More than 1,700 land and environmental defenders have been killed over the past ten years, according to a new report, ‘Decade of Defiance’, published by the London-based non-governmental organisation Global Witness. Two hundred of the defenders were killed in 2021; that’s nearly four people murdered every week.
“Research has found that a total of 1,733 people have been killed over the past ten years,” a spokesperson for Global Witness said.
“The data is clearly showing that we are dealing not only with an environmental but also a humanitarian crisis, with a land and environmental defender killed every other day over the past ten years.”
More than half of the attacks on environmental defenders over the ten-year period took place in Brazil, Colombia, and the Philippines, Global Witness says.
About one-third of the defenders killed in Brazil were from indigenous communities or were Afro-descendants, and more than 85% of the murders occurred within the Brazilian Amazon.
“From the 2021 data specifically, Mexico was the country with the highest recorded number of killings and over three-quarters of the attacks recorded in 2021 took place in Latin America,” Global Witness said.
“The research has also highlighted that indigenous communities in particular face a disproportionate level of attacks – nearly 40% – even though they make up only 5% of the world’s population.”
These killing were documented predominantly across Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Peru, and the Philippines, Global Witness said.
In Mexico, 131 of the 154 murders documented over the past decade took place between 2017 and 2021.
Global Witness has been gathering data on the killings of land and environmental defenders since 2012.
“In that time, a grim picture has come into focus – with evidence suggesting that, as the climate crisis intensifies, violence against those protecting their land and our planet remains persistent,” the NGO said.
“These lethal attacks continue to take place in the context of a wider range of threats against defenders who are being targeted by government, business, and other non-state actors with violence, intimidation, smear campaigns, and criminalisation,” Global Witness added. “This is happening across every region of the world and in almost every sector.”
Global Witness says the control and use of land and territory is a central issue in countries where environmental defenders are threatened.
“Much of the increasing killing, violence, and repression is linked to territorial conflicts and the pursuit of economic growth based on the extraction of natural resources from the land,” the NGO said.
“Evidence also shows that the data on killings does not capture the true scale of the problem.”
Global Witness points out that, in some countries, the situation facing environmental defenders is hard to gauge.
“Restrictions on a free press and a lack of independent monitoring in many countries often leads to underreporting,” the NGO said.
“Land disputes and environmental damage can also be difficult to monitor in parts of the world affected by conflict.”
The Philippines has consistently ranked as the most dangerous place in Asia for land and environmental defenders, 270 of whom were murdered between 2012 and 2021. A total 114 of those killed were members of indigenous communities.
Nearly 80% of attacks against indigenous environmental defenders took place on the island of Mindanao, Global Witness reports.
“Global Witness has been able to link over 80% of killings over the past decade in the Philippines to protests by defenders against company operations,” the NGO said.
“Our analysis indicates that a third of the killings are linked to the mining industry, closely followed by the agribusiness sector.”
Nearly 30% of land in the Philippines is known to hold high mineral deposits and, as of July 2021, more than 8% of that land was covered by mining concessions, Global Witness reports.
In April 2021, the then president, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, overturned a nine-year nationwide moratorium on new mining projects, which had been in place since 2012.
Environmental and human rights groups criticised the move, warning that the new order could further endanger defenders as well as negatively impact key biodiversity areas, local water and food supplies, and Indigenous communities.
“There is very little transparency in the Philippines’ mining sector, with mining contracts and data seldom made public,” Global Witness said. “Rules requiring mining companies to gain consent from communities who live in the areas in which they seek to operate are not consistently implemented.
“Impunity is rife: it is suspected that state forces are behind the majority of killings in the few cases where the identity of the perpetrators is documented. Key state institutions, including the judiciary and law enforcement agencies, are weak, and the military and police commit human rights violations with little accountability.”
Killings in 2021
Mexico was the country with the highest recorded number of killings in 2021: 54 murders in 2021 as compared with thirty in 2020.
More than 40% of those killed were indigenous people, and more than a third of the murders were cases of forcible disappearance. Those murdered included eight members of the Yaqui indigenous community.
“Conflicts over land and mining were each linked to two-thirds of lethal attacks,” Global Witness reports. “Around two-thirds of the killings were concentrated in the states of Oaxaca and Sonora, both of which have significant mining investments.”
Whilst Brazil and India both saw a rise in lethal attacks (from 20 to 26 in the case of Brazil, and from four to 14 in the case of India), Colombia and the Philippines saw a drop in killings. The total dropped from 65 to 33 in Colombia and from 30 to 19 in the Philippines.
Colombia and the Philippines remain, however, two of the countries with the highest number of killings of environmental defenders in the world.
More than three-quarters of the killings recorded in 2021 took place in Latin America, Global Witness reports. In Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela, 78% of the attacks took place in the Amazon.
Global Witness has documented ten killings of environmental and land defenders in Africa in 2021, eight of which took place in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Verifying cases from across the continent continues to be difficult and it is possible cases are widely unreported,” the NGO said.
Global Witness says that, globally in 2021, in cases where a sector could be identified, just over a quarter of lethal attacks were reportedly linked to resource exploitation – logging, mining, and large-scale agribusiness – and hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure.
“However, this figure is likely to be higher as the reasons behind attacks on land and environmental defenders are often not properly investigated nor reported on. In the majority of cases where a sector could not be identified, land conflicts were found to be a key driver of the attacks against defenders,” the NGO added.
Global Witness says that, in many cases the economic motives behind land-related violence are not reported.
“Mining was the sector linked to the most killings with 27 cases – with the majority of attacks taking place in Mexico (15), followed by the Philippines (6), Venezuela (4), Nicaragua (1), and Ecuador (1),” the NGO said.
Global Witness recorded 12 mass killings in 2021, including three in India and four in Mexico.
“In Nicaragua, criminal groups massacred 15 indigenous and land rights defenders as part of systematic and widespread violence against the Miskitu and Mayangna Indigenous peoples,” the NGO reported.
Number of documented killings per industry driver
Fifty of the environmental defenders killed in 2021 were small-scale farmers, Global Witness reports.
This highlights how the “relentless commodification and privatisation of land for industrial agriculture” is putting small-scale farmers increasingly at risk as land deals ignore local tenure rights, the NGO says.
“Small-scale family agriculture, on which most of the world’s rural poor still depend, is threatened by large-scale plantations, export-led agriculture and the production of commodities over food.”
In about one in ten of the documented cases, the environmental defenders who were killed in 2021 were women and nearly two-thirds of those women were from indigenous communities.
“Gender-based violence rooted in misogyny and discriminatory gender norms is disproportionately used against women environmental and human rights defenders to control and silence them, and suppress their power and authority as leaders,” Global Witness said.
Few perpetrators of the killings of environmental defenders are ever brought to justice because governments fail to properly investigate these crimes, Global Witness says, adding that many authorities “ignore or actively impede investigations into these killings often due to alleged collusion between corporate and state interests”.
For more than two decades, fisherwoman and land and environmental defender Eliete Paraguassu has been involved in the struggle for the rights of her community, the Quilombolas, in the face of the exploitation of their territory by national and international petroleum companies based in in and around the Aratu Port in the Todos os Santos Bay.
Paraguassu has had to flee the area because of the persistent threats against her.
The local area suffers from daily chemical contamination, which leads to heavy pollution in water and contamination in the air. Paraguassu says the turning point in her life came when she discovered that her daughter had been directly affected by the contamination.
In 2005, a study revealed that children living on Ilha da Maré, including Paraguassu’s daughter, had high levels of heavy metals in their hair and blood samples.
“The food consumed by our children also presented a high level of contamination,” Paraguassu said. “We women from the waters are suffering, because our children are developing serious illnesses, including epilepsy and cancer, due to the contamination.”
In January 2021, a landless rural worker and land rights defender from the Movimento Sem Terra, Fernando Araújo, was killed at his home in Pau D’Arco in the State of Pará.
Pau D’Arco is one of the most dangerous regions for human rights defenders in Brazil. Araújo had been a witness to, and survivor of, the largest massacre of rural workers in Brazil since 1996, the 2017 Pau D’Arco massacre, which resulted in ten rural workers being killed by the police on the Santa Lúcia farm.
So far, no one has been charged or arrested for Araújo’s murder.
In February 2021, Isaac Tembé, a leader of the Thenetehara people, was killed while out hunting with friends. The 24-year-old indigenous leader was shot in the chest at point-blank range, on his own land, by a member of Brazil’s military police.
According to the Tembé-Theneteraha people, Brazil’s military police serve as private militias, defending the interests of farmers and ranchers who are illegally occupying areas of the Tembé indigenous territory.
“This case illustrates the blurring of Brazilian agribusiness and state-sponsored terror on indigenous lands, which has significantly worsened under the Bolsonaro regime,” Global Witness says.
“Since Bolsonaro came to power, he has encouraged illegal logging and mining, undone protection for indigenous land rights, attacked conservation groups, and dismantled and slashed the budgets and resources of forest and indigenous protection agencies,” the NGO adds.
“This has led to criminal gangs invading indigenous and conservation areas with impunity. The failure of the state to defend land and environmental defenders even as it gives a green light to illegal resource extraction has led some to suggest that the government in Brazil has been captured by criminal interests.”
The high-profile killings of British journalist Dom Philipps and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in the bandit territory of the Javari Valley in the Brazilian Amazon are indicative of the assault on indigenous people and those trying to protect them, Global Witness says.
Court decision sets important precedent
In April 2021, Brazil’s Supreme Court unanimously agreed to review the process around a past case that cancelled the mapping of an indigenous territory claimed by the Guarani Kaiowá people.
The Guyraroká territory at the centre of the dispute sprawls across some 11,000 hectares of Mato Grosso do Sul, in Brazil’s agricultural heartland. A large part of the disputed area is controlled by a powerful politician and rancher, José Teixeira.
The Guarani Kaiowá people say their land was stolen decades ago and turned into sugarcane plantations.
“The reopening of the case marks a turning point and also sets an important precedent for other disputes over Indigenous lands in Brazil,” Global Witness says.
Global Witness says the high number of cases in Brazil is partly attributable to a greater awareness and better monitoring by civil society of the issue than in other parts of the world.
“Conflict over land and forest rights is the main driver of defender killings in Brazil, with the Amazon rainforest being the frontier of the struggle over Indigenous and environmental rights,” the NGO adds.
Human rights activist Óscar Sampayo from Barrancabermeja in Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region has witnessed the assassination of three fellow activists and friends over the past year.
Two of the activists were assassinated in February this year and one was murdered at the end of July 2021.
Sampayo has been actively opposing oil extraction and mining in the Magdalena Medio region by documenting its impact on the environment and the local community. Together with a colleague he recently provided evidence of serious mercury poisoning within his community, where it is now difficult to find a child who was born after 2015 and does not have respiratory problems and skin conditions.
Land disputes are a driving force behind the killings of environmental defenders in Colombia, Global Witness says. While the 2016 peace agreement signed by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia acknowledges the need to address matters such as forced land displacement, unequal land tenure, and the substitution of illegal crops by alternative legal crops, the implementation of the accord has to date fallen short, the NGO adds.
“Peace is still a distant prospect for many Colombians, and the consequences of ongoing violence are particularly felt by the most vulnerable groups, including small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples.”
In Mexico, in April 2021, José Santos Isaac Chávez was brutally murdered. He was an indigenous leader, lawyer, and candidate to the Ejidal Commissariat of Ayotitlán (a local elected body created to manage the indigenous territories and coordinate actions with communities).
He was the only candidate who vocally opposed the Peña Colorado mine and its operations. He was found dead in his car, which had been driven off a cliff. His body showed evidence of torture.
Impunity remains rife in Mexico, with more than 94% of crimes unreported, and only 0.9% resolved, Global Witness says.
The NGO reports on the case of Mexican environmentalist Irma Galindo Barrios, who disappeared in October 2021.
“Since 2018, Irma had faced intimidation by public officials, as well as harassment, persecution, defamation campaigns, and death threats as a result of her defence of the forests,” Global Witness said.
“This defence included her submission of a formal complaint to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources.”
Whilst the ‘Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean’ – also known as the Escazú Agreement – was ratified by Mexico in January 2021, and came into force in April of that year, there is little state capacity or budget to support environmental defenders, narrowing the likelihood of individuals and communities securing access to justice and redress, Global Witness says.
Eleven people were killed on May 22, 2018, during a protest in Thoothukudi in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in violence instigated by state police. They included social justice advocate M. Karthi and 17-year-old J. Snowlin.
“More than 100 other people were injured that day,” Global Witness reports. “People had gathered at the local district office to mark the hundredth day of peaceful demonstrations against the copper smelting plant, Sterlite Copper.”
The plant is owned by Vedanta Ltd.
After four years and several inquests into the killings, neither the state nor the company has been held culpable, Global Witness reports.
“However, civil society organisations and advocates campaigning for justice have since faced a myriad of human rights abuses, including criminalisation, surveillance, prevention of their right to assemble, threats, and violence,” the NGO said.
The Thoothukudi massacre is emblematic of the pressing issues of security and reprisals faced by human rights defenders in India, Global Witness says.
“In 2021, India reportedly recorded the highest number of attacks against human rights defenders – representing around 20% of attacks in the Asia-Pacific region,” the NGO said.
“Many defenders, including indigenous women seeking justice, are jailed and labelled as terrorists due to their human rights work. Laws in India are routinely used to target human rights defenders: for example, the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act 2010 has been used to block much-needed funds, freeze bank accounts, and subject NGOs to investigations, creating a chilling effect on civil society.”
In July 2021, five years after the murder of the environmental defender Berta Cáceres Flores in March 2016, a Honduran court found Robert David Castillo guilty of co-conspiring in her murder when he was the head of the hydroelectric dam company Desarrollos Energéticos.
Cáceres was shot dead in her home by hired hitmen after years of threats. She was a key opponent of the Agua Zarca mega-dam being built on the sacred Gualcarque River on the ancestral lands of the Lenca people and was the coordinator and co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH).
She won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize (South and Central America) in 2015.
Castillo was subsequently sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment for his role in ordering and planning Cáceres’ murder.
Cáceres’ daughter, Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, said the sentencing was an important advance, but added: “The masterminds of the crime are still enjoying impunity thanks to their political and economic power.”
Global Witness says companies and governments should be held to account for violence against land and environmental defenders.
“Urgent action is needed at regional, national, and international levels to end the violence and injustice that they face,” the NGO said.
It is calling on governments to create a safe environment for defenders and civic space to thrive, and to promote legal accountability of companies.
It urges businesses to identify, prevent, mitigate, and remedy any harms caused to environmental defenders during company operations and to ensure legal compliance and corporate responsibility at all levels.
It is calling on both governments and businesses to “implement a rights-based approach for addressing climate change”.
There has been some progress made by governments and corporations at an international level, at least superficially, Global Witness says.
“Businesses are now more aware of the threats that defenders face and, according to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, at least 30 businesses have existing policies on human rights defenders and civic freedoms.
“However, it’s important to note that these are voluntary commitments and they are not implemented consistently.”
A Global Witness spokesperson said: “All over the world, indigenous peoples, environmental activists, and other land and environmental defenders risk their lives for the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss.
“They play a crucial role as a first line of defence against ecological collapse, yet are under attack themselves facing violence, criminalisation, and harassment perpetuated by repressive governments and companies prioritising profit over human and environmental harm.”
One of the successes that Global Witness cites in its new report is that of indigenous communities from the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa who won a landmark legal victory in the South African High Court against the petroleum giant Shell.
“The communities won the case on the basis of violation of their constitutional right to be consulted and give consent to the project,” Global Witness said.
“The victory has been hailed as a major breakthrough in the effort to stem the tide of climate change.”
Global Witness also reports about Indonesian farmer and land defender Franz Hemsi, who this year finally won recognition of his rights over land taken from him in 2005 by PT Mamuang, a subsidiary of Indonesia’s second largest palm oil company, Astra Agro Lestari.
“Hemsi was imprisoned three times and he and his family were subjected to regular threats,” Global Witness sad. “He has now received recognition of his rights over twenty of the fifty hectares the company tried to take.”
Scientist, activist, and author Vandana Shiva says in her foreword to the new report: “We are not just in a climate emergency. We are in the foothills of the sixth mass extinction, and these defenders are some of the few people standing in the way. They don’t just deserve protection for basic moral reasons. The future of our species, and our planet, depends on it.”
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