Murders of environmental activists at record high in 2019

Last year saw a record number of environmental activists murdered while trying to protect the environment, according to a report published Wednesday by British NGO Global Witness.

Climate change activists protest against the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the fires in the Amazon rainforest, in front of the Brazilian consulate in Cali, Colombia, August 23, 2019.
Climate change activists protest against the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the fires in the Amazon rainforest, in front of the Brazilian consulate in Cali, Colombia, August 23, 2019. AFP - LUIS ROBAYO

At least 212 people who defended the environment were killed in 2019, the Global Witness report said – an average of four murders per week. The dead ranged from environment activists to members of indigenous tribes to farmers trying to defend their livelihood from exploitation. The previous record – at least 207 deaths in 2017 – was similarly shocking.

However, Global Witness wrote that its figures are “almost certainly an underestimate”, largely because of “reporting challenges” including “restrictions on a free press”.

Once again, around two-thirds of the people killed were in Latin America. The situation is especially worrying in Colombia – which has the highest number of environmental defenders murdered, with at least 64, more than double the figure in 2018. Fourteen of these murders were linked to the illegal substitution of coca crops, Global Witness pointed out.

“Colombia is still scarred by armed conflicts,” observed Marie-Émilie Forget, a lecturer in geography at the University of Savoie in southeastern France. “Paramilitary groups are still trying to steal resources in the countryside, despite the peace deal that famously ended the conflict with FARC.”

The Philippines comes in second, with at least 43 murders of environmental defenders in 2019. Most of them were perpetrated in the islands of Mindanao and Negros, both of which are rich in natural resources.

The situation is also deteriorating in Honduras. There were at least 14 murders related to the environment in the country in 2019 – compared to four the previous year. That makes Honduras the nation with the highest international rate of environmental murders per capita.

‘Criminalised for trying to protect the environment’

Brazil – where President Jair Bolsonaro’s insouciance towards the Amazon has repeatedly caused outpourings of despair throughout the world – is another cause for concern. Global Witness recorded 24 murders on Brazilian territory, around 90 percent of which were in the Amazon. Most of these victims were fighting against deforestation – notably as a consequence of major agricultural and mining projects. “These people are criminalised for trying to protect the environment,” Forget said. “By opposing, for example, a mining project, they’re going against the will of the state and are thus considered to be acting almost like terrorists.”

A climate of tension and violence is engendered by the development of mines and its repercussions on the health of families living nearby. Overall, opposition to mining projects was the most important reason cited for the murder of environmental activists in 2019. Following that was the agricultural industry, with at least 34 people killed in disputes connected to this domain – with killings related to the installation of palm oil, sugar and tropical fruit farms a particular problem, especially in Asia.

Across the globe, 40 percent of those murdered were members of indigenous communities trying to defend their cultures – even though they comprise just five percent of the population. “Indigenous people are claiming ancestral lands, but they don’t always have property rights,” Forget said. “Then there’s a power struggle between the state and these communities who have very little means to make their voices heard within their country,” she continued. “It’s thanks to the support of NGOs that their struggles are better known abroad.”

‘People trying to defend their land’

As well as indigenous peoples, many farmers have also been killed trying to defend their livelihoods. “You can imagine environmental activism coalescing around this idea of defenders of the environment, but it should also be said that in many cases these are just people trying to defend their land so they can live and eat,” Forget said.

The Global Witness report also exposes an alarming culture of impunity for those responsible for environmental killings – pointing out that 89 percent of murders do not lead to a conviction. Political pressure on the police is a factor hindering investigative work. In Brazil, for example, the police are “poorly paid, easily corruptible and often threatened or intimdated”, geographer Hervé Théry told FRANCE 24 last year.

As the public clamour to halt the degradation of the environment grows, “governments around the world have been taking a wave of measures to close down the space for peaceful protest”, the Global Witness report said. “They are deploying tactics ranging from smear campaigns to spurious criminal charges to silence those that are standing up for the climate and humanity’s survival.”

Many people in the developed world are hopeful that a greener world will emerge after the coronavirus crisis – a pandemic that has highlighted the deadly risks involved in humans encroaching onto wildlife, while necessitating lockdowns that displayed the benefits of cities free from pollution. However, Global Witness argued that “the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have intensified the problems land and environmental defenders face”.

This is because “governments around the world – from the US to Brazil and Colombia to the Philippines – have used the crisis to strengthen draconian measures to control citizens and roll back hard-fought environmental regulations”.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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