Killed by hitmen, organised crime groups and their own governments, at least 1,733 land and environmental defenders were murdered between 2012 and 2021, figures from Global Witness show, with Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines, Mexico and Honduras the deadliest countries.
The NGO has published its report on the killings of land and environmental defenders around the world every year since 2012, after the murder of Chut Wutty, a Cambodian environmentalist who worked with the Global Witness CEO Mike Davis investigating illegal logging. Killings hit a record of 227 in 2020 despite the pandemic.
“Wutty prompted us to confront a range of questions. What was the global picture, what were the implications of such attacks and what could be done to prevent them?” wrote Davis in the report.
The killings have disproportionately affected lower-income countries and Indigenous communities; 39% of the victims were from this demographic, despite it making up only 5% of the world’s population.
Mining and extractive industries, logging and agribusiness were the most common drivers for murder when a cause was known. The report’s authors warned the figures were likely a significant underestimate and did not capture the full scale of the problem, with the deaths often occurring in ecosystems crucial to averting the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
The 200 people killed in 2021 included eight park rangers in Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is facing the added threat of oil and gas extraction, the environmental activist Joannah Stutchbury, who was shot outside her home in Kenya, and Ángel Miro Cartagena, who died in Colombia and was one of 50 small-scale farmers killed last year.
In June this year, the journalist Dom Phillips, who wrote extensively for the Guardian and the Observer, and Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian expert on uncontacted tribes, were murdered in the Javari valley in Brazil’s Amazon after going missing. Phillips was working on a book about sustainable development called How to Save the Amazon, and Pereira was helping him with interviews. The investigation into their murders continues.
“It’s important to picture these victims as the real people. It’s easier for me. I have been surrounded by land and environmental defenders all my life, and indeed I am one of them,” wrote the Indian environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva in the report foreword.
“We are not just in a climate emergency. We are in the foothills of the sixth mass extinction, and these defenders are some of the few people standing in the way. They don’t just deserve protection for basic moral reasons. The future of our species, and our planet, depends on it,” she said.
The report noted, however, that environmental campaigners have had some significant victories. In South Africa last year, Indigenous communities from the Wild Coast of South Africa’s Eastern Cape won a legal victory over Shell, forcing the company to halt oil exploration in whale-breeding grounds. The ruling was upheld earlier this month.
In May this year, communities on Sangihe Island, Indonesia, won a lawsuit against a Canadian-backed company planning to mine gold on their island after having a previous challenge thrown out for technical reasons.
“While the numbers of killings have remained high, one thing I took away from doing this research was that there have been some significant victories by environmental defenders over the last few years, including against huge multinationals,” said the report’s author Ali Hines, a campaigner at Global Witness.
More than two-thirds of the murders of people trying to protect forests, rivers and other ecosystems between 2012 and 2021 took place in Latin America, with 342 killed in Brazil and 322 in Colombia. In Mexico, 154 were killed, and 117 in Honduras. The Philippines was another country of concern, with 270 murders.
“This is a global problem but it is almost exclusively happening in the global south,” said Hines. “Corruption and inequality are two kinds of key enabling factors for the killings. For example, investment deals between companies and corrupt officials can be in the land titling process. Defenders who try to seek justice are sometimes up against judges paid off with bribes. That leads on to the third factor, which is the high rates of impunity. Cases are very rarely credibly investigated, never mind perpetrators brought to justice.”
The report urges governments to create a safe civil space for environmental defenders and promote legal accountability of companies, helping to ensure zero-tolerance for violence against activists.
The Colombian and Filipino governments did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian about the high rate of murders. The Brazilian government said environmental defenders and communicators, including journalists, were protected by a national programme, which could be joined voluntarily.
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