Report: More Environmentalists Were Murdered Last Year Than Ever Before

Ashoka Mukpo August 5, 2020

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by Mongabay and is repub­lished here under a Cre­ative Com­mons license.

2019 was the dead­liest year on record for envi­ron­men­tal activists, accord­ing to a new report by the advo­ca­cy watch­dog Glob­al Wit­ness. In total, the group says that at least 212 peo­ple were killed across the world in retal­i­a­tion for their defense of land and the envi­ron­ment, with those rep­re­sent­ing Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties bear­ing a dis­pro­por­tion­ate brunt of the violence.

Many of the killings were linked to bat­tles over con­trol of forests that are crit­i­cal to the glob­al fight against cli­mate change, said Chris Mad­den, a senior cam­paign­er at Glob­al Witness.

Look­ing at the cas­es that we’re see­ing and the issues these peo­ple are work­ing against, they’re often the very same caus­es of cli­mate break­down,” he said in an inter­view. So that’s why we’re say­ing they’re at the front line of the cli­mate crisis.”

Top­ping the list of the dead­liest coun­tries for envi­ron­men­tal defend­ers in 2019 were Colom­bia and the Philip­pines, with 64 and 43 killings respec­tive­ly. In Colom­bia, the fig­ure was more than dou­ble the num­ber who were mur­dered in 2018. Over­all, the most dan­ger­ous region for defend­ers was Latin Amer­i­ca, which saw two-thirds of the glob­al death toll, with the Ama­zon alone account­ing for 33 deaths.

Despite only mak­ing up 5% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, activists rep­re­sent­ing Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, who are often on the front lines of con­flict over forests and land, com­prised 40% of those killed.

In Colom­bia, the 2016 peace agree­ment signed between the gov­ern­ment and the left­ist guer­ril­la group FARC is caus­ing a scram­ble for con­trol over lucra­tive resources left behind in the group’s wake.

As FARC insur­gents demo­bi­lize under the terms of the agree­ment, para­mil­i­tary and oth­er crim­i­nal groups are rush­ing in to fill the void, with Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties suf­fer­ing as a result of the pow­er strug­gle. Those com­mu­ni­ties account­ed for half of the doc­u­ment­ed killings in the coun­try despite rep­re­sent­ing less than 5% of Colombia’s population.

In late May, Mongabay pub­lished video of para­mil­i­taries fir­ing assault rifles into an Indige­nous Emberá town and forc­ing mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty to flee by canoe.

When envi­ron­men­tal defend­ers are killed in Colom­bia, the courts rarely deliv­er jus­tice. Accord­ing to Glob­al Wit­ness, near­ly nine in 10 mur­ders of human rights activists in the coun­try do not lead to a conviction.

Else­where, the deaths of activists have been linked to intim­i­da­tion and vio­lence car­ried out on behalf of repres­sive gov­ern­ments. Killings in Hon­duras jumped from four in 2018 to 14 in 2019, giv­ing it the high­est per capi­ta rate of any coun­try ana­lyzed by Glob­al Wit­ness. In the Philip­pines, 2019’s toll brings the total since Rodri­go Duterte took office in mid-2016 to 119 — almost dou­ble the fig­ure for the com­pa­ra­ble peri­od before his election.

A num­ber of killings in the Philip­pines have come direct­ly at the hands of gov­ern­ment forces or groups loy­al to it, includ­ing that of a leader of the Manobo Indige­nous group, who report­ed­ly died dur­ing an aer­i­al bom­bard­ment by the Fil­ipino mil­i­tary last year. The Manobo have long been engaged in a cam­paign to pre­vent encroach­ment into the Pan­taron moun­tain range by log­gers and min­ing companies.

The Armed Forces of the Philip­pines lat­er post­ed a pho­to­graph of his body online, say­ing he was killed dur­ing a clash with local com­mu­nist mil­i­tants. Accord­ing to Glob­al Wit­ness, this fol­lows a pat­tern of activists and envi­ron­men­tal defend­ers being red-tagged,” or accused of hold­ing com­mu­nist sym­pa­thies and pro­vid­ing sup­port for rebel groups.

In the Philip­pines, state forces are impli­cat­ed in quite a num­ber of cas­es,” Mad­den said.

Over­all, data shared with Mongabay by Glob­al Wit­ness show that the major­i­ty of killings glob­al­ly are car­ried out by unknown assailants, account­ing for 65 of the deaths. Forty were traced to hit men, 22 to para­mil­i­tary forces, and 17 to armed forces or police. Oth­ers were con­nect­ed to landown­ers, crim­i­nal gangs, and pri­vate secu­ri­ty guards.

In recent years, agribusi­ness has been linked to a ris­ing num­ber of retal­ia­to­ry mur­ders of land rights activists. In 2019, 34 such killings were record­ed, an increase of more than 60% from the pre­vi­ous year. As glob­al con­sump­tion ris­es, Mad­den says that vio­lent con­flict over land that can be used to pro­duce palm oil, soy, cat­tle, and oth­er com­modi­ties is like­ly to spike as well.

At the glob­al lev­el, with increased con­sump­tion, we are see­ing that these indus­tries do have to keep expand­ing into ever more remote or dif­fer­ent areas,” he said. That’s what we’re see­ing at the Ama­zon at the moment with agribusi­ness and log­ging ramp­ing up again, and it’s play­ing out in var­i­ous places across the world.”

Ille­gal sand and gold min­ing in Indone­sia. The min­ing sec­tor is a major source of vio­lence against envi­ron­men­tal defend­ers. (Image by Rhett A. Butler)

Mad­den adds that as trou­bling as the num­bers are, they are also like­ly to be sig­nif­i­cant­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed. The method­ol­o­gy Glob­al Wit­ness uses to ver­i­fy killings of envi­ron­men­tal and land defend­ers is strict, draw­ing on media reports as well as those from the group’s local part­ners. In some parts of Africa, for exam­ple, retal­i­a­tion against local and Indige­nous activists can be hard to track.

Tabitha Netuwa of Defend­De­fend­ers, a Ugan­da-based human rights orga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides sup­port to activists in East Africa, agrees that the true fig­ure is almost cer­tain­ly higher.

It is an under­es­ti­mate – the shrink­ing civic space for [human rights defend­ers] to oper­ate is mak­ing report­ing about human rights vio­la­tions a chal­lenge. In addi­tion, many of these vio­la­tions hap­pen in areas far removed from the cap­i­tals where acces­si­bil­i­ty is a chal­lenge and many [human rights defend­ers] work­ing in those remote areas face reprisals for speak­ing out,” she told Mongabay in an email.

Four activists from sub-Saha­ran Africa were rep­re­sent­ed in the total, with one each from Kenya and Ghana along with two from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of the Con­go, includ­ing Joël Imban­go­la Lunea, who was alleged­ly mur­dered by a secu­ri­ty guard work­ing for the Cana­di­an palm oil com­pa­ny Fer­o­nia Inc.

Accord­ing to Mad­den, while some gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions and finan­cial insti­tu­tions have tak­en steps to pro­tect local activists, more needs to be done.

I think that gov­ern­ments in par­tic­u­lar in the E.U., U.S., and glob­al north have a par­tic­u­lar role to play in strength­en­ing require­ments around what com­pa­nies need to do in these sit­u­a­tions,” he said. So mak­ing sure they have to do full due dili­gence of the human rights impacts through­out their whole sup­ply chain.”

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