Agribusiness is now linked to more killings of environmental defenders than any other industry, according to a new annual report by the non-governmental organisation Global Witness.
The number of environmental defenders killed while protesting against large-scale agriculture more than doubled last year as compared to 2016, the report states.
“For the first time, agribusiness surpassed mining as the most dangerous sector to oppose, as 46 defenders who protested against palm oil, coffee, tropical fruit and sugar cane plantations, as well as cattle ranching, were murdered in 2017,” Global Witness said.
“Nearly four land and environmental activists were killed each week in 2017.”
Last year was the deadliest for environmental defenders since 2002, when Global Witness started collecting data.
In its report, entitled “At What Cost?”, Global Witness says that at least 207 land and environmental defenders were killed last year in 22 countries, which is six more deaths than in 2016.
“They were indigenous leaders, community activists, and environmentalists who were murdered trying to protect their homes and communities from agribusiness, mining and other destructive industries,” Global Witness stated.
“The report shows a huge rise in killings linked to consumer products. Brutal attacks on those defending their land from destructive agriculture – such as land grabs for palm oil … and coffee – are on the rise.”
Killings linked to mining and oil operations increased from 33 to forty, and 23 murders were connected to logging.
Taking on poachers became even more dangerous in 2017, with a record 23 people murdered for taking a stand against the illegal wildlife trade – mostly park rangers in Africa.
Global Witness is calling on governments and businesses to take urgent action to end the attacks, support and protect environmental defenders who are at risk, and ensure that there is justice for those suffering from the violence.
Nearly 60 percent of the recorded murders were in Latin America.
In Brazil, 57 environmental defenders were killed in 2017. This was the highest number recorded for any year anywhere in the world. Eighty percent of the activists were murdered while protecting the natural riches of the Amazon.
Twenty-four environmentalists were killed in Colombia, and Mexico and Peru saw marked increases in killings, from three to 15 and two to eight, respectively. Nicaragua recorded the worst per capita death toll, with 4 murders.
“Murder is the most egregious example of a range of tactics used to silence defenders, including death threats, arrests, intimidation, cyber attacks, sexual assault, and lawsuits, Global Witness said.
The organisation adds that the difficulties in obtaining accurate data means the global death toll is probably much higher.
Forty-eight environmental defenders were killed in the Philippines in 2017 – the highest number ever documented in an Asian country in a single year, and a 71 percent increase on 2016.
“President Duterte’s aggressively anti-human-rights stance and a renewed military presence in resource-rich regions are fuelling the violence.” Global Witness said.
“Almost half of the killings in the Philippines were linked to struggles against agribusiness.”
Global Witness linked government security forces to 53 of last year’s murders, and non-state actors, such as criminal gangs, to ninety of the killings.
The number of killings of land and environmental defenders in Honduras decreased from 14 in 2016 to five last year, Global Witness said. “But the growing repression of civil society has restricted what defenders can say and do.”
The murders in 2017 include that of Hernán Bedoya in Colombia, who was shot 14 times by a paramilitary group for protesting against oil palm and banana plantations on land stolen from his community.
In the Philippines, on December 3 last year, eight indigenous T’boli-Manobo villagers on the island of Mindanao, who opposed a Silvicultural Industries coffee plantation on their land, were massacred in an attack by the military.
Filipino environmental defender Rene Pamplona said: “When I got there, the place was covered in empty bullet shells, and it made me think: all these indigenous people ever wanted was to be able to reclaim their ancestral lands and live in peace.”
In May 2017, members of the Gamela indigenous community were severely injured in violent attacks by Brazilian farmers.
“Machetes and rifles were used in an attempt to forcibly seize control of their land, leaving 22 severely injured, some with their hands cut off,” the Global Witness report states.
“Months later, nobody had faced justice for this appalling incident, reflecting a wider culture of impunity and inaction to support defenders by the Brazilian government.
Rather than taking steps to crack down on these attacks, President Michel Temer and the Brazilian legislature are actively weakening the laws and institutions designed to protect land rights and indigenous peoples, Global Witness says.
“At the same time, they have set about making it easier for big business – apparently unperturbed by the devastating human and environmental cost of their activities – to accelerate their exploitation of fragile ecosystems.”
Maria do Socorro Costa da Silva, who leads Cainquiama, a coalition of tens of thousands of the Amazon’s most persecuted indigenous and other communities, says her life is clearly at risk.
“I receive death threats 24 hours a day because I’m not going to shut my mouth in the face of this atrocity.”
Of the 19 killings of activists reported across Africa, 12 were in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of the environmentalists were murdered while defending protected areas against poachers and illegal miners, the Global Witness report stated.
The new report reveals that some governments and businesses are complicit in the killings.
“As well as being part of the problem, governments and business can be part of the solution,” Global Witness said. “They must tackle the root causes of the attacks, for example ensuring that communities are allowed to say no to projects, like mining, on their land.”
The new report links the violence against environmental defenders with consumer products, Global Witness says.
“Large-scale agriculture, mining, poaching, and logging all produce components and ingredients for products such as palm oil for shampoo, soy for beef, and timber for furniture.”
Senior campaigner at Global Witness Ben Leather said: “Local activists are being murdered as governments and businesses value quick profit over human life.
“Many of the products emerging from this bloodshed are on the shelves of our supermarkets. Yet as brave communities stand up to corrupt officials, destructive industries and environmental devastation, they are being brutally silenced.”
Governments, companies, and investors have the duty and the power to support and protect defenders at risk, and to guarantee accountability wherever attacks occur, Leather says.
“But more importantly, they can prevent these threats from emerging in the first place, by listening to local communities, respecting their rights, and ensuring that business is conducted responsibly.”
Despite the odds they face, Leather says, the global community of land and environmental defenders is getting stronger.
“We invite consumers to join us in campaigning alongside defenders, taking their fight to the corridors of power and the boardrooms of corporations. We will make sure their voices are heard. And we will be watching to ensure that defenders, their land, and the environment we all depend on are properly protected.”
The writer and and environmental commentator Margaret Atwood said: “Communities who have cared for and lived from the same land for generations are being targeted by corporations and governments that want only to turn a profit rather than to support people’s futures.
“The appalling stories of women threatened with rape, homes burnt down, and families attacked with machetes are shocking at an individual level.
“Collectively, they show an epidemic of violence visited upon defenders of the earth. This violation of human rights calls for vigorous protest. This year, those people; next year, all who raise a hand to stop the pillaging of nature for short-term gain.”
Atwood says that environmental defenders are killed when protecting their land, their home, their livelihoods, and their communities.
“We need to salute their astounding bravery and pledge to add our voices to support their continued struggle against those who want to rip their land up for oil or gas, tear down its trees for timber, flatten it for intensive non-organic and polluting farming. or poison it with industrial waste.”
The Mexican political scientist and writer Yuri Herrera said: “If you care about the future of our planet, about preserving our heritage and the natural habitats that provide a home to rare plants and species, you should be standing shoulder to shoulder with environmental defenders who face danger on a daily basis to protect their land.”
The new report showed the shocking level of violence that environmental defenders face in Mexico and across the world, Herrera said.
“More must be done to protect their human rights and bring to justice those who violate them in the most appalling way.”
The singer, songwriter, actress, and activist Paloma Faith said: “There appear to be no consequences for so many of those carrying out these appalling acts, even when someone is killed trying to protect their land or way of life.”
Despite an international outcry, she said, no one had been brought to justice for the killing of the indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, who was gunned down in her home in March 2016.
Cáceres was the coordinator and co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) and opposed the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on indigenous community land in Río Blanco.
Faith said that “like so many of those who have seen their loved ones murdered in the pursuit of a cleaner, fairer, more sustainable world”, Cáceres’ family was still fighting for those who assassinated her to be held to account.
“We should all add our voices to aid their struggle – and to put pressure on the Honduran government to ensure that Berta’s case and the human rights violations against many thousands more campaigners in the country are properly investigated.”
The broadcaster, writer and environmental activist Ben Fogle says that environmental defenders are protecting some of the world’s most important climate-critical and biodiverse habitats.
“Whether that’s the remaining handful of intact tropical rainforests that are under attack from illegal logging or intense farming, the rivers being polluted by industrial waste, or the erosion caused by mining of open land, the scramble to develop rich, natural spaces is having a disastrous impact on the environment.
“These communities who are fighting to protect their land, their homes and their livelihoods are part of a global struggle to safeguard our planet. I salute their bravery and hope more people will join me in standing in solidarity in this campaign.”
The actress and environmental activist Lily Cole pointed out that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the murder of the Brazilian environmental activist Chico Mendes.
“Mendes’ work was recognised throughout the world, and the Brazilian government declared him Patron of the Brazilian Environment,” Cole said.
“Yet, for his efforts, he was shot dead in front of his family – joining a shockingly long list of environmental campaigners who are killed for their altruistic efforts.”
The new report, Cole says, “shows how our voracious appetite for more and different food products, for unsustainable fossil fuels, and for minerals is complicit in this death toll”.
She added: “Most of us do not realise our complicity in these chains of events. As consumers, we need to demand that the companies we buy from are not directly or indirectly causing environmental degradation in their supply chains, and therefore perpetuating localised conflict.
Writer and campaigner George Monbiot says environmental defenders are on the frontline of a generational battle against climate change.
“We can never be serious about building a greener, cleaner, and more sustainable planet if we fail to speak out when governments and big business work hand in glove to forcibly seize, rip up, drill, and intensively farm land that is not only vital for carbon capture, but also supports rare species of plant and wildlife.
“All of us who care about human rights and climate change must now join them, not only adding our voices to the outrage, but demanding real action from governments and business to protect those defending land and bringing to justice the criminals who carry out these brutal attacks.”
Global Witness says that 66 environmental defenders have been killed so far in 2018.
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