In 2020, 227 environmental activists were killed – more than four per week. This is a record high for the second consecutive year, according to a report by Global Witness. Environmental activists are defined as those who defend land and water against economic agendas and resource-consuming industries. Global Witness has come to the conclusion that as climate crises intensify globally, violence against environmental defenders also worsens. “It has become clear that the unaccountable exploitation and greed driving the climate crisis is also driving violence against land and environmental defenders,” the report states. Additionally, one-third of the murders were reported to be associated with resource exploitation, including businesses such as logging, mining, agribusiness, or dams.
Still, the report is likely an underestimate due to increasingly strict restrictions on journalism and freedom of the press. Colombia, Mexico, and the Philippines were the three countries with the highest number of murders: 65 in Colombia, 30 in Mexico, and 29 in the Philippines. Together, they account for more than half the total global killings as reported. Logging was the industry linked to the most murders, with cases in Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru, and the Philippines. Of those identified, hitmen killed 89 activists, militia groups killed 30, armed forces 18, and police 12. Lastly, Indigenous people, who are often at the frontline of environmental activism, represented one-third of those murdered.
Bill McKibben, an acclaimed American environmentalist, states that “[Defenders are] at risk because they find themselves living on or near something that some corporation is demanding. That demand – the demand for the highest possible profit, the quickest possible timeline, the cheapest possible operation – seems to translate eventually into the understanding, somewhere, that the troublemaker must go.” Many companies profit from environmental exploitation and human rights violations within extractive and profit-driven economic models. Hence, corporate power has not only worsened climate change but allowed for the killing of defenders.
Malungelo Xhakaza, daughter of the murdered South African activist Fikile Ntshangase said, “People sometimes ask me what I’m going to do, whether I’m going to stay here and keep my mother’s fight alive. I’m too proud of her to let it die. I know the dangers – we all know the dangers. But I’ve decided to stay. I’m going to join the fight.” There were many protestors against the corporate takeover of their homelands, including Fikile herself, who was involved in the legal dispute with Tendele Coal. She was shot dead in her home. In order to prevent future violence against activists, preventive and reactive action must be taken to protect not only activists themselves, but also displaced communities and their habitats.
The killings of environmental activists highlight an overarching theme of corporate power and a hunger for profit that remains ignorant of human rights and environmental protection. The theme is common amongst growing economies that are quick to grasp any chance of profit, yet furthers the conclusion that human lives are often placed secondary to capital in the broader scheme of the economy.
In order to prevent violence in the future and to promote post-violence peace, it is important that higher authorities – including the Cop26 Climate Change conference in Glasgow – address violence against environmental activists as an integral part of their climate change action plans. The United Nations, through its member states, must also formally recognize the importance of sustainable and safe environments and ensure that the Paris Agreement integrates human rights protections. According to Global Witness, it must implement the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. The same report also suggests that states implement national policies to protect land and environmental defenders while getting rid of legislation that criminalizes them. For example, the European Commission is publishing due diligence legislation for Sustainable Corporate Governance. They must ensure these include all companies working in the European Union and include robust liability standards for accountability. Lastly, companies and investors should also create due diligence systems to prevent human rights violations in their supply chains and operations. Through these actions, non-combative cooperation can prevent the growing trend of violence against planet defenders.
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