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Eco-Militias & Green Violence
Armed Environmentalist Groups Around The World
We’re all horribly familiar with militia groups, paramilitary and mercenary units and terrorist organisations committing violence in the name of some ideological or religious vision, but we are less familiar with similarly armed groups who fight in the service of an environmental cause. I’ve decided to call these groups ‘based’, since they largely fall outside of the traditional left-wing activist approach to ecological politics that dominates the Western world. To most people left-wing and environmentalism are one and the same, hand-in-glove, some call it a ‘watermelon ideology’. This is a shame, because there is no inherent reason for eco-politics to belong to one camp or the other. It fits comfortably into right wing, indigenous, nationalist, internationalist, localist and technocratic approaches. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether my selection truly are based, or whether they are just outside of the mainstream conception of environmentalism. They are a mixture of radicals, government backed projects, organised political groups and tribes. I believe it’s necessary to expand what we mean when we talk of green solutions - tracking and killing poachers or enforcing mining regulations with intimidation may be more effective than left up to NGOs and corrupt politicians. I therefore invite you to enjoy this tour of the ‘other’ side of environmentalism, one which the mainstream media is unlikely to ever show or endorse.
One of those monsters under the bed of modernity is the fear of fascism drawing strength from a primitivist strain of ecological thinking. Dubbed ‘Eco-Fascism’, there aren’t really any examples of it influencing politics in a serious and sustained way. Much like its anarcho-primitivist mirror image, any adherents to eco-fascism are usually lone individuals or small friendship groups, and fail to gather any larger momentum. Despite this, the irrational terror of neo-Nazism in general across the western chattering class means that even the small organisations that do exist will be hysterically portrayed as something much larger and different than they really are.
Enter Tsagaan Khas, or ‘white swastika’. If you type the name of this ostensibly Mongolian Nazi organisation into a search engine you find titillating articles such as “A Mongolian Neo-Nazi Environmentalist Walks Into a Lingerie Store in Ulan Bator” and “Why Asia may not be immune to far-right terrorism”, the latter a laughable piece trying to link the appearance of Pepe the Frog in Hong-Kong to some shadowy global far-right takeover bid. Tsagaan Khas is just about the only direct connection one can make between European neo-Nazism and Asia. They are a small group, likely numbering no more than a hundred members, set up in the 1990’s by an eccentric man called Ariunbold Altankhuum. The media coverage of them looks amusingly staged, with swastikas everywhere, portraits and tattoos of Mongolian warriors and everyone in dark blue uniforms. Personally I think it looks like an excellent exercise in trolling a gullible media, but I could be wrong.
Their modus operandi appears to have switched from the standard ‘boots on the street’ approach to far-right organising, something not really seen in the West since the 1980’s, to a focus on mining and environmental pollution. Aside from the exoticism of Mongolian Nazis, their main claim to fame is this switch towards an environmental and regulation enforcing stance. Again, this is seen in Western reporting solely through the lens of a spectre of eco-fascism, but even a basic level of journalistic curiosity would reveal that Mongolia has had decades of issues with mining companies. Since the collapse of the USSR, Mongolia has sought to use its mineral wealth as a means to attract foreign investment. The early 90’s saw a literal gold rush for companies to exploit the sparsely populated landscape. The 1997 Mineral Law created a very weakly regulated environment and well over 60% of licenses issued were for gold mining, alongside the tens of thousands of small scale artisanal miners. By 2001, nomadic pastoralists living around the Ongi River were severely threatened by drought and lack of water access for their animals as mining companies sucked up vast quantities of water in their search for gold. Later that year the Ongi River Movement was formed, led by Tsetsgeegiin Mönkhbayar, the chair of the local citizen’s council, aiming to stop illegal mining practices and rampant pollution. Mönkhbayar was later arrested and sentenced for opening fire in a government compound, but he succeeded in forcing the State to take action against the companies. 36 out of 37 licenses were revoked on the Ongi River and wider national river campaigns have been built. Notable in this struggle was the commitment by local rural people - not urbanites - who saw their environmental struggle, not as an abstraction, but as part of a concrete national reality. As nomads the grasslands are both life-giving and a core feature of their cosmological universe, part of what makes Mongolia unique. Therefore it differed from many contemporary eco movements in that it aroused nationalist and patriotic sentiment. Also notable was the role the movement played in directly confronting and challenging the mining companies in lieu of weak government oversight. From this unique blend of nationalist, direct action environmentalism, Tsagaan Khas draws its inspiration.
Aside from claims that Tsagaan Khas has attacked Chinese migrants and shaved the heads of Mongolian women accused of sleeping with Chinese men, the group has a reputation for visiting the areas of mining operations and demanding to see legal papers and checking that they comply with legislation. While they claim to be non-violent in their methods, they are affiliated with a number of smaller eco-nationalist groups which have begun to ramp up to the use of violence over the issue of illegal mining. In 2013 a demonstration in Ulaanbaatar saw members of Gal Undesten (Fire Nation) plant bombs and bring hand grenades and firearms to show their seriousness (this was the demonstration where Tsetsgeegiin Mönkhbayar was arrested). The group, and similar nationalist groups, have been labelled ‘eco-terrorists’ and various members prosecuted for attacking LGBT people, including for kidnapping a trans woman in 2019 and releasing a video to the media describing gay people as paedophiles. In the bigger picture it looks like Mongolia is really at the beginning of a series of profound social changes, both relating to how its economy was structured in the post Soviet era and how it will relate to China in the coming decades. A rural, right-wing or nationalist movement, which seeks to place Mongolia and its natural resources first, might be best placed to provide a counterweight to the usual globalist suspects.
If eco-fascism is the romantic, deep ecology answer to the right, then anarcho-primitivism is the natural end point to the left. Or at least a particular kind of left. Anarcho-primitivism has never fit into the mainstream left or even any ‘orthodox’ anarchist current, despite being a major influence on the intellectual trajectory of anarchism since at least the 1990’s. A full discussion of the history and tributaries of the movement would demand another article, but the bare bones of the ideology are: civilisation and agriculture are synonymous, both are destroying the biosphere and alienating humans from their evolutionary telos, the solution is to return humans and the planet to a state of wild nature, where humans live as hunter-gatherers. Despite the mammoth task that primitivists set for themselves, they have managed to make themselves felt in the wider culture through a number of political strategies - animal rights advocacy and liberation, tree spiking and anti-road protests, attacking fur farms, industrial animal agriculture and the 90’s moment of ‘ecoterrorism’ or ‘green terrorism’. The latter was mostly the result of a number of groups - Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front, conducting arson attacks on industrial developments, like ski resorts. While these were clamped down on by the FBI in some dubious ‘counter-terrorism’ operations, the impulse from primitivists to attack ‘civilisation’ has never gone away.
In 2008 a group of anarchists were arrested in France for sabotaging high speed railway lines. They became known as the ‘Tarnac 9’ and were widely suspected of being part of the anonymous collective ‘The Invisible Committee’, responsible for writing the left wing hit, The Coming Insurrection in 2007. The book is a call to arms for a certain kind of disaffected youth, one who is alienated from all traditional politics, especially the left wing and union movements. Around this time a number of violent primitivist and insurrectionary anarchist organisations began targeting scientists and engineers working in biotechnology and nuclear power, along with more general arson and political violence. In 2013 in Greece, the group called ‘The Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire’ planted a bomb underneath the car of prison director Maria Stefi, destroying the vehicle. The same group claimed responsibility for placing homemade explosives in shopping malls, at the houses of politicians, for a drive by shooting at the office of the Prime Minister and for launching several RPG attacks on the US Embassy and the offices of far right parties. In 2012 alone there were 527 arson and bomb attacks in Greece, most pinned to anarchist organisations. In Italy the Informal Anarchist Federation kneecapped Roberto Adinolfi, a CEO of a nuclear power company, and sent bombs to embassies, banks and power plant owners. Across the world a similar militant style of informal primitivist/insurrectionist anarchist cells have burnt down police firearm centres (UK), bombed nanotechnology workers (Mexico), used dynamite on military barracks (Bolivia) and travelled to Syria to join the Kurdish defence forces fighting Islamic State.
Much of this seems far away from any environmental concern, and on one level this is true. There is little gain for biodiversity when an embassy is hit with a rocket propelled grenade. But the underlying ideology of this strain of anarchism places itself against the totality of modern life, and therefore sees practically every manifestation of civilisation as a legitimate target. Pragmatically of course there has always been a consensus that shooting local business owners or burning family cars is a poor tactic - much better to aim for symbolic and practical targets. This is why high speed rail, nuclear power, police facilities, car dealerships, banks, political figures, military installations and STEM research centres are often the sorts of target, rather than everyday people. However, this consensus broke down when one of the strangest and most unclassifiable groups emerged in 2011 in Mexico - Individualistas Tendiendo a lo Salvaje, often translated as ‘Individuals Tending to the Wild’ or ‘Individuals Tending towards Savagery’ (ITS). ITS is an unusual phenomenon - a primitivist cell which glorifies the pre-Columbian Aztec mythology and way of life, while taking inspiration from European anarchist violence and communicating primarily with the North American ‘green anarchist’ scene. Their initial activities were focused on sending bombs to individual researchers at various universities and research centres, the majority causing substantial non-fatal injuries. In 2012 Ted Kaczynski himself wrote a scathing communique and condemned the group’s actions. In 2014 ITS announced a new phase in their project and appeared to be promoting a totally nihilistic philosophy. They claimed responsibility for several unprovoked murders, of young women, of backpackers in the woods, pushing a form of ‘eco-extremism’ (their terminology). Their rambling statements took on a new and unhinged inflection, identifying themselves with the doomed and savage warriors who fought the Spanish after the fall of the Aztec Empire:
“For one can firmly state that the Mixton War (1540-1541), the Chichimeca War (1550-1600), and the Guamares Rebellion (1563-1568) were all authentic wars against civilization, technology, and progress. The savage Chichimecas did not want a new or better government. They neither wanted nor defended the cities or centers of the defeated Mesoamerican civilizations. They did not seek victory. They only desired to attack those who attacked and threatened them. They sought confrontation, and from there comes their battle cry: “Axkan kema, tehualt, nehuatl!” (Until your death, or mine).”
The group launched online attack after attack, announcing that anarchists were “fucking faggots”, praising ISIS and declaring that “every human being deserves extinction”. A large number of anarchist and primitivist groups worldwide condemned ITS and distanced themselves, but a single journal, ‘Atassa’, and a handful of North American anarchists decided to keep publishing their communiques and disseminating ‘eco-extremist’ ideas. The publisher ‘Little Black Cart’ became briefly infamous for allowing ITS to praise indiscriminate murder, rape, homophobia and fascism. From this point on ITS began taking responsibility for a wide number of random actions, almost none of which originated with them. Bombs, arson attacks, shootings, vandalism and other acts, claimed by ITS, but police in many countries declared as unrelated acts. ITS are on no terrorist watch list, despite claiming violence in Scotland, Chile, Brazil and Mexico. Within primitivist circles a furious debate opened up, arguing over interpretations of anthropology (did rape exist before the State?), how much and what kind of violence is justified in resisting civilisation and why do so many primitivists end up sounding like fascists? These are questions which are still playing out today in obscure corners of the internet.
State Rangers & Tribal Militias
The final group I want to turn to is a broad selection of players - tribal and ethnic groups in South America and anti-poaching Rangers in Central and Southern Africa. Their goals are broadly to prevent, halt and defend against some outside force, including extractive industries, poachers and governments.
The first of these are the Amazonian tribal militias which have appeared in recent years, primarily to prevent illegal logging, an activity which has devastated the rainforest. In 2012 a group called ‘the Guardians’ formed in the NE state of Maranhão in Brazil, made up from the Guajajara tribe. Several more Guardian groups have been founded nearby, including one by the Ka’apor tribe. Their objective has been to make life difficult for illegal loggers by enforcing the law. Armed with shotguns, bows and arrows, machetes and using drone imagery and traditional tracking methods, they follow loggers into the forest and physically detain them. They often deliver these bound and cuffed men to the nearest police stations, after torching their lumber and vehicles. Other tactics include creating checkpoints on dirt roads to enforce only licensed logging. Their activity has massively reduced logging in their regions - nearly 130 trucks a day were leaving the state, packed with trees. Now less than 15 make it out. Despite these successes, the groups are in running battles with the loggers, who aren’t afraid to use lethal force to shut down the Guardians. In a similar vein, but more forcefully, are the actions of the Chilean Mapuche terrorist group ‘Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco’ (CAM). CAM grew out of the indigenist movement in the 90’s, a blend of Mapuche nationalism and left wing politics and have claimed responsibility for attacks on forestry operations, mining companies and even fish farms.
A second group of national ‘defenders’ are the anti-poaching militias and rangers, focused around central and southern Africa. Some of these work for national governments, others actually work on behalf of large NGOS. In the latter category is a fairly secretive operation run primarily by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who have positioned themselves as the protectors of the Central African rainforests. WWF work with a number of logging companies, such as the French giant Rougier, who have licenses to fell across millions of hectares of forest in Cameroon and the DRC. WWF have been accused of arming and allowing ‘anti-poaching’ militias to attack the Pygmy tribes who live in the forests of Central Africa. The charity Survival has documented extensively the violence against the Baka Pygmies. Who exactly constitutes these ‘anti-poaching’ groups is hard to say, but they seem to be tasked with making life in the forest almost impossible for the Baka, thus creating a ‘human free zone’ which the WWF can manage as part of its portfolio of ‘sustainable stewardship’.
Away from the WWF we have state backed armed groups who are tasked with apprehending, disrupting and, if needs be, shooting poachers who target rhinos and elephants, among other species. Between 2010 and 2012, around 100,000 elephants were killed across the African continent, sparking worldwide concern about the survival of the species. In 2013 around 25 forest elephants were slaughtered by a Sudanese gang with AK-47s. They had travelled to the Central African Republic (CAR), in part because its a lawless zone for poaching. Today the CAR is a bloody ethnic mess, but its elephants are protected by trained rangers who are authorised to shoot poachers. The CAR isn’t alone here, there’s been an explosion of ex-military companies providing training and resources for African ranger units, so much so that academics shout about ‘Green Militarisation’. As a recent Atlantic article complains:
“Meanwhile, Joaquim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique, alleges that 476 Mozambican poachers were killed by South African rangers between 2010 and 2015. South African authorities are cagey about releasing official figures, but research on organized crime estimates that between 150 and 200 poachers were killed in the Kruger National Park alone during the same period. In neighboring Botswana, anti-poaching action has reportedly resulted in dozens of deaths, and the country’s controversial “shoot to kill” policy—which gives rangers powers to shoot poachers dead on sight—has drawn allegations of abuse.”
Personally I won’t lose any sleep over the deaths of poachers, driving the last rhinos, lions and elephants to extinction. But it does highlight the shift in attitudes of world governments, members of whom not 100 years ago would have been happily travelling to shoot elephants themselves. Now we have British soldiers training Malawian rangers and American veterans teaching tracking to Indonesian police. The escalating violence and death count also shows the willingness to engage in lethal force over issues of conservation, something unthinkable until recently. The burnout rate of these rangers is very high, living in primitive conditions, away from home for months on end. The violence towards the animals they protect takes its toll, with horrific stories of rangers finding still-living rhinos with their faces hacked off. For now the trend toward militarisation is increasing, with drones, armed helicopters and special forces being deployed to protect the vulnerable animals in such enormous national parks. Time will tell whether the money will continue to flow to support these activities.
There were other groups I wanted to discuss here, particularly the heavily armed militias of the Niger Delta, but to do justice to the complexity and number of actors would have required this article to go to ridiculous lengths. As it stands I hope this gives a flavour of the spectrum and activities of different armed groups around the world who fight for some form of environmentalist cause - be it the eco extremism of ITS, the anti-mining activity of Mongolian Nazis, the Amazonian anti-logging tribes or the state backed drone operators in Kruger National Park - the use of violence is widespread and global. This should really be a challenge to our neat conception of ecology as solely a professionalised left-wing NGO topic. Ecological problems affect every community in every country and often involve exploitation by powerful actors. There is no reason for ecology and environmental politics to be limited to the left or to forms of ‘ethical consumption’. I leave it up to you, dear reader, to think about whether these methods are acceptable and what other forms of ecological politics are possible in the future.