Environmental Defenders Being Killed In Record Numbers Globally


Last year was the deadliest on record for people defending their community’s land, natural resources or wildlife, according to a report released by the non-governmental organization, Global Witness. At least 200 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2016, the report states, an increase of almost ten percent from 2015, which had previously been the deadliest year on record. Not only was there an increase in the number of environmentalists killed, but the violence appears to be spreading; murders were recorded in 24 countries in 2016, compared to 16 in 2015.

Since 2010, Global Witness has recorded almost a thousand murders of land and environmental defenders, with many more facing threats, stigmatisation, attacks, harassment, surveillance, and arrest. Yet, the organisation warns that the report’s findings are only “the tip of the iceberg” of the dangers facing environmentalists in today’s world. In fact, the actual number of casualties is likely to be higher than reported, the group notes, given that many killings go unreported, particularly in rural areas.

In the report, Global Witness defines “land and environmental defenders” as people “who take peaceful action, either voluntarily or professionally, to protect environmental or land rights.” Often, they are ordinary people who may not define themselves as “defenders”. Some are indigenous or peasant leaders trying to defend their land from invasive development projects, while others are park rangers dealing with poaching and illegal logging. The organization also includes lawyers, journalists and NGO staff working to expose environmental abuse in this category.

These land and environmental defenders are in danger, the report’s authors warn because their efforts to protect the natural environment “often clash with political, business and criminal interests, who collude to steal their natural resources.” According to the report’s findings, most of 2016’s attacks were driven by struggles between governments, companies and local communities over the use of land and natural resources. In some cases, Global Witness was able to identify the specific sectors that defenders had opposed prior to their deaths. Of those, the mining and oil sector was the most dangerous, with 33 land and environment defenders believed to have been murdered for their opposition to the sector’s activities. Following this was logging, with 23 defenders killed, agriculture (another 23 killed), poaching (18 killed), and water and dams (seven killed).

Such attacks against environmental activists are rarely prosecuted, which makes it difficult to pinpoint who perpetrated the violence. However, Global Witness was able to identify potential paramilitary involvement in 35 cases, predominantly in the Philippines and Colombia. Police were believed to be involved in 33 murders worldwide, while landowners were suspected to be behind 26 attacks. Private security guards were suspected of involvement in 14 murders, while poachers were believed to be the perpetrators behind 13 attacks. In addition, Global Witness found evidence of other actors being involved in the murder of land defenders, including members of the military, settlers, loggers, business representatives, and hired gunmen.

However, despite the ongoing violence against land and environmental defenders, few perpetrators are ever brought to justice. In fact, it is the activists rather than the perpetrators of violence who often face marginalisation in their countries, with their protests frequently characterised by the government and other actors as disruptive, unpatriotic, or “anti-development”. As the report notes, land and environmental defenders are often “painted as criminals, facing trumped-up criminal charges and aggressive civil cases brought by governments and companies seeking to silence them.” This criminalisation is used to intimidate activists, tarnish their reputations, lock them into costly legal battles, and dissuade them from pursuing further resistance. In fact, despite facing ongoing intimidation, harassment, and death threats, many defenders receive little to no protection from authorities. “It is increasingly clear that, globally, governments and companies are failing in their duty to protect activists at risk,” the Global Witness report concludes. “They are permitting a level of impunity that allows the vast majority of perpetrators to walk free, emboldening would-be assassins.”

Worryingly, the violence against environmental activists shows no sign of slowing down. At least 145 environmental defenders have been killed so far in 2017, according to The Guardian, which has partnered with Global Witness to document the deaths of land and environmental defenders over the course of the year. At this rate, the newspaper claims, four environmental defenders somewhere around the world are likely to be killed each week. Sadly, the upward trend in the number of environmental activists killed each year is likely to continue if governments, companies and investors around the world fail to act.

Fortunately, the Global Witness report proposes some solutions that, if adopted, would likely reduce violence against land and environmental defenders. Firstly, the organisation urges governments to address the root causes of the violence, such as the imposition of development projects on communities without their free, prior and informed consent. At present, land is often leased to developers without the approval of the communities who live there. In such situations, locals are forced to become defenders or lose their homes and livelihoods, while companies, who have invested significant resources in the projects, are incentivised to silence dissent – with violence if necessary.

Yet, under international law, the right to give free, prior and informed consent about how land and natural resources are used and developed is understood to be an important element of the right to self-determination. It is particularly important in relation to the rights of indigenous populations, but it may also extend to all communities whose land, resources, or rights may be affected by a business project. To avoid further violence, governments and businesses must do a better job of consulting with local communities about potential development projects and allowing them to participate in the planning process – including giving them the right to veto unsuitable projects. Investors can also help reduce the violence around land development projects by paying special attention to countries and sectors where defenders face the greatest risks, the report suggests. If a proposed investment cannot ensure that the rights of defenders will be protected, then it should not go forward.

The government, too, has an important role to play in reducing violence against environmental activists. Laws should be reformed to ensure that activists can peacefully voice their opinions without facing arrest, and are guaranteed due process if charges are brought against them. “Criminalisation tends to be used as a tactic when governments and business collude to prioritise short-term profit over sustainable development,” the Global Witness team reports. In order to ensure both the long-term sustainability of communities and to prevent violence against environmental activists, governments must make sure they uphold the rights of all citizens. Policies must be put in place to guarantee the safety of environmental defenders from violence and arbitrary arrest, and to hold accountable those who perpetrate violence against activists. If governments and businesses fail to take such steps, the violence against environmental and land defenders seen so far in 2017 is unlikely to subside.