The slaughter of people defending their land or environment continued unabated in 2017, with new research showing almost four people a week were killed worldwide in struggles against mines, plantations, poachers and infrastructure projects.
The toll of 197 in 2017 – which has risen fourfold since it was first compiled in 2002 – underscores the violence on the frontiers of a global economy driven by expansion and consumption.
“The situation remains critical. Until communities are genuinely included in decisions around the use of their land and natural resources, those who speak out will continue to face harassment, imprisonment and the threat of murder,” said Ben Leather, senior campaigner for Global Witness.
But there was a glimmer of hope that after four consecutive increases, the number of deaths has flattened off, amid growing global awareness of the crisis and a renewed push for multinational companies to take more responsibility and for governments to tackle impunity.
Most of the killings occurred in remote forest areas of developing countries, particularly in Latin America where the abundance of resources is often in inverse proportion to the authority of the law or environmental regulation.
Extractive industries were one of the deadliest drivers of violence, according to the figures, which were shared exclusively with the Guardian in an ongoing collaboration with Global Witness to name every victim.
Mining conflicts accounted for 36 killings, several of them linked to booming global demand for construction materials.
In India, three members of the Yadav family: Niranjan, Uday and Vimlesh, were murdered last May as they tried to prevent the extraction of sand from a riverbank by their village of Jatpura.
In Turkey, a retired couple, Ali and Aysin Büyüknohutçu, were gunned down in their home after they won a legal battle to close a marble quarry that supplied blocks for upscale hotels and municipal monuments.
The hunger for minerals was also blamed for turning the Andes into a “war zone” with high-profile conflicts between indigenous groups and the owners of Las Bambas copper mine in Peru and El Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia.
Agribusiness was the biggest driver of violence as supermarket demand for soy, palm oil, sugarcane and beef provided a financial incentive for plantations and ranches to push deeper into indigenous territory and other communal land.
With many of the tensions focussed in the Amazon, Brazil – with 46 killings – was once again the deadliest country for defenders. Relative to size, however, smaller Amazonian neighbours were more dangerous.
Colombia suffered 32 deaths, largely due to an uptick of land conflicts and assassinations in the wake of the 2015 peace deal, which left a power vacuum in regions previously operated by FARC guerrillas. Among the most prominent victims was Efigenia Vásquez, a radio and video journalist from the Kokonuko community who was shot during a protest “to liberate Mother Earth”.
Peru witnessed one the worst massacres of the year in September when six farmers were killed by a criminal gang who wanted to acquire their land cheaply and sell it at a hefty profit to palm oil businesses.
Gangs and governments were largely responsible for the bloodshed in the second and fourth countries on the list: Mexico with 15 killings (a more than fivefold rise over the previous year), and the Philippines, which – with 41 deaths – was once again the most murderous country for defenders in Asia.
A broader crackdown by the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, was a key factor. When his soldiers massacred eight Lumad in Lake Sebu on 3 December, the government claimed they died in a firefight with rebels, but fellow activists insisted they were killed for opposing a coal mine and coffee plantation on their ancestral land.
In Africa, the greatest threat came from poachers and the illegal wildlife trade, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo where four rangers and a porter were ambushed and killed in July. But the highest profile victim last year of the poaching conflict was Wayne Lotter, an influential conservationist who was murdered in Tanzania after receiving death threats.
Global Witness believe many more murders go unreported. Defenders are also being beaten, criminalised, threatened or harassed. In a recent example, Ecuadorean forest activist Patricia Gualinga reported last month that attackers had thrown rocks through her windows and yelled death threats at her.
This is common. The EU-funded Environmental Justice Atlas has identified more than 2,335 cases of tension over water, territory, pollution or extractive industries, and researchers say the number and intensity are growing.
Justice is rare. The assassins are often hired by businessmen or politicians and usually go unpunished. Defenders, who tend to be from poor or indigenous communities, are criminalised and targeted by police or corporate security guards. When they are killed, their families have little recourse to justice or media exposure.
But there are patches of progress. Some countries saw falls, notably Honduras and Nicaragua, though activists remain in a vulnerable situation.
Civil society groups and international institutions are also increasingly mobilising behind environmental rights. Last month, 116 organisations in the Philippines launched a petition declaring: “It is not a crime to defend the environment.”
Campaigners for indigenous communities have taken their struggle to global climate talks and the United Nations.
Some international institutions are willing to listen. Following criticism for having backed the Honduran hydro project linked to the murder of activist Berta Cáceres, the Dutch Development Bank (FMO) has broken ground by declaring the safety of human rights defenders to be a key factor in future investment decisions. “The time has come for more investors to step up and take measures which guarantee that their money isn’t fuelling attacks against activists,” said Leather.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, urged governments to address the culture of impunity and said the media had an important role in boosting transparency.
“Environmentalists have been at risk for many years, but the full extent of the global crisis has only become clear as a result of the work of Global Witness and the Guardian to identify every environmental defender killed because of their work,” Knox said.
“As a result, it’s possible to see more clearly the underlying causes and risk factors, including the failures of governments to protect these defenders from threats and violence. I think that there are some signs that governments are starting to respond to the increasing international attention to these cases, but much more needs to be done.”
Environmental defenders: who are they and how do we decide if they have died in defence of their environment?
Who are land and environmental defenders?
Land and environmental defenders are people who take peaceful action, either voluntarily or professionally, to protect the environment or land rights. They are often ordinary people who may well not define themselves as “defenders”.
Some are indigenous or peasant leaders living in remote mountains or isolated forests, protecting their ancestral lands and traditional livelihoods from business projects such as mining, dams or luxury hotels. Others are park rangers tackling poaching or illegal logging. They could even be lawyers, journalists or NGO staff working to expose environmental abuse and land grabbing.
How does Global Witness document killings of defenders?
Global Witness uses online searches and its extensive network of local contacts to source evidence every time a land or environmental defender is reported as murdered, or as having been abducted by state forces.
A number of criteria must be fulfilled for a case to be verified and entered into the Global Witness database. A credible online source of information is required with the victim’s name, details of how they were killed or abducted (including the date and location), and evidence that s/he was a land or environmental activist. In some cases, specialised local organisations are able to investigate and verify the case in-country, meaning that an online source is not necessary.
Global Witness includes the friends, colleagues and family of defenders if either they appear to have been killed as a reprisal for the defender’s work, or because they were killed in an attack which also left the defender dead.
While Global Witness endeavours to keep its database updated in real-time, verification of cases can be time-consuming, meaning that the names of some individuals are added weeks, or even months, after their death.
Why does Global Witness say that its data is incomplete?
There are a number of reasons why the information in Global Witness’s database is likely to be incomplete. Many killings go unreported, and very few are investigated by the authorities, which is part of the problem itself. Suppression of the media and restrictions on human rights in some countries reduces the number of organisations and outlets documenting killings. In high-conflict countries it can be difficult to verify that a killing was linked to somebody’s activism.
Some countries are likely to be under-represented because principal searches are currently limited to English, Spanish, Portuguese and French. Global Witness’s network of local sources is also stronger in some regions than others.
• For full details of Global Witness’s methodology, visit globalwitness.org/defenders/methodology
• Global Witness would not be able to keep its database updated without the close collaboration of local NGOs working tirelessly to document attacks on land and environmental defenders. The following organisations represent particularly reliable sources of information: Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), Brazil; Programa Somos Defensores, Colombia; Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos (UDEFEGUA), Guatemala; Kalikasan, Philippines; Karapatan, Philippines; Comité Cerezo, Mexico; The Thin Green Line Foundation; International Ranger Federation.
MANILA, Philippines — Environmental and other nongovernmental organizations from 25 countries are demanding the Duterte government act immediately to stop killings and other abuses of environmental defenders in the country.
“It is not a crime to defend the environment,” declared the statement, signed by 116 organizations, released Thursday, December 7.
The statement pointed out that “in just more than a year under the current administration of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, at least 42 environmental defenders have been killed, 240 have been slapped with harassment lawsuits, and at least 18,263 have been forcibly displaced because of their resistance to destructive projects.”
The groups noted that this record bolstered the 2017 Global Witness Report on Killings of Environmental and Land Defenders’ ranking the Philippines Asia’s deadliest and third deadliest in the world for environmental defenders.
The statement’s release followed the alleged massacre by government troops of eight lumad in Lake Sebu in South Cotabato on December 3.
The human rights group Karapatan named the fatalities as Datu Victor Danyan, his sons Victor Jr. and Artemio, Pato Celardo, Samuel Angkoy, To Diamante, Bobot Lagase, and Mateng Bantal. Two others — Luben and Teteng Laod — were wounded.
The military claims the fatalities were killed fighting with the New People’s Army in a clash that also left two soldiers dead.
However, environmentalists who knew the slain datu said he was not a rebel but led his tribe campaign against a commercial coffee plantation and plans to mine for coal within their ancestral land.
Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, one of the statement’s initiators, said: “President Duterte is by far the worst human rights violator to Filipino environmental defenders. Duterte is well on his way to making the Philippines the most dangerous country for environmental defenders by 2018.”
The statement also cited the November 26 evacuation of 1,688 lumad from the hinterland of Lianga, Surigao del Sur who are now the target of a food blockade allegedly imposed by government troops and “various other incidents of extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests, enforced disappearances, and forced evacuations … just over the past week in the provinces of Mindoro Oriental, Batangas, Agusan del Sur, Compostela Valley, and Surigao del Sur,” all in communities affected by mining and huge plantations.
It also noted “the recent systematic efforts of justifying killings and militarization by accusing environmental defenders as armed communist rebels or sympathizers.”
The statement said many of the atrocities stemmed from opposition to mining — 55 percent of killings and 100 percent of “harassment lawsuits.”
It said there are 225 “trumped up” charges against environmental defenders, with 16 “illegally detained.”
Some of the latest to have died
All who died in 2017
Most dangerous places for defenders
Since the start of 2015, 145 land and environmental defenders have died in Brazil: the highest number on Earth. Many of the killings were of people trying to combat illegal logging in the Amazon. The Philippines comes second on the list, with 102 deaths in all. Honduras remains the most dangerous country to be a defender, with more killings per capita than anywhere else.
The pattern over recent years
The death toll has risen in recent years, and researchers warn the upward trend is likely to continue if governments and businesses fail to act. The most violent full year recorded so far was 2016, when 201 defenders were killed.
What’s driving this violence?
The short answer is: industry. The most deadly industries to go up against were agribusiness and mining. Poaching, hydroelectric dams and logging were also key drivers of violence, Global Witness found. Many of the killings recorded occurred in remote villages deep within mountain ranges and rainforests, with indigenous communities hardest hit.
READ THE STATEMENT: