2017 was 'deadliest year on record for land and environmental defenders'

By agency reporter
July 25, 2018

Global Witness has revealed that at least 207 land and environmental defenders were killed last year – indigenous leaders, community activists and environmentalists murdered trying to protect their homes and communities from mining, agribusiness and other destructive industries.

Severe limits on the data available mean the global total is probably much higher. 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.

The report At What Cost? shows that agribusiness has overtaken mining as the industry most associated with these attacks.

These include the murder of Hernán Bedoya in Colombia, shot 14 times by a paramilitary group for protesting against palm oil and banana plantations on land stolen from his community; an army massacre of eight villagers in the Philippines who opposed a coffee plantation on their land; and violent attacks by Brazilian farmers, using machetes and rifles, which left 22 members of the Gamela indigenous people severely injured, some with their hands chopped off.

The report links this violence with the products on our shelves: large-scale agriculture, mining, poaching and logging all produce components and ingredients for supermarket products such as palm oil for shampoo, soy for beef and timber for furniture.

The report also reveals that some governments and businesses are complicit in the killings, with Global Witness calling for urgent action if the trend is to be reversed. As well as being part of the problem, governments and business can be part of the solution. They must tackle the root causes of the attacks, for example ensuring communities are allowed to say ‘no’ to projects, like mining, on their land; support and protect defenders at risk and ensure justice is served for those suffering from the violence.

Ben Leather, Senior Campaigner, Global Witness 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. Enough is enough.

“Governments, companies and investors have the duty and the power to support and protect defenders at risk, and to guarantee accountability wherever attacks occur. 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, the global community of land and environmental defenders is not going away – it’s only 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.”

Other key findings include:

  • Brazil recorded the worst year on record anywhere in the world, with 57 murders in 2017.
  • 48 defenders were killed in the Philippines in 2017—the highest number ever documented in an Asian country.
  • 60 per cent of recorded murders were in Latin America. Mexico and Peru saw marked increases in killings, from three to 15 and two to eight, respectively. Nicaragua was the worst place per capita with four murders.
  • For the first time, agribusiness was the bloodiest industry, with at least 46 murders linked to the sector. Killings linked to mining increased from 33 to 40, and 23 murders were related to logging.
  • Taking on poachers became even more dangerous, with a record 23 people murdered for taking a stand against the illegal wildlife trade - mostly park rangers in Africa.
  • Global Witness linked government security forces to 53 of last year’s murders, and non-state actors, like criminal gangs, to 90.
  • There was a large decrease in killings of land and environmental defenders in Honduras, though repression of civil society in general worsened.
  • Recent years has seen some increased recognition and action taken by governments and business, but much more must be done, and urgently, to tackle this issue.

Margaret Atwood, writer and environmental commentator 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.

“Global Witness’ report shows that up to four environmental defenders are killed a week 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.”

Yuri Herrera, Political Scientist and writer: “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.

This report from Global Witness shows the shocking level of violence they face – here in Mexico and across the world. More must be done to protect their human rights and bring to justice those who violate them in the most appalling way.”

George Monbiot, writer and environmental campaigner said: “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.

“Global Witness and its partners have been steadfast in documenting the violence and killings directed at land and environmental defenders. 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.”

Lily Cole, actress and environmental activist said: "This year marks the 30th anniversary of the murder of the Brazilian environmental activist, Chico Mendes. “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity,” Mendes said of his life-long fight to protect the Amazon forest from industry-driven deforestation. Mendes formed a wild rubber tapper’s union, and developed the concept of extractive reserves: areas of the forest that could be maintained by developing and selling forest-friendly produce in them. He sought to align business interests with environmental interests.

“Mendes’ work was recognised throughout the world, and the Brazilian government declared him Patron of the Brazilian Environment. Yet, for his efforts, he was shot dead in front of his family – joining a shockingly long list of environmental campaign[er]s who are killed for their altruistic efforts. And the killings haven’t stopped: last year alone, 57 Environmental Defenders were killed in Brazil, out of 207 killed globally. That’s someone killed every one to two days, simply for fighting to protect the environment.

“Global Witness’ new report on Environmental Defenders shows how our voracious appetite for more and different food products, for unsustainable fossil fuels, and for minerals is complicit in this death toll. We have turned homes and neighbourhoods into a highly prized commodity for companies and governments that prize profit above people.

“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.

“With Global Witness’ work, we will be watching to ensure products that reach our shelves are not dipped in the blood of Environmental Defenders and that those found committing or being complicit in attacks will face the full force of the law.”

* Download the report At What Cost? here

* Global Witness https://www.globalwitness.org/en-gb/

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