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More than 1,700 environmental activists murdered in past decade

More than 1,700 environmental activists murdered in past decade

More than 1,700 murders of environmental activists have been recorded over the past decade, an average of one murder nearly every two days, according to a new report.

A plan by the new UK government to roll back environmental regulations has sparked a fierce backlash, while the country’s largest power station, Drax, has also come under fire for sourcing wood from “environmentally important” forests in Canada.

Murdered by hit men, organized crime groups and their own governments, at least 1,733 land and environmental defenders were murdered between 2012 and 2021, according to figures from Global Witness, with Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines, Mexico and Honduras being the most deadly.

The NGO has published its report on the killings of environmental and land defenders around the world every year since 2012, following the murder of Chut Wutty, a Cambodian environmentalist who worked with Global Witness CEO Mike Davis investigating the illegal logging. Murders hit a record high of 227 in 2020 despite the pandemic.

The figures underestimate the true scale of the violence, the report’s authors argue. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The figures underestimate the true scale of the violence, the report’s authors argue. Many of the cases are not formally reported because they occur in conflict zones or where there are “restrictions on the freedom of the press or civil society and due to a lack of independence in monitoring the attacks.”

In addition, few responsible for the murders are brought to justice because governments do not adequately investigate the crimes. Authorities actively ignore or prevent investigations into the killings, often due to the perceived coexistence of business and state interests.

“All over the world, indigenous peoples and environmental defenders risk their lives in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. Activists and communities play a critical role as the first line of defense against ecological collapse,” said Mike Davis, CEO of Global Witness.

A decade of murder

The number of land and environmental activists murdered killed in the last decade. Source: Global Witness

The killings have disproportionately affected low-income countries and indigenous communities; 39% of the victims belonged to this demographic group, despite the fact that it represents only 5% of the world’s population.

Mining and extractive industries, logging, and agribusiness were the most common drivers of murder when the cause was known. The report’s authors cautioned that the figures were likely a significant underestimate and do not capture the full scale of the problem, as deaths often occur in ecosystems crucial to avoiding the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

INDIA

Eleven people were killed on May 22, 2018, during a protest in Thoothukudi, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, due to violence instigated by state police. Among them were social justice advocate M. Karthi and 17-year-old J. Snowlin.

“Over 100 people were injured that day,” reports Global Witness. “People had gathered at the local district office to mark the 100th day of peaceful demonstrations against the copper smelting plant, Sterlite Copper.”

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Environmental activists murdered. Source: Flickr

“In 2021, India is reported to have recorded the highest number of attacks against human rights defenders, accounting for around 20% of attacks in the Asia-Pacific region,” the NGO said.

“Many defenders, including indigenous women seeking justice, are imprisoned and labelled terrorists because of 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.”

The way to follow

Global Witness states that the situation for environmental defenders around the world has gotten worse rather than better in recent years. The growing climate and biodiversity crises, as well as the expansion of authoritarian governments, have led to an increase in murders since 2018.

The 200 people killed in 2021 included eight park rangers in the Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which faces the additional threat of oil and gas extraction, environmental activist Joannah Stutchbury, who was shot outside her home in Kenya, and Ángel Miro Cartagena, who died in Colombia and was one of 50 small farmers killed last year.

Environmental activists murdered. Source: Flickr

In June this year, journalist Dom Phillips, who wrote extensively for The Guardian and The Observer, and Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian expert on isolated indigenous peoples, were killed in the Javari Valley in the Brazilian Amazon after disappearing. Phillips was working on a book on sustainable development called How to Save the Amazon, and Pereira was helping him with interviews. The investigation into their murders continues.

What is an environmental defender?

The term environmental defenders can include anyone involved in the protection of land, forests, water and other natural resources.

Environmental defenders can be community activists, indigenous peoples, lawyers, journalists, or non-governmental organization (NGO) staff. They are not defined by job title or political identity, but by their struggles to protect the environment or land rights. Many are part of collective struggles: they do not act alone.

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