The deadly cost of protest: environmentalists murdered and criminalised to protect profits

In 2018, mining was the deadliest industrial sector for environmental defenders, according to a new annual report,” Enemies of the State?”, by the non-governmental organisation Global Witness.

The NGO reports that 43 people were killed around the world last year for protesting against mining operations.

The number of environmentalists killed when defending water sources has also increased dramatically, rising from four in 2017 to 17 in 2018. The suspected perpetrators include companies’ private security personnel, state forces, and contract killers, sometimes working together, Global Witness says.

There continue to be murders of those protesting against hydropower, agribusiness, and logging projects, and environmental activists are being increasingly criminalised, the NGO has found.

Global Witness reports that 164 land and environmental defenders were murdered in 2018, which is the equivalent of three killings every week. Countless more activists were silenced through violent attacks, arrests, death threats, or lawsuits.

Criminalisation and aggressive civil cases are being used to stifle environmental activism and land rights defence across the world, Global Witness says.

“Evidence from across continents shows that governments and companies are using countries’ courts and legal systems as instruments of oppression against those who threaten their power and interests,” said senior campaigner at Global Witness Alice Harrison.

“This includes the misuse of existing laws designed to stop terrorists or protect national security, and the creation of new rules to outlaw protest or muzzle freedom of speech. This makes attacks on defenders seem legitimate, increasing their likelihood.”

Killings are the most violent manifestation of myriad abuses against environmental defenders, Global Witness points out. This is the first year that the NGO has documented the use and abuse of laws and policies designed to criminalise and intimidate defenders, their families, and the communities they represent.

“These tactics can be used to tarnish reputations, choke off funding and lock activists into costly legal battles that stop them from carrying out their work,” Global Witness says in its new report.

“Cracking down on one individual or organisation also creates a powerful chilling effect for would-be defenders.”

Non-lethal violence and intimidation are rife and often undocumented, the NGO says. “In a brutally savage irony, killers of land and environmental defenders generally escape punishment while the activists themselves are branded as criminals.”

Global Witness points out that widespread impunity makes it difficult to identify perpetrators, but the NGO was able to link state security forces to forty of the killings last year. Private hitmen, criminal gangs, and landowners were also the suspected aggressors in forty of the murders, the NGO says.

In 2018 – and for the first time since Global Witness began, in 2012, to document killings of environmental defenders – the Philippines was the country with the highest death toll: thirty killings, 15 of which were linked to agribusiness.

More than half of the murders of environmentalists in 2018 took place in Latin America, which has consistently ranked as the worst-affected continent since Global Witness began publishing this data.

A contributing factor is the region’s strong tradition of human rights activism. This means that there are many groups working with land and environmental defenders and monitoring and reporting abuses.

Previously, Brazil¹ was always at the top of the list, but, this year, it is ranked fourth, with 20 environmentalists murdered last year.

Colombia had the second highest toll, with 24 environmentalists killed in 2018. India comes third, with 23.

The sharpest increase in killings occurred in Guatemala, with more than five times as many murders of environmentalists in 2018 than in 2017. At least 16 activists were killed in 2018 as compared with three in 2017, which means Guatemala was the world’s deadliest country per capita for environmental activists last year.

In Guatemala, a boom in private and foreign investment has seen large swathes of land handed out to plantation, mining, and hydropower companies. This, Global Witness says, has ushered in a wave of forced and violent evictions, particularly in indigenous areas, and this has stirred fears of a return to the genocidal violence the country suffered thirty years ago.

Global Witness tells of the murder of Guatemalan land defender Luis Arturo Marroquin, who was shot dead in May 2018 by two unidentified men.

Marroquin was a leading member of an organisation of indigenous farmers dedicated to promoting land rights and rural development. According to the human rights organisation Front Line Defenders, four other members of his organisation were also killed in 2018.

Global Witness also reports on the murder of brothers Neri and Domingo Esteban Pedro in December last year.

The brothers’ bodies were found slumped on the banks of the Yal Witz River near the San Andrés hydroelectric power plant in the Ixquisis region of San Mateo Ixtatán in western Guatemala. They had been shot in the head.

Both men were vocal opponents of a hydropower project that includes the San Andrés and Pojom II dams. Local people say the projects have polluted water sources and destroyed crops and fish stocks.

The murder of the Esteban Pedro brothers followed years of violence against members of Ixquisis communities.

At least one other man has been killed for his resistance to the hydropower projects and many more have been injured and threatened with arrest.

Another of the killings cited by Global Witness is that of Julián Carrillo, who lived in the Mexican state of Chihuahua and was a vocal opponent of the mining concessions on his community’s land.

Julián Carrillo. Photo ©: Amnesty International/Marianne Bertrand.

Five members of Carrillo’s family were killed over a two-year period and his house was burned down. Carrillo had received numerous death threats before he was shot dead by unidentified armed men on October 24, 2018.

“Fighting to protect land and the environment has become more dangerous in Mexico, with at least 14 people killed in 2018 alone,” Global Witness states in its new report.

Carrillo’s death is part of a worrying global trend, the NGO adds. “As demand for products like timber, palm oil and minerals continues to grow, governments, companies and criminal gangs are routinely stealing land and trashing habitats in pursuit of profit.

“When the ordinary people who live on these lands take a stand, they come up against companies’ private security, state forces, contract killers, or, in less violent confrontations, teams of aggressive lawyers.”

In India, in May last year, 13 people were killed and dozens were injured in the biggest massacre of environmental defenders documented by Global Witness in 2018.

Police opened fire on a group of protesters in Tamil Nadu who were demonstrating against a copper smelting plant owned by the Sterlite Copper subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, which the protesters said was polluting the air and threatening the local fishing industry.

The Philippines

In the Philippines, indigenous activists have faced death threats, been thrown in jail, and had their homes demolished for opposing the use of their land to grow bananas for sale on global markets.

On October 20, 2018, gunmen killed nine sugarcane farmers in the Philippine province of Negros Occidental. The victims, who included three women and two teenagers, were defending a patch of a plantation they had tilled for generations.

The lawyer who represented the victims’ families, Benjamin Ramos, was shot dead by hitmen just days later.

Security guards patrol a Dole Philippines plantation. Photo ©: Jeoffrey Maitem/Global Witness.


The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, (pictured left) said: “In March 2018, the Philippines government declared me a terrorist. This was in retaliation for me speaking out against indigenous rights violations in my home country.

“For months, I lived under threat, and could not safely return home. Although I have since been removed from the list, government officials continue to hurl false accusations at me.

“This is a phenomenon seen around the world: land and environmental defenders are declared terrorists, locked up or hit with paralysing legal attacks, for defending their rights, or simply for living on lands that are coveted by others.”

Global Witness points out that the government in the Philippines has ramped up its campaign of “red-tagging” rights activists, including land and environmental defenders, as communist sympathisers, terrorists, or supporters of a group of armed insurgents called the New People’s Army (NPA).

In January 2019, two indigenous leaders protesting against resource extraction and military encroachment on ancestral lands were accused of serving as recruiters for the NPA and were arrested. They deny the allegations.

Global Witness has called on Dole Philippines to freeze operations on the land it leases in Mindanao’s Bukidnon region until an agreement with affected indigenous communities has been properly and fairly negotiated.


In Indonesia, in June 2018, journalist Muhammad Yusuf died while in police custody after being detained for more than five weeks on hate speech and criminal defamation charges. Yusuf was arrested after writing a series of articles that were critical of a palm oil company and its alleged illegal land acquisitions.

In May 2018, Indonesia’s parliament revised the country’s counterterrorism law in ways that open the door to prosecution for peaceful political activism.

Amnesty International reported that the definition of terrorism was expanded along broad lines that could be used against activists and grants extra powers to the authorities, including the ability to hold suspects in custody for up to 221 days without trial.

Latin America

In Honduras, the number of killings of land and environmental defenders decreased again in 2018 to four, as compared with five in 2017 and 14 in 2016.

One particularly horrific murder was that of 16-year-old activist Luis Fernando Ayala, who was reported to have been tortured before he died, and had his hands amputated.

Ayala, who was killed in February 2018, was a member of an environmental campaigning organisation and was a fierce opponent of the installation of mining and hydroelectric projects across the Santa Bárbara region.

In November 2018, seven men were found guilty of the murder of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres in 2016. “The court ruled that the executives of the Agua Zarca hydropower dam company Desa had ordered Cáceres’ killing,” Global Witness states in its new report.

The funeral of Berta Cáceres.

Global Witness also highlights the threats against the indigenous leader Enrique Fernández in Colombia. In February 2018, a bomb was placed outside Fernández’ home in Cauca.

“This was one of a number of threats that Fernández – an outspoken defender of indigenous land rights – received that year, which ultimately forced him and his family to relocate,” Global Witness reports.

“Cauca’s fertile soil and rich gold deposits have often led to fierce conflicts over land, but these have escalated in recent years as paramilitaries and criminal gangs move in on land that was previously occupied by the leftist rebel group FARC.”

Global Witness says there are worrying signs that the situation for environmental and land defenders will worsen as environmental and human rights protections are stripped away.

“The rise of populist strongmen around the world has brought a clampdown on protest, often under the pretence of protecting national security or fighting terrorism,” the NGO states.

“The broader social and political consequences of these developments are generally dire, and they bring specific dangers for defenders.”

In Brazil, for example, President Jair Bolsonaro’s recent pledge to open up indigenous reserves for development has already prompted an influx of armed bands of land grabbers.

Delegates from the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, who were meeting indigenous leaders in the Brazilian state of Pará in November 2018, say that they were intimidated and threatened by representatives from the soy industry.

“At least eight land and environmental defenders who were involved in land and agricultural disputes were killed in 2018 in the state of Pará alone,” Global Witness says in its report.


Fourteen environmental defenders were murdered in Africa in 2018. Global Witness says it would have expected there to be more killings, given the prevalence of conflicts over land on the continent.

“Signs point to a shortage of evidence, stemming in part from the fact that less attention is paid by civil society and the media to this issue over others,” the NGO states.

Global Witness cites the case of forest guard Moustapha Gueye, who was brutally killed on April 6, 2018, in Casamance, a region of Senegal where cross-border illegal logging is rife.

“He had reportedly confronted a group of loggers, who went on to break his arms and legs and kill him with a blow to the head. A few days later, three men were arrested for his murder,” Global Witness states.

The NGO reports that, on June 18, 2018, three people in the Gambian province of Kombo East were shot dead when police fired live ammunition into a crowd of demonstrators. The demonstrators had been protesting against the damaging impacts of sand mining on the rice fields that local residents rely on for their food and income.

In Kenya, on January 16, 2018, a member of the indigenous Sengwer community, Robert Kirotich, was shot dead and another person was seriously injured during a forced eviction by forests guards in Kenya’s Embobut forest.

Amnesty International says that, between December 2017 and May 2018, members of the Kenyan forest service burned more than three hundred houses to the ground in efforts to remove the Sengwer from the forest.

In November 2018, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a park ranger in Virunga National Park, Kasereka Masumbuko Ezechiel, was killed by armed militiamen while defending the DRC’s endangered mountain gorillas from poachers.

Ezechiel’s death is one of more than 175 killings of park rangers protecting the park over the past twenty years.


Global Witness also highlights the case of four Iranian conservationists working to protect cheetahs and other endangered animals. In October 2018, the four were hit with corruption charges that they strongly deny and which carry the risk of the death penalty.

The conservationists were among nine members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation who were arrested in January 2018, accused of spying. One of them, the renowned environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in prison weeks later in suspicious circumstances. The authorities said he committed suicide, a claim that fellow academics, family and friends fiercely deny. Seyed-Emami’s colleagues are still in prison.

Europe and the US

Europe is still the continent where the number of murders of environmental defenders is the lowest, with only three reported killings in 2018, all in Ukraine.

In November 2018 in Ukraine, anti-corruption activist Kateryna Gandzyuk died after an acid attack on her a few months earlier. Law enforcement officers say the attack on Gandzyuk may be linked to her opposition to illegal logging in the Oleshky forest in the Khherson region. Ukrainian groups are calling for an independent investigation into Gandzyuk’s death.

The criminalisation of land and environmental defenders isn’t confined to the global south, Global Witness points out.

In the UK, three anti-fracking protesters were given draconian prison sentences in 2018 in a case that has stirred fears that the law is being used to shut down legitimate environmental activism.

In the United States, President Donald Trump’s agenda includes several deals that would see large tracts of native lands handed over to oil and gas companies at a time when numerous US states are introducing new legislation to clamp down on protests.

Global Witness cites the case of indigenous activist Red Fawn Fallis, who was sentenced to 57 months in prison in the US in July 2018.

Fallis was arrested in 2016 when law enforcement officers raided a protest camp at the Dakota Access Pipeline. She was accused of firing a revolver while she was pinned to the ground. Fallis denies trying to injure anyone and says that the gun was given to her by her boyfriend, who, it turned out, was an FBI agent who had infiltrated her protest group.

‘A brutal irony’

Global Witness says governments and business are failing to tackle the root cause of the attacks on environmental and land defenders. “This is overwhelmingly the imposition of damaging projects on communities without their free, prior and informed consent,” the NGO said.

“Investors, including development banks, are fuelling the violence by financing abusive projects and sectors, and failing to support threatened activists.”

Alice Harrison said: “Vicious attacks against land and environmental defenders are still happening, despite growing momentum behind environmental movements the world over.

“As we hurtle towards climate breakdown, it has never been more important to stand with those who are trying to defend their land and our planet against the reckless destruction being meted out by the rich and powerful.

“It is a brutal irony that while judicial systems routinely allow the killers of defenders to walk free, they are also being used to brand the activists themselves as terrorists, spies or dangerous criminals. Both tactics send a clear message to other activists: the stakes for defending their rights are punishingly high for them, their families and their communities.”

Globally, the true number of killings of environmentalists is likely to be much higher than that recorded by Global Witness. Such cases are often not documented and are rarely investigated, and reliable evidence is hard to find or verify.

One of Brazil’s most prominent environmental defenders, Sonia Guajajara, takes part in a protest against the then presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, in September 2018. Photo ©: Victor Moriyama/Getty Images.

1) Global Witness’s main source of data from Brazil is the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). Each organisation uses its own methodology for documenting killings and, as a result, the Global Witness statistics are different to the CPT’s. Global Witness tracks the murder of “land and environmental defenders”  whereas the CPT monitors all violence against peasants, squatters, and landless workers as well as indigenous peoples and traditional communities.


Headline photo:

In April 2019, activists in New York and several other cities around the world demonstrated in front of Brazilian embassies in support of Brazil’s indigenous resistance movement. Indigenous communities have suffered an increase in violent raids on their land since Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. Photo ©: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.



1= 5 euro, x 2 = 10 euro, X 3 =15 euro, etc.