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A grim year: record number of environmental defenders killed

While the world was busy with the pandemic, a record number of 227 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2020 — an average of four people a week, according to a new report by the NGO Global Witness. As it so often happens, these attacks took place in a wider context that includes a range of threats against defenders, arrests, smear campaigns, and other violent attacks. 

Óscar Eyraud Adams, a Kumiay indigenous activist and defender of indigenous peoples from Tecate, Baja California, was murdered on September 24, 2020 at his home. Image credit: Global Witness.

The report defines land and environmental defenders as people who carry out peaceful actions against unjust, discriminatory, corrupt, or damaging exploitation of natural resources or the environment. This covers a broad range of people, such as those whose land is threatened by deforestation and mining. 

Since 2012, Global Witness has been gathering data on killings of defenders. In that time, a grim picture has been identified by the authors – as the climate crisis intensifies, violence against those protecting the planet also increases. Now, the new report shows the highest ever number of activists killed for the second year in a row

“One day, we hope to report an end to the violence against those defending our planet and their land, but until governments get serious about protecting defenders, and companies start putting people and planet before profit, both climate breakdown and the killings will continue,” Chris Madden, campaigner at Global Witness, said in a statement. 

Deadly statistics

Once again, Colombia was the country with the highest recorded attacks, with 65 defenders killed in 2020. A third of these attacks targeted indigenous and afro-descendant people, and almost half were against small-scale farmers. Nicaragua saw 12 killings, making it the most dangerous country per capita for defenders last year. 

Almost 3 in 4 of the attacks recorded took place in the Americas – with 7 out of the 10. highest countries located in Latin America, a visible trend over the years. The Amazon region was a dangerous hotspot, with most deaths in Peru and Brazil happening there. The report registered 18 killings across African countries in 2020, compared to seven in 2019.

Over a third of the attacks were reportedly linked to resource exploitation, such as logging and agribusiness developments, as well as to hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure. However, this figure is likely to be higher as the reasons behind these attacks are often not properly investigated nor reported on. Logging was the deadliest activity, linked to 23 deaths. 

The disproportionate number of attacks against indigenous peoples continued last year, with over a third of all fatal attacks targeting them. These were documented across Mexico, Central and South America, and the Philippines. Indigenous peoples were the target of 5 out of the 7 mass killings recorded in 2020, especially in the Philippines.

Global Witness called the United Nations through its member states to ensure that the commitments and actions to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change also integrate human rights protections, to ensure that those protecting the environment are protected. Governments should also ensure national policies protect activists, as well as making sure that justice investigates and prosecutes all relevant actors. But whether or not this will happen is unclear.

Solutions can also come from the business sector, the report argued, calling on companies to ensure that they aren’t causing, contributing or benefiting from these attacks. In particular, they must publish and implement due diligence systems and adopt and implement a zero-tolerance stance on attacks against activists across the world.

The full report can be accessed here.  

A grim record: 212 environmental defenders were killed last year

At least 212 people were killed last year for peacefully defending their homes and standing up to the destruction of nature. It’s the highest number on record, according to a new report by the watchdog group Global Witness.

Image credits: Global Witness

More than half of the killings last year took place in two countries, the report showed. Colombia reported 64 deaths and the Philippines reported 43, up from 30 in 2018.

However, the actual number of murders is almost certainly higher as cases are often not documented by governments.

“Agribusiness and oil, gas and mining have been consistently the biggest drivers of attacks against land and environmental defenders – and they are also the industries pushing us further into runaway climate change,” said Global Witness campaigner Rachel Cox in a press release.

Up to 50 environmental defenders were killed due to mining activities, which was the deadliest sector last year. Agribusiness also represented a big threat, especially in Asia, where 80% of the agribusiness-related attacks happened.

Other deadly sectors were logging and criminal gangs, according to the report.

The killings last year included the murder of Datu Kaylo Bontolan in the Philippines, a leader of the Manobo community that rejected illegal mining in the area. There were other well-known cases in Romania. Liviu Pop, a ranger working to protect forests, was killed by illegal loggers.

Other activists still campaigning and under threat include Angelica Ortiz, a member of the Wayuu community in Colombia that has opposed for years the largest coal mine in Latin America. She seeks to protect water rights for the communities that are living in the poorest regions in the country.

“Many of the world’s worst environmental and human rights abuses are driven by the exploitation of natural resources and corruption in the global political and economic system. Land and environmental defenders are the people who take a stand against this,” said Cox.

The report also showed that indigenous communities remain one of the main targets of violence when standing up for their rights and territories, accounting for 40% for the murdered defenders last year. The Amazon region alone saw 33 deaths, with 90% of the killings in Brazil happening in the Amazon.

Image credits: Global Witness

The figures from last year also showed that one in ten defenders murdered were women. Women defenders are also threatened by sexual violence as a tactic to silence them, much of which is underreported.

“If we really want to make plans for a green recovery that puts the safety, health and well-being of people at its heart, we must tackle the root causes of attacks on defenders, and follow their lead in protecting the environment and halting climate breakdown,” said Cox.

Despite the threats and criminalization, environmental defenders registered many success stories last year. In Ecuador, the Waorani indigenous tribe won a landmark ruling to prevent the government auctioning their territory for oil and gas exploration. In Indonesia, the Dayak Iban indigenous community secured legal ownership of 10,000 hectares of land.

According to Global Witness, 2020 might be even worse: the pandemic might provide an opportunity for malevolent actors to assault and murder environmental activists, as the lockdown is leaving them vulnerable in their homes.