RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
World leaders have just signed this historic climate agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, right? The Paris Agreement. But some of the most important environmental work is done by ordinary citizens with extraordinary courage. Every year, people in the poorest countries are attacked, sometimes even murdered, for trying to protect the environment. They're farmers or tribal leaders standing up to some of the world's most powerful industries. And as NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports, that death toll is mounting.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Every few weeks, Phan Sopheak heads deep into the woods around her village in Cambodia. She goes with a volunteer patrol of fellow rice farmers. They're on the lookout for illegal loggers.
PHAN SOPHEAK: (Through interpreter) When I walk in the forest and I see giant trees that they've cut down, it makes me feel so sad that they've just cut and thrown them out. And I know that when all the forest is gone, the water will also dry up.
AIZENMAN: So when she and the other patrollers come across loggers, they don't just urge them to stop - they take their chainsaws and timber. It's led to angry confrontations.
SOPHEAK: (Through interpreter) They've said things like if you burn my wood, I'll burn your house.
AIZENMAN: One night last month, it got scarier. The patrol had bedded down for the evening in the forest. Phan, who's 25, petite, was sleeping in her hammock when she felt a painful crash, her motorcycle toppling onto her. A man with an axe was running away. Phan looked down at her foot and realized he had hacked into it.
SOPHEAK: (Through interpreter) The veins and the bone was cut into, and there was so much blood. When I stood up, I fainted.
AIZENMAN: When she came to, Phan says her first thought was of her parents. She belongs to an ethnic minority called the Kuy, one of the hill tribes that's lived in the area for generations. Her family relies on her to work, and this injury looked so debilitating. What were they going to do? Phan is just one of the most recent cases in a trend. Increasingly, the heroes of the environmental movement are some of the world's poorest, most marginalized people.
BILLY KYTE: I mean, these people are at the front lines of the battle to save the environment.
AIZENMAN: Billy Kyte is with the advocacy group Global Witness. He says in 2014, 116 environmental activists doing work like Phan's were killed. And while sure, they included lawyers, investigative journalists, leaders of NGOs -
KYTE: A shocking 40 percent of those killed were indigenous peoples. Many are living in remote communities, in forests and up in mountain villages, and they wouldn't necessarily define themselves as defenders. Often, the first time they learn of a project will be the chainsaw in their forests or a bulldozer on their land.
AIZENMAN: Kyte says this is why he thinks so many indigenous people are being targeted. There's been a recent spike in the prices of certain commodities found in places indigenous people live.
KYTE: Those areas are often areas which have, up to now, been out of reach. But as huge demand for natural resources intensifies, more and more companies are encroaching onto these lands.
AIZENMAN: They're building vast, open-pit mines to extract gold, massive dams to produce hydroelectric power, and clearing acres of forest for palm oil plantations. Kyte says when local people have protested, some of these companies have hired paramilitary forces to intimidate or eliminate them. And because there's big money at stake, governments often see the companies as allies.
KYTE: Many of the activists killed had received numerous threats before their eventual death, and governments weren't protecting them as they should have been.
AIZENMAN: Kyte says an early look at the stats for 2015 makes it clear it's the deadliest year yet. As for Phan Sopheak in Cambodia, thanks to contributions from outside groups she's getting medical care. As soon as she can, she wants to get back to patrolling the forest. If I don't do this, she says, who will? Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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