Killings of conservationists and land activists reached an all-time high last year as the violent appropriation of resources in the south of the world continued unabated despite the pandemic.
New figures released by Global Witness show 227 people were killed in 2020 as they tried to protect the forests, rivers and other ecosystems on which their livelihoods depended.
All but one of the deadly attacks took place outside of North America, Europe and Oceania. The authors claim that environment-related conflicts, like the climate crisis, disproportionately affect low-income countries. Indigenous communities have suffered more than a third of killings, despite making up only 5% of the world’s population.
“On average, our data shows that four defenders have been killed every week since the signing of the Paris climate agreement. [in 2016]The report says. “As the climate crisis worsens, forest fires devastate swathes of the planet, drought destroys farmland and floods kill thousands, the plight of frontline communities and advocates of the Earth is getting worse. “
The annual death toll has increased over the past two years and is now double the 2013 level. It is still believed to be an underestimate as the calculation depends on transparency, freedom to the press and civil rights, which vary considerably from country to country. .
“Attacks are on the increase,” said one of the perpetrators, Chris Madden. “We see it in several datasets around the world. “
As in previous years, South and Central America – home to the world’s richest biodiversity and unspoiled forests – was the deadliest region for those who tried to resist mining, logging and agro-industry.
Colombia tops the list with 65 deaths, continuing a deadly trend since the 2016 peace agreement that eased conflict between the government and Farc rebels, but opened up swathes of the country to extractive industries and a greater strain on resources. Victims include biologist Gonzalo Cardona, credited with saving the yellow-eared parrot from extinction, which was murdered by a criminal gang, and ranger Yamid Alonso Silva, who was killed near El Cocuy National Park. The level of violence and intimidation is such that a 12-year-old boy, Francisco Vera, has received anonymous death threats on Twitter because of his activism.
The second deadliest nation was Mexico, where 30 defenders lost their lives. Among them was Óscar Eyraud Adams, a native of Kumiai territory in Mexico, who protested when his crops dried up after the community water source was diverted to richer areas and a Heineken plant. He was shot dead on Sept. 24 in Tecate, Baja California, by killers who arrived at the home in two tinted windshield vehicles.
Third, the Philippines with 29 dead, again making it the deadliest country for defenders in Asia. She also suffered the most massacres. Most shocking happened on December 30 when the army and police slaughtered 9 indigenous Tumandok people who were resisting a mega-dam project on the Jalaur River in Panay.
Brazil was next in the world rankings with 20 murders. Brazil’s death toll has declined slightly in recent years, although the conflict has escalated to a higher level under President Jair Bolsonaro. Instead of small-scale illegal attacks at the local level, aggression against defenders now takes the form of bills and laws in Congress that undermine environmental and territorial protections. “In recent years in Brazil we’ve seen aggressive expansion policies,” said co-author Rachel Cox. “They use legal mechanisms. It is another type of attack – criminalization and infringement of the political rights of defenders.
Nicaragua, with 12 murders, was the deadliest country per capita and one of the fastest-deteriorating hotspots, with the number of murders more than doubling from the previous year. The report also identified a rare case in Saudi Arabia. Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti of the Huwaiti tribe was killed while resisting the eviction from the new city-state of Neom.
The Covid lockdown has offered little respite for defenders, while opening up new territories to land grabbers and poachers. “2020 was supposed to be the year the world stopped, but that didn’t translate into fewer attacks,” Madden said. “In some countries, protests were closed while industries were allowed to continue. We have seen it with mining in the Philippines and a new encroachment on the Amazon. ”
Global Witness cited a Freedom House report which found that 158 countries had placed new restrictions on protests due to the pandemic. In some cases, the lockdown may have even made matters worse by making it easier for assassins to know where to find their targets and making militants more vulnerable to digital attacks.
The pandemic has also made it more difficult for Global Witness and its partners to investigate the circumstances of each murder. They found that at least 30% of recorded attacks were linked to the exploitation of resources, mainly logging, mining and hydroelectric dams. But in more than 100 cases, the cause was unclear.
Veteran environmental activist Bill McKibben has blamed the exploitation of resources by corporations in rich countries. In a preface to the report, he wrote: “Businesses need to be more responsible and they need to take action. Especially since the inhabitants of these places never really share the wealth they produce: colonialism is still strong, even if it is dressed in corporate logos or masked by offshore bank accounts. Meanwhile, the rest of us must realize that the people killed every year while defending their local places are also defending our common planet, especially our climate. “
Global Witness also reported several notable victories for defenders in 2020. The Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association and conservation groups halted plans by two Chinese companies to build a coal mine in Hwange National Park. American and Canadian activists have slowed down oil sands extraction and pressured banks to stop funding Arctic exploration. In South Africa, a high court overturned approval for a coal-fired power plant in Limpopo province. In Brazil, the indigenous Asháninka community obtained compensation for the illegal deforestation of their territory by a logging company.
The watchdog has presented proposals to governments and businesses to reduce the risk of violence in resource extraction. Going forward, they are basing their hopes on a new bill being drafted by the European Commission that would require companies to conduct mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence on their chains. supply. The United Nations is also working on a binding treaty on business and human rights, but there is still a long way to go before such measures reduce the impunity that allows killings to take place.