At least 227 land and environmental defenders were murdered in 2020, according to a new report, ‘Last Line of Defence’, produced by the London-based non-governmental organisation Global Witness. This is the highest number of such killings ever recorded.
“As the climate crisis deepens, forest fires rampage across swathes of the planet, drought destroys farmland, and floods leave thousands dead, the situation for frontline communities and defenders of the earth is getting worse,” the NGO said.
“It has become clear that the unaccountable exploitation and greed driving the climate crisis is also driving violence against land and environmental defenders.”
The attacks against environmental defenders are being driven by the very same industries that are causing the climate crisis, Global Witness says.
The NGO says its data is likely to be an underestimate, given that many murders go unreported, particularly in rural areas and in particular countries. The figures presented in its report should be considered as only a partial picture of the extent of the killings of land and environmental defenders across the world in 2020, it says.
“We identified relevant cases in 22 countries in 2020, but it is likely that attacks affecting land and environmental defenders also occurred in other countries where human rights violations are widespread,” Global Witness said.
Global Witness says that meaningful climate action requires protecting defenders, and vice versa. “Without significant change this situation is only likely to get worse – as more land is grabbed, and more forests are felled in the interest of short-term profits, both the climate crisis and attacks against defenders will continue to worsen,” the NGO said.
All but one of the 227 recorded killings took place in the countries of the Global South. More than half of the murders took place in just three countries: Colombia, Mexico, and the Philippines.
For the second year running, the highest number of deaths was recorded in Colombia, where 65 defenders were murdered. A third of these attacks targeted indigenous and Afro-descendent people, and almost half were against small-scale farmers.
“These took place in the context of widespread attacks on human rights defenders and community leaders across the country, despite the hopes of the 2016 peace agreement,” Global Witness said.
“Indigenous peoples were particularly impacted, and the Covid pandemic only served to worsen the situation. Official lockdowns led to defenders being targeted in their homes, and government protection measures were cut.”
Thirty defenders were killed in Mexico, which is a 67% increase on the number murdered in 2019.
“Logging was linked to almost a third of these attacks, and half of all the attacks in the country were directed against Indigenous communities, ” Global Witness said. “Impunity for crimes against defenders remains shockingly high – up to 95% of murders do not result in prosecution.”
Twenty-nine defenders were killed in the Philippines, where opposition to damaging industries is often met with violent crackdowns from the police and military, Global Witness said.
“President Duterte’s years in office have been marked by a dramatic increase in violence against defenders. From his election in 2016 until the end of 2020, 166 land and environment defenders have been killed – a shocking increase for a country which was already a dangerous place to stand up for the environment.”
According to Global Witness’s data, 1,539 land and environmental defenders have been murdered since 2012, when the NGO began recording the statistics.
Global Witness said their data showed that, on average, four defenders were killed every week in 2020. “This shocking figure is almost certainly an underestimate, with growing restrictions on journalism and other civic freedoms meaning cases are likely being unreported.
“As ever, these lethal attacks are taking place in the context of a wider range of threats against defenders including intimidation, surveillance, sexual violence, and criminalisation.”
Where reports indicate that defenders were killed for protecting specific ecosystems, 70% of those attacked were working to stop deforestation and industrial development, Global Witness says. Others were protecting rivers, coastal areas and the oceans.
More than a third of the recorded attacks were reportedly linked to resource exploitation such as logging, mining, and large-scale agribusiness, and hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure, the NGO said. “However, this figure is likely to be higher as the reasons behind these attacks are often not properly investigated nor reported on.” Global Witness said.
Logging was the industry linked to the most murders, with 23 killings recorded. Attacks linked to logging occurred in Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru, Mexico, and the Philippines.
Global Witness says that, according to their data, more than half of the lethal attacks on environmental defenders were directly linked to their opposition to mining, logging, and dam projects. In Mexico, there was a large rise in the killings of defenders protesting against logging and deforestation. The number rose to nine in 2020.
The NGO notes that, in a promising development, on November 5, 2020, Mexico became the 11th country to ratify the landmark Escazú Agreement for Latin America and the Caribbean, meaning that the agreement has now come into effect.
The treaty sets out commitments for public participation in environmental management and standards for access to information and decision-making about environmental matters.
“Crucially, for the worst affected region. it establishes legally binding commitments for protecting environmental defenders – the first time this has been included in an agreement of this kind,” Global Witness notes.
More than a third of the environmental and land defenders murdered in 2020 were from indigenous communities, which make up only 5% of the world’s population. Attacks against indigenous defenders were reported in Mexico, Central and South America, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia.
Indigenous peoples were also the target of five of the seven mass killings recorded in 2020. “In the most shocking of these, nine Tumandok indigenous people were killed and a further 17 arrested in raids by the military and police on the 30th of December on the island of Panay in the Philippines,” Global Witness said.
“Numerous reports state that these communities were targeted for their opposition to a mega-dam project on the Jalaur river.”
One of the indigenous people murdered in Mexico in 2020 was the defender of Kumiai land and its water resources Óscar Eyraud Adams. He was killed in Tecate after opposing the extractive industries that are contributing to water scarcity in the state of Baja California. He was 34 years old.
His mother, Norma Adams Cuero, said: “With all the challenges he took on, I was afraid that something might happen to him. However, the idea of somebody killing my son never crossed my mind. I thought people might beat or kidnap him, but I never imagined they would go as far as they did.”
Nicaragua was the most dangerous country per capita for land and environmental defenders in 2020. There were 12 killings in the country, an increase of seven on the number in 2019.
Global Witness says that, in Nicaragua, violence against indigenous and Afro-descendent communities in the northeast and Caribbean coast regions of the country has accelerated in recent years.
“Research from the Oakland Institute documents community experiences of violence linked to settlers in indigenous territories and the expansion of cattle ranching, gold mining and logging,” the NGO said.
“Despite having legal protections in place, successive governments have undermined indigenous land rights and allowed the attacks to carry on with impunity.
“In one attack, four leaders of a Mayangna indigenous community in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve were killed in an attack by dozens of armed settlers.”
Almost three-quarters of the murders of land and environmental defenders in 2020 took place in the Americas. Seven of the ten highest death tolls were in Latin America. In Brazil and Peru, nearly three quarters of the recorded killings took place in the Amazon region.
Twenty-eight of the defenders killed in 2020 were state officials or park rangers, attacked whilst working to protect the environment, Global Witness reports. Attacks were documented across eight countries: Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guatemala, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Uganda.
Global Witness documented 18 killings across Africa in 2020, compared to seven in 2019. Most of these took place in the DRC, with two in South Africa and one in Uganda.
In the DRC, 12 park rangers and a driver were killed in an attack by militia groups in the Virunga National Park. “Verifying cases from across the continent continues to be difficult and it is possible cases are widely unreported,” Global Witness said.
One of the people murdered in 2020 was South African activist Fikile Ntshangase, who was a leading force in the campaign against the extension of an opencast mine operated by Tendele Coal near Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal province. Sixty-five-year-old Ntshangase was shot dead in her own living room.
Ntshangase’s daughter Malungelo Xhakaza said: “People sometimes ask me what I’m going to do, whether I’m going to stay here and keep my mother’s fight alive. I’m too proud of her to let it die. I know the dangers – we all know the dangers. But I’ve decided to stay. I’m going to join the fight.”
Global Witness reports that Petmin Ltd, which owns the Somkhele mine through its subsidiary Tendele Coal Mining Ltd, says that community tensions may have been a factor in Fikile Ntshangase’s death. The NGO quotes Petmin Ltd as saying it “strongly condemns any form of violence or intimidation” and has offered full co-operation to the police “to ensure that the culprits face the full extent of the law”.
As has been the case in previous years, in 2020 almost nine in ten of the murdered environmental defenders were men.
“At the same time, women who act and speak out also face gender-specific forms of violence, including sexual violence,” Global Witness said. “Women often have a twin challenge: the public struggle to protect their land, and the less visible struggle to defend their right to speak within their communities and families.”
Activists still under threat include communities in Guapinol in Honduras, where dozens of land and water defenders have been arrested in recent years for peacefully protesting against an iron oxide mining concession that was granted by the central government in a protected area. Many community members remain incarcerated.
Global Witness said: “Many companies engage in an extractive economic model that overwhelmingly prioritises profit over human rights and the environment.
“This unaccountable corporate power is the underlying force that has not only driven the climate crisis to the brink, but which has continued to perpetuate the killing of defenders.”
In too many countries, rich in natural resources and climate critical biodiversity, corporations are operating with almost complete impunity, the NGO says.
“Because the balance of power is stacked in the favour of corporations, it’s rare that anyone is arrested or brought to court for killing defenders. When they are it’s usually the trigger-men – the ones holding the guns, not those who might be otherwise implicated, directly or indirectly, in the crime.
“Governments have been all too willing to turn a blind eye and fail in providing their core mandate of upholding and protecting human rights. They are failing to protect land and environmental defenders, in many cases directly perpetrating violence against them, and in others complicit with business.”
Global Witness says governments can turn the tide on the climate crisis and protect human rights “by protecting civil society, and through passing legislation to hold corporations accountable for their actions and profits”.
The NGO says the United Nations, through its member states, must formally recognise the human right to a safe, healthy, and sustainable environment, ensure that commitments to meet the Paris Agreement integrate human rights protections, and implement the recommendations of the special rapporteur on human rights defenders and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.
“States must ensure national policies protect land and environmental defenders and scrap legislation used to criminalise them, require companies to conduct human rights and environment due diligence in their global operations, and investigate and prosecute all actors involved in violence and other threats against defenders,” Global Witness adds.
“Companies and investors must publish and implement effective due diligence systems to identify and prevent human rights and environmental harms throughout their supply chains and operations, adopt and implement a zero-tolerance stance on reprisals and attacks on land and environmental defenders, and provide effective remedy when adverse human rights and environmental impacts and harms occur.”
Global Witness says that numerous states around the world – from the US to Brazil, Colombia, Liberia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines – used the Covid-19 pandemic to strengthen draconian measures to control citizens and close civic space.
“There is a clear link between the availability of civic space and attacks against defenders – the most open and tolerant societies see very few attacks, whereas in restricted societies, attacks are much more frequent,” the NGO said.
“With journalists, activists, campaigners, and academics confined to their homes, and the freedom of press under renewed attack, the scant pre-pandemic protections that defenders had are under increasing strain.”
In the Philippines, President Duterte used the pandemic to further crackdown on dissent – implementing extremely strict lockdowns enforced by the police and the military, Global Witness says.
“The government also took advantage of the pandemic to rush through the Anti-Terrorism law, which came into effect in June,” the NGO added. “Critics argue that this will accelerate ‘red-tagging’ – labelling activists and social leaders as communist rebels – and will lead to an increase in violence against environmental and indigenous defenders.
“The president has prioritised mining for economic recovery from the pandemic – allowing the industry to operate throughout 2020, as well as recently reversing a ban on open-pit mining.”
Senior campaigner with Global Witness Chris Madden said: “This dataset is another stark reminder that fighting the climate crisis carries an unbearably heavy burden for some, who risk their lives to save the forests, rivers, and biospheres that are essential to counteract unsustainable global warming. This must stop.
“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.”
In 2019, the recorded number of murders of land and environmental defenders was 212 . It was, at that time, the highest number recorded for a single year and was a 30% increase on 2018, when 164 environmental defenders were killed.
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