A recent report published by the human rights and environmental advocacy organization Global Witness has shown that a record number of 212 environmental activists and land defenders were killed in 2019. Colombia, the Philippines, and Brazil were ranked as the countries with the highest number of deaths. 50 activists were killed opposing mining, making it the sector with the highest activist fatalities. Agribusiness saw 34 land defenders killed, and logging saw the highest increase in deaths, reaching 24. Global Witness states that these statistics cover only reported deaths, and the number is likely to be higher, especially in Africa where case verification has proved difficult. Alongside the killing of activists, many also face violent attacks, threats, arrests, and lawsuits.
In 2018, 25 environmental activists were reported to have been killed in Colombia. This figure rose to 64 in 2019. The number of murders of community leaders have risen in general across Colombia in recent years. The United Nations Human Rights Office has highlighted that there has been an increase in violence between the Colombian government and criminal gangs, especially in rural areas, following a 2016 peace agreement. This effort aimed to encourage a shift from illegal crop growth (e.g. coca crops, which form the ingredients for products such as cocaine) to legal ones (such as cacao and coffee).
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines — a country which saw the deaths of 43 environmental activists in 2019 — has introduced policies that categorize environmental activism as terrorism. The president has recently acted on plans to turn indigenous ancestral lands into industrial plantations and, in April 2019, military action in one of these areas led to the death of an indigenous chieftain. Datu Kaylo Bontolan led opposition of logging and mining in his homeland, and he sadly became a casualty when he returned to his community to document violence being experienced by his people.
90% of the 24 killings in Brazil occurred in the Amazon, which demonstrates how indigenous communities are much more vulnerable to violence because of their activism. The Guardian reported that indigenous leaders have accused President Jair Bolsonaro of engineering protocols for the COVID-19 pandemic to “eliminate indigenous people.” An example they cite is that activists who are stranded in their own homes are often easy targets for said “opportunistic killings.”
40% of all environmental activists killed in 2019 were of indigenous descent, and the Global Witness report shows how indigenous peoples are over-represented in activist death statistics. It also discusses the gendered aspects of these killings — such as how women involved in activism frequently face a double burden of activist work alongside caring for children and elderly relatives at home. Women are also much more likely to face gender-specific violence in opposition to their activism, in the form of sexual violence and threats.
Global Witness has adamantly indicated how these statistics mirror already existing inequalities that climate change and environmental challenges exacerbate, from racial injustice to the spread of disease. The issue of class also appears to be a big factor here — many targeted activists are typically underpaid in their work (such as crop farmers in Colombia), and are part of communities which face increased economic inequality (indigenous folk, for example).
Global Witness concluded their report by calling for an amplification of the demands of environmental activists and land defenders. They also want to see fellow global activists push those in power to “tackle the root causes of the problem, support and safeguard defenders, and create regulations that ensure projects and operations are carried out with proper due diligence, transparency and free, prior and informed consent.”
There should also be a common understanding that the current political and economic system promotes a level of consumption which means that the biggest natural resource industries of mining, agribusiness, and logging cannot be trusted to carry out their work safely. It is simply not possible for them to supply the current level of consumption in a way that is safe for workers or sustainable for the environment.
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