More than 1,900 land and environmental defenders have been murdered since 2012, according to a new report, ‘Standing Firm’, published by the London-based non-governmental organisation Global Witness.
At least 177 defenders were killed in 2022, bringing the figure up to 1,910 between 2012 and 2022.
“On average, a defender was killed every other day in 2022, just as was the case in 2021,” Global Witness said.
“Although the overall figure is slightly lower last year than in 2021, when we recorded 200 killings, this does not mean that the situation has significantly improved.”
Global Witness documented cases in 18 countries in 2022 and 11 of them were in Latin America. Colombia was the deadliest country for environmental defenders, with 60 killings recorded in 2022.
The NGO said said that, in addition to lethal attacks, defenders were also being increasingly subject to criminalisation as a strategy for silencing those who speak out, with laws being weaponised against them.
“The worsening climate crisis and the ever-increasing demand for agricultural commodities, fuel and minerals will only intensify the pressure on the environment – and those who risk their lives to defend it. Increasingly, non-lethal strategies such as criminalisation, harassment, and digital attacks are also being used to silence defenders,” Global Witness said.
Eleven per cent of the environmental defenders killed in 2022 were women, the NGO added. “Although a relatively small percentage at first sight, women defenders face additional forms of gender-specific attacks,” it points out.
Global Witness also points out that the new statistics cannot fully capture the true scale of the problem. There are restrictions on a free press and a lack of independent monitoring in many countries, particularly across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, Global Witness says, and this leads to underreporting of killings.
It remains difficult to identify the exact drivers behind the killings, or to connect killings to specific sectors, the NGO adds, but it has linked agribusiness to ten killings in 2022 – more than in any other sector and half of them in Mexico.
Mining was linked to eight cases, followed by logging linked to four.
Nearly nine in ten (88%) of the recorded killings in 2022 were in Latin America and more than a third of all fatal attacks happened in Colombia.
“Despite Colombia ratifying a key legally binding regional agreement in October 2022 requiring the government to prevent and investigate attacks against defenders, this figure is almost double the number of killings reported in 2021,” Global Witness said.
At least 382 environmental defenders have been killed in Colombia since Global Witness began documenting deaths in 2012, making it the country with the highest number of reported killings globally from 2012 to 2022.
“Once again, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities, small-scale farmers, and environmental activists have been viciously targeted,” Global Witness said.
“Yet there is hope; when Gustavo Petro, the first leftist president in contemporary Colombia, took office in August 2022 he promised social transformation and enhanced protection for defenders. No government had committed to that before.”
Thirty-nine of the killings of environmental defenders last year were in the Amazon rainforest. That is more than one in five (22%) of the murders of environmental defenders worldwide. Eleven of those killed were from indigenous communities.
Those killed included the British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who were murdered by gunmen while travelling through indigenous territory in the Brazilian Amazon in June 2022.
Overall, at least 296 defenders have been killed in the Amazon since 2014.
In Brazil, Global Witness said, environmental defenders faced relentless hostility from former president Jair Bolsonaro’s government, “whose policies have opened up the Amazon to exploitation and destruction, have undermined environmental institutions and have fuelled illegal invasions of indigenous lands”.
Thirty-four environmental defenders were killed in Brazil in 2022, 31 were murdered in Mexico, 14 were killed in Honduras, and 11 were murdered in the Philippines.
“Some of those killed were not even the target of attacks, but happened to be with the murdered defender at the time of the killing,” Global Witness said. “This illustrates the wider impact of attacks on families and communities.”
The recorded killings in 2022 include the murders of five children – three in Brazil, one in Colombia, and one in Mexico. Three of the children were from indigenous communities and included nine-year-old Jonatas Oliveira, the son of a rural leader in Brazil.
Those murdered in 2022 also include state officials, demonstrators, park rangers, lawyers, and journalists, Global Witness reports. “All of them shared a commitment to defend their rights and keep the planet healthy. All of them paid for their courage and commitment with their lives,” the NGO said.
The number of killings in Honduras is the highest globally per capita. “The country’s first-ever female president, Xiomara Castro, has committed to protecting defenders. Yet early trends from 2023 point to ongoing rife violence, with reports of killings and non-lethal attacks across the country,” Global Witness said.
Global Witness notes that, in some cases, criminalisation precedes murders of defenders. The NGO cites the case of Teófilo Acuña, a renowned Colombian social leader and the voice of thousands of small-scale peasants who depend on agriculture and gold mining.
He was murdered in February 2022 alongside fellow defender Jorge Alberto Tafur. Both had reported threats only days before their deaths.
“Before all of this, Teófilo had been repeatedly criminalised,” Global Witness reports. “He had been beaten and then arbitrarily arrested in 2007 as part of a legal case that was later dismissed.
“He was arbitrarily arrested again in 2020 on fabricated charges of aggravated rebellion. This happened soon after Congreso de los Pueblos, a local movement Teófilo co-founded, had submitted complaints to the authorities about arbitrary prosecutions and judicial harassment against members of peasant movements.”
Those who choose to support local and indigenous communities can also become targets of criminalisation, Global Witness says. The NGO cites the case of Chad Booc, a computer science graduate in the Philippines who was murdered in February 2022.
Chad had volunteered to teach members of the Lumad indigenous community and became an advocate for their struggles.
“The police and military arrested him and six other people in 2021, charging them with kidnapping and trafficking,” Global Witness reports.
“The authorities argued that they were holding the Lumad children captive and training them as ‘future armed combatants’. Chad and other teachers and Lumad students spent three months in prison before the case was dismissed due to insufficient evidence.”
Chad was murdered while on the road with another volunteer teacher, a community health worker, and two volunteer drivers. He was 27 years old.
indigenous communities under attack
Global Witness has again found that members of indigenous communities around the world face a disproportionate level of lethal attacks. While members of indigenous communities make up about 6% of the world’s population, they were the victims of more than a third of the global killings of environmental defenders (64 murders) last year.
Senior advisor to Global Witness’s Land and Environmental Defenders Campaign, Laura Furones, said: “Research has shown again and again that indigenous peoples are the best guardians of the forests and therefore play a fundamental role in mitigating the climate crisis. Yet they are under siege in countries like Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela for doing precisely that.”
Seven per cent of the murdered indigenous defenders were Afro-descendants and 22% were small-scale farmers.Doto Takak Ire, who is president of the Kayapó indigenous peoples’ association the KABU Institute, says illegal gold mining is creating all manner of problems:
- contaminating the land and its streams with mercury,
- increasing people’s risk of having cancer and other serious diseases,
- escalating violence and threats against indigenous communities, with illegal miners inciting violence and infighting among the communities, and
- illegal miners luring some indigenous community members into supporting the mines with the false promise of large profits as the forest that sustains the community is destroyed.
Two illegal mining fields – ‘Pista Velha’ and ‘Pista Nova’ – have been closed down, but, Global Witness says, they will need constant monitoring because of the potential riches they still promise.
“Several other mining areas on indigenous territory are still active, and continue to threaten the rights and livelihoods of indigenous communities across the Amazon,” Global Witness added.
“Arson intended to clear land and destroy indigenous villages, altercations over land use, physical attacks, and death threats have all been reported to Global Witness by Kayapó indigenous community members and the KABU Institute.”
Global Witness reports that, in September 2022, a few weeks after the illegal mining fields were shut down, the KABU Institute received an anonymous letter containing death threats to its members. “It also received anonymous WhatsApp audio messages demanding the institute stop its actions and protests against gold mining,” the NGO added.
Several companies based in the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United States have been linked to human rights violations committed against indigenous communities in the Amazon. Gold illegally extracted from Kayapó lands has been found in the supply chains of the Italian refiner Chimet and the gold-mining company Serabi Gold, Global Witness says.
Global Witness adds that tech giants such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have purchased illegal gold from Chimet and the Brazilian refinery Marsam, “the latter of which has sourced gold from a mining outfit currently investigated for extracting gold illegally from Kayapó land”.
The NGO points out that it is not suggested that any refiner or any manufacturing company has directly commissioned human rights abuses in Brazilian gold mining regions.
Global Witness notes that Peru has the fourth largest area of tropical forest in the world after Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia. “It is also among the ten most dangerous countries in the world for land and environmental defenders according to Global Witness data – with 42 people killed between 2014 and 2022. Of these, more than half were killed in the Amazon,” the NGO said.
Mexico was the country with the highest recorded number of killings in 2021: 54 murders in 2021 as compared with thirty in 2020. The number dropped to 31 in 2022. At least 16 of those killed were from indigenous communities and four were lawyers.
“The overall situation in Mexico remained dire for land and environmental defenders, and non-lethal attacks – including intimidation, threats, forced displacement, harassment, and criminalisation – continued to seriously hamper their work,” Global Witness said.
killings in asia
Global Witness has documented 16 killings of environmental defenders in Asia, 11 of which were in the Philippines.
The Philippines has consistently ranked as the worst place in Asia for land and environmental defenders, with 281 defenders killed since 2012.
“Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who took office in June 2022 as the new president, has so far failed to address human rights violations,” Global Witness said.
“Instead, he has focused his agenda on business and economic interests, raising continued concerns amongst civil society about an increase in mining and other resource exploitation at the cost of human rights and the safety of defenders.”
Global Witness notes that the criminalisation of defenders and rights advocates is widespread in the Philippines, with ‘red-tagging’ – the government practice of accusing activists of communist insurgency – commonly used to silence critics and communities.
“At the time of writing, a bill seeking to protect human rights defenders and punish acts of intimidation or violence against them has just been approved at the committee level at the House of Representatives – marking a positive step for the protection of defenders,” the NGO said. “However, a government statement called the bill ‘dangerous and destructive’ for the country.”
Charles Rocil has faced a barrage of online threats, anonymous phone calls, and suspected surveillance. An anonymous complaint has been filed against him with the National Bureau of Investigation regarding his environmental activism.
The Philippine government ordered the Altai Philippines mining company to suspend its operations on Sibuyan island in February 2023 following alleged violations of environmental regulations.
Global Witness reports that the company did not have the required documents to construct the causeway used to transport nickel ore. A government inspection also confirmed community allegations that trees had been illegally felled to build the port.
Residents also maintain that the approval of Altai’s permit did not go through the appropriate due process – with local community consultations bypassed.
In June 2023, the Supreme Court issued a writ of kalikasan – a legal remedy for the protection of the right to a healthy environment – against government agencies and the mining firm.
Sibuyan has been dubbed the ‘Galapagos of Asia’. The island has 81% forest cover and is home to several endangered species.
Global Witness recorded five killings of environmental defenders in Africa in 2022. Of these, four were park rangers – two in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one in Malawi, and one in South Africa.
“Park rangers have consistently been the target of attacks through the years,” Global Witness said. “Virunga National Park, Africa’s most biodiverse protected area, has seen over 200 rangers killed on duty. They, too, are at the frontline of the climate crisis. They, too, are being murdered for doing their job.”
The almost 900-mile East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) that would run through Uganda and Tanzania is already devastating local communities, Global Witness says. Four anti-EACOP activists were arrested in Uganda in July 2023 after protesting about environmental and social impacts linked to the project.
Global Witness does note that there were achievements in 2022, such as the publication by the European Commission of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive and the first annual meeting of the Escazú Agreement – the first regional environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean and the first agreement in the world that contains specific provisions about environmental human rights defenders.
In June 2022, Michel Forst was appointed as the world’s first Special Rapporteur on environmental defenders under the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (the Aarhus Convention), which obliges states to protect activists who speak out to protect environmental rights.
In Sierra Leone, the government passed the Mines and Mineral Development Act, which aims to protect communities affected by future mining projects in the country. The law requires companies to secure free, prior and informed consent from affected communities and increases the rights of local landowners to veto projects – including affirming equal land rights for women.
In Mexico, a federal high court revoked the permits issued by federal authorities for the construction of the Veracruz port and, in Australia, the Federal Court issued a verdict revoking the project licence for fossil-fuel exploration along more than 300 kilometres of the coastline of Tiwi Island and the operations were halted.
DEFENDERS’ CRUCIAL ROLE
Global Witness’s most recent findings come ahead of world governments convening at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates in November, where states will take stock of the progress made in implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The NGO says its new report emphasises the crucial role that defenders play in advocating for, and achieving, climate justice
“At least 1,390 defenders were killed between the adoption of the historic climate Agreement on 12 December 2015 and 31 December 2022,” Global Witness said.
“Despite the relentlessness of defender murders over the past 11 years, very few perpetrators are ever brought to justice due to the failures of governments around the world to properly investigate these crimes, resulting in impunity fuelling further attacks.”
Global Witness is urging governments around the world to urgently implement enhanced protections for defenders and for their role in tackling the climate emergency to be recognised.
The co-director of campaigns (interim) at Global Witness, Shruti Suresh, said: “For too long, those responsible for lethal attacks against defenders have been getting away with murder.
“Violence, intimidation, and harassment are also being inflicted to silence defenders around the world. Despite being threatened by irresponsible corporate and government actions, this global movement of people, united by determination and a commitment to defending their homes and communities, are standing firm – and they cannot and will not be silenced.”
Suresh added: “Governments around the world must urgently address the senseless killings of those who stand up for our planet, including for the protection of its most precious ecosystems, which have a critical role to play in tackling the climate emergency.
“United action is needed at regional, national, and international levels to end the violence and injustice they face. Far too many lives have already been lost. We cannot afford to lose any more.”
Laura Furones said: “More than 100 countries committed to halting deforestation by 2030 when they signed the Glasgow Declaration at COP26 less than two years ago. Yet we now know that 10% more primary forests were lost in 2022 than in 2021 – in other words, we’re heading in the wrong direction and wasting precious time we don’t have.
“If we are to keep the forests standing, we must recognise that this relies upon the protection of those who call the forest home. Addressing the escalating climate emergency and upholding human rights must go hand in hand.”
DONATE TO CHANGING TIMES VIA SIMPLE PAYMENTS
1= 5 euro, x 2 = 10 euro, X 3 =15 euro, etc.