after word got out that German authorities would attempt to remove the activists occupying the village, nearly 35,000 protesters went to Lützerath. After a long standoff with the protestors, police got their way using batons, water cannons, motor saws, and other forceful means. Though the protest failed to stop the mine’s expansion, movements such as Lützerath Lives continue, forming part of the global battle between fossil fuels and climate justice.
Land defense movements, such as the ones outlined above, are one of the most powerful ways to fight back against extractive economies that justify the use of state-sanctioned violence in the name of conservation, energy security, and so-called safety. Though land-defense movements show how dangerous it has become to defend the environment—and the rights of people who depend on lands threatened with pollution and disturbance—these movements are also calls to action. We can support mutual aid funds, like the Forest Justice Defense Fund and Luetzerath Lives, share protest media kits, and share reports from reputable news sources and human rights organizations. You can also follow the social media accounts of activists on the ground. Lastly, it is critical to learn about the Indigenous land you stand on. Tools like Native Land Digital can help. These are just some of the ways that we can help to mobilize from the sidelines and advance movements pushing for more input on how lands are preserved and used.