Deadliest year on record for land and environmental defenders

Global Witness today reveals that at least 207 land and environmental defenders were killed last year – indigenous leaders, community activists and environmentalists murdered trying to protect their homes and communities from mining, agribusiness and other destructive industries.

Severe limits on the data available mean the global total is probably much higher. Murder is the most egregious example of a range of tactics used to silence defenders, including death threats, arrests, intimidation, cyber-attacks, sexual assault and lawsuits.

The report “At What Cost?” shows that agribusiness has overtaken mining as the industry most associated with these attacks.

These include the murder of Hernán Bedoya in Colombia, shot 14 times by a paramilitary group for protesting against palm oil and banana plantations on land stolen from his community; an army massacre of eight villagers in the Philippines who opposed a coffee plantation on their land; and violent attacks by Brazilian farmers, using machetes and rifles, which left 22 members of the Gamela indigenous people severely injured, some with their hands chopped off.

The report links this violence with the products on our shelves: large-scale agriculture, mining, poaching, logging all produce components and ingredients for supermarket products such as palm oil for shampoo, soy for beef and timber for furniture.

The report also reveals that some governments and businesses are complicit in the killings, with Global Witness calling for urgent action if the trend is to be reversed. As well as being part of the problem, governments and business can be part of the solution. They must tackle the root causes of the attacks, for example ensuring communities are allowed to say ‘no’ to projects, like mining, on their land; support and protect defenders at risk and ensure justice is served for those suffering from the violence.

Ben Leather, Senior Campaigner, Global Witness said: “Local activists are being murdered as governments and businesses value quick profit over human life. Many of the products emerging from this bloodshed are on the shelves of our supermarkets. Yet as brave communities stand up to corrupt officials, destructive industries and environmental devastation, they are being brutally silenced. Enough is enough.

“Governments, companies and investors have the duty and the power to support and protect defenders at risk, and to guarantee accountability wherever attacks occur. But more importantly, they can prevent these threats from emerging in the first place, by listening to local communities, respecting their rights, and ensuring that business is conducted responsibly.

“Despite the odds they face, the global community of land and environmental defenders is not going away – it’s only getting stronger. We invite consumers to join us in campaigning alongside defenders, taking their fight to the corridors of power and the boardrooms of corporations. We will make sure their voices are heard. And we will be watching to ensure that defenders, their land, and the environment we all depend on are properly protected.”

Other key findings include:

  • Brazil recorded the worst year on record anywhere in the world, with 57 murders in 2017.
  • 48 defenders were killed in the Philippines in 2017—the highest number ever documented in an Asian country.
  • 60% recorded murders were in Latin America. Mexico and Peru saw marked increases in killings, from 3 to 15 and 2 to 8, respectively. Nicaragua was the worst place per capita with 4 murders.
  • For the first time, agribusiness was the bloodiest industry, with at least 46 murders linked to the sector. Killings linked to mining increased from 33 to 40, and 23 murders were related to logging.
  • Taking on poachers became even more dangerous, with a record 23 people murdered for taking a stand against the illegal wildlife trade – mostly park rangers in Africa.
  • Global Witness linked government security forces to 53 of last year’s murders, and non-state actors, like criminal gangs, to 90.
  • There was a large decrease in killings of land and environmental defenders in Honduras, though repression of civil society in general worsened.
  • Recent years has seen some increased recognition and action taken by governments and business, but much more must be done, and urgently, to tackle this issue.

Margaret Atwood, writer and environmental commentator said: “Communities who have cared for and lived from the same land for generations are being targeted by corporations and governments that want only to turn a profit rather than to support people’s futures.

“The appalling stories of women threatened with rape, homes burnt down, and families attacked with machetes are shocking at an individual level. Collectively, they show an epidemic of violence visited upon defenders of the earth. This violation of human rights calls for vigorous protest. This year, those people; next year, all who raise a hand to stop the pillaging of Nature for short-term gain.

“Global Witness’ report shows that up to four environmental defenders are killed a week protecting their land, their home, their livelihoods, and their communities. We need to salute their astounding bravery and pledge to add our voices to support their continued struggle against those who want to rip their land up for oil or gas, tear down its trees for timber, flatten it for intensive non-organic and polluting farming or poison it with industrial waste.”

George Monbiot, writer and environmental campaigner said:“Environmental Defenders are on the frontline of a generational battle against climate change. We can never be serious about building a greener, cleaner and more sustainable planet if we fail to speak out when governments and big business work hand in glove to forcibly seize, rip up, drill and intensively farm land that is not only vital for carbon capture, but also supports rare species of plant and wildlife.

“Global Witness and its partners have been steadfast in documenting the violence and killings directed at land and environmental defenders. All of us who care about human rights and climate change must now join them, not only adding our voices to the outrage, but demanding real action from governments and business  to protect those defending land and bringing to justice the criminals who carry out these brutal attacks.”

Paloma Faith, musician and activist said: “The brutality and violence faced by Environmental Defenders around the world each day is truly shocking. And yet there appears to be no consequences for so many of those carrying out these appalling acts, even when someone is killed trying to protect their land or way of life.

“Despite international outcry, we still have not seen anyone face justice for the brutal killing of the activist Berta Caceres, who was shot in 2016 during a campaign to stop the development of the Agua Zarca Dam at the Rio Gualcarque in Honduras. Like so many of those who have seen their loved ones murdered in the pursuit of a cleaner, fairer, more sustainable world, her family is still fighting for those who carried out this attack to be held to account. We should all add our voices to aid their struggle – and to put pressure on the Honduran Government to ensure Berta’s case and the human rights violations against many thousands more campaigners in the country are properly investigated.”

Case studies and countries

Philippines

For the Taboli-manubo people of Mindanao, the Silvicultural Industries coffee plantation had only brought ‘poverty’, ‘hardship’ and a ‘violation of [their] human rights’. When plans were put forward to extend a plantation already covering 300 hectares of their ancestral land, the community were consulted and said “no”.

However, according to Rene Pamplona, a defender working closely with the Taboli-manubo Sdaf Claimants Organization (TAMASCO), which is protesting against the expansion, their members were intimidated by Silvicultural Industries employees after opposing the renewal of the land’s lease to the company. A year after the company’s contract expired, rumours continued that the company had indeed been granted a new contract, and the plantation would nonetheless be expanded. In December 2017, the Filipino military launched an attack near the town of Lake Sebu. At least eight members of the community were killed as a result. A fact-finding mission found that five more were wounded, 10 were missing and more than 200 had to evacuate the area. The military’s actions benefited the company but whether they were orchestrated remains unsubstantiated.

Mexico

“I get government protection, but I don’t feel entirely protected. Their protective measures are not implemented properly. The panic button and the satellite phones do not work in remote areas. Even if they did, the nearest police station is miles away.” Isela González, head of Sierra Madre Alliance, an organisation that has defended indigenous rights in the Sierra Tarahumara for the last 20 years

Brazil

In April the year’s first massacre saw hired assassins torture and kill nine villagers in Mato Grosso state.

A timber exporter, who wanted to log on the villagers’ land, has been charged with ordering the murders to open the way for loggers to gain access to the land.  In a second massacre the following month, around 30 police officers opened fire on a group of landless farmers in Pará state, killing 10 of them.  The farmers had peacefully occupied the Santa Lucia ranch the day before to demand that their land rights be recognised.  Rather than taking steps to prevent such appalling atrocities against defenders, President Michel Temer has weakened the laws and institutions designed to protect them.

Colombia

In Colombia, Hernán Bedoya was shot by a paramilitary group 14 times. He was killed after protesting against palm oil and banana plantations on land stolen from his his community.

Honduras

The Agua Zarca dam in Honduras is owned by Desarrollo Energético SA (DESA), sits on the Gualcarque River, considered sacred by the indigenous Lenca people of western Honduras. Berta Cáceres, an indigenous leader, fiercely opposed the dam and received death threats for years. Then, in March 2016, Berta was brutally murdered. The dam’s owners used legal action to intimidate those demanding a proper investigation into her killing. For example, in February 2017, Suyapa Martínez, a women’s rights defender, was summoned to court, accused of divulging inaccurate and detrimental information about DESA. The case was later dropped by the court.

It took an independent group of international lawyers, GAIPE, to eventually shed light on who was responsible for Berta’s killing. GAIPE’s investigation concluded there was irrefutable proof that high-ranking DESA executives and employees, along with state agents, were involved in the planning, execution and cover-up of Berta’s murder. DESA have rejected GAIPE’s findings and insist that the violence is not linked to the dam project which they claim accords with Honduran law in all regards.

Democratic Republic of Congo

One of the largest and most profitable forms of organised crime worldwide is wildlife crime – it helps finance militia and terrorist groups and is carried out by the same people, using the same illegal networks that traffic drugs, guns and people. Out of the 19 killings we’ve documented in Africa many are of individuals who were defending protected areas. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 12 park rangers were killed while protecting wildlife. All but two killings were attributed to Mai Mai (local armed groups), who are known to be involved in illegal poaching and mining activities.  Virunga National Park, where five park rangers were killed, has traditionally been considered the most dangerous place for park rangers in the world. According to the head of the park, Emmanuel de Merode, there are around 1,500 to 2,000 armed fighters from different rebel groups operating in the area and they represent a risk for the wildlife and those who defend it.

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