Despite the increasing importance of environmental initiatives, advocating for them remains a dangerous occupation globally. In fact, a record 207 environmental activists were killed last year in the course of their activities according to Global Witness, a human rights NGO. These deaths came as activists attempted to prevent development on agricultural land, mostly intended to be used for coffee and palm oil cultivation, by large multinational business interests. Global Witness has connected 53 of these deaths directly with government forces but postulates that many of the others could be the result of non-state or criminal actors on the government’s behalf. The report also details that crimes against the communities in these areas can include non-lethal threats, lawsuits and even sexual assault. The location of these killings have been noted to be largely in South America (60% of all deaths), with Brazil and Colombia being two of the top three most dangerous countries for environmental activists. However, it is not a geographically isolated issue as the Philippines has the second highest number of killings with 48.
Senior campaigner for Global Witness, Ben Leather has said to news agency AFP that “Governments have a legal and ethical duty to protect human rights defenders but they’re usually attacking them verbally and, as our statistics show, through their armed forces who are conducting some of the killings.” Leather attributes the killings also to the prominence of business interests; “At the same time, they [governments] have set about making it easier for big business -– apparently unperturbed by the devastating human and environmental cost of their activities –- to accelerate their exploitation of fragile ecosystems.” Meanwhile activists like Mario do Socorro Costa da Silva in Brazil feel the burden of this constant threat, telling AFP “Of course, my life is at risk… I receive death threats 24 hours a day because I’m not going to shut my mouth in the face of this atrocity.”
This deplorable situation is born largely out of a lack of awareness of the issue. Global Witness should be commended for bringing attention to it. In fact, the watchdog attributes much of the problem to the impunity with which the perpetrators may act. In the report, it states that 92% of those who carried out the violence never faced legal action for their crimes. It follows that corruption is a large factor in this injustice, as business interests and political interests become intermeshed and prosecution for the crimes becomes politically undesirable.
Left to suffer the most are generally the indigenous people of the area whose lands are seized with no consent despite their reliance upon it. John Knox, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, has told Al Jazeera that “You see indigenous peoples who are still directly dependent on natural resources in forests or sometimes fisheries who are already discriminated against or marginalized.” It follows that 25% of those activists killed were indigenous to the land.
Ultimately, the violence against activists can be understood as a failing of institutions across a number of countries. As Knox outlines to Al Jazeera, international conventions exist to protect activists, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Knox argues “…the law is quite clear that, for example, governments have obligations to protect the rights of freedom of expression and association, including in the environmental context.” A failing of these obligations worldwide is what Global Witness’s report has most clearly demonstrated. The power of business interests can prove damaging in countries with a strong rule of law; in countries without, they can prove deadly.