Murders of environment and land defenders hit a record high last year as the violent resource grab in the global south continued unabated despite the pandemic.
New figures released by Global Witness show that 227 people were killed in 2020 while trying to protect forests, rivers and other ecosystems that their livelihoods depended on.
All but one of the deadly attacks took place outside North America, Europe and Oceania. The authors say environment-related conflict is, like the climate crisis, disproportionately affecting lower-income nations. Indigenous communities suffered more than a third of the killings, despite accounting for only 5% of the world population.
“On average, our data shows that four defenders have been killed every week since the signing of the Paris climate agreement [in 2016],” the report says. “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 annual tally of the dead has risen for the past two years and is now twice the level of 2013. This is still thought to be an underestimate because the calculation depends on transparency, press freedom and civil rights, which vary considerably from country to country.
“The attacks are on the rise,” said one of the authors, Chris Madden. “We are seeing that in multiple datasets around the world.”
As in previous years, South and Central America – home to the world’s richest biodiversity and intact forest – was the deadliest region for those trying to resist mining, logging and agribusiness.
Colombia topped the list with 65 deaths, continuing a murderous trend since the 2016 peace accord that eased conflict between the government and Farc rebels, but opened up swathes of the country to extractive industries and greater tension over resources. The victims include biologist Gonzalo Cardona, credited with saving the yellow-eared parrot from extinction, who was murdered by a criminal gang, and forest ranger Yamid Alonso Silva, who was killed near El Cocuy national park. Such is the level of violence and intimidation that a 12-year-old boy Francisco Vera has received anonymous death threats on Twitter due to his activism.
The second deadliest nation was Mexico, where 30 defenders lost their lives. Among them was Óscar Eyraud Adams, an indigenous man from the Kumiai territory in Mexico, who protested when his crops dried up after the community water source was diverted to richer areas and a Heineken factory. He was gunned down on 24 September in Tecate, Baja California by assassins who arrived at this home in two vehicles with tinted windscreens.
Third was the Philippines with 29 deaths, making it once again the most murderous country for defenders in Asia. It also suffered the most massacres. The most shocking occurred on 30 December when the military and police slaughtered 9 Tumandok indigenous people who had been resisting a mega-dam project on the Jalaur river in Panay.
Brazil was next in the global ranking with 20 killings. Brazil’s death toll has fallen slightly in recent years, though the conflict has moved to a higher realm under president Jair Bolsonaro. Instead of small-scale, illegal attacks on a local level, the assault on defenders now takes the form of bills and laws in Congress that undermine environmental and territorial protections. “In recent years in Brazil, we have seen policies for aggressive expansion,”co-author Rachel Cox said. “They are using legal mechanisms. It’s a different kind of attack – criminalisation and the undermining of political rights of defenders.”
Nicaragua with 12 killings was the deadliest country on a per-capita basis and one of the fastest-deteriorating hotspots, with killings more than doubling from the previous year. The report also listed a rare case in Saudi Arabia. Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti of the Huwaiti tribe was killed resisting eviction for the planned new city state of Neom.
The Covid lockdown provided little respite for defenders, while opening up new territory to land-grabbers and poachers. “2020 was supposed to be the year the world stood still, but this didn’t translate to less attacks,” Madden said. “In some countries protest was shut down while industries were allowed to continue. We saw that with mining in the Philippines and further encroachment in the Amazon.”
Global Witness cited a Freedom House report that found 158 countries had placed new restrictions on demonstrations due to the pandemic. In some cases, lockdown may even have made matters worse by making it easier for assassins to know where to find their targets and by making campaigners more vulnerable to digital attacks.
The pandemic also made it more difficult for Global Witness and its partners to investigate the circumstances of each killing. They found that at least 30% of recorded attacks were linked to resource exploitation, chiefly logging, mining, and hydroelectric dams. But in more than 100 cases, the cause was unclear.
The veteran environmental activist Bill McKibben placed the blame on resource exploitation by companies from wealthy nations. In a foreword to the report, he wrote: “Corporations need to be more accountable and they need to take action. Especially since the people who inhabit these places never really share in the riches they produce: colonialism is still running strong, even if it’s dressed up with corporate logos or hidden with offshore bank accounts. Meanwhile, the rest of us need to realise that the people killed each year defending their local places are also defending our shared planet–in particular our climate.”
Global Witness also reported several notable victories for defenders in 2020. The Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association and conservation groups halted a plan by two Chinese companies to build a coalmine in the Hwange national park. US and Canadian activists have slowed tar sands extraction and pressured banks to stop financing exploration in the Arctic. In South Africa, a high court cancelled approval for a coal-fired power plant in Limpopo province. In Brazil, the Asháninka indigenous community won compensation for illegal deforestation of their territory by a logging company.
The watchdog group has outlined proposals for governments and companies to reduce the risks of violence in resource extraction. In future, they put hope on a new bill being drafted by the EU commission that would require companies to conduct mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence on their supply chains. The United Nations is also working on a binding treaty on business and human rights, but there is still a long way to go before such measures reduce the impunity that allows the killings to take place.