At least two hundred environmental activists were killed in 2016, according to a new report by the non-governmental organisation Global Witness. And nearly 40 percent of those murdered were from indigenous communities.
The toll of killings amounts to nearly four every week. In addition to the murders and death threats, those defending their lands from such industries as mining, logging, and agribusiness have been arrested, sexually assaulted, abducted, and aggressively attacked in the courts.
“It has never been deadlier to take a stand against companies that steal land and destroy the environment,” said Global Witness campaigner Ben Leather. “There were killings of those protesting against land grabs in one-third more countries in 2016 than in 2015.”
The number of environmental activists killed in 2015 totalled 185.
In 2016, murders of land defenders were reported in 24 countries, as compared to 16 countries in 2015.
Leather says that severe limitations on the availability of information mean that the global total of killings is likely to be far higher than that reported.
Seventy-nine journalists were killed in 2016, which is more than twice the number murdered in 2015.
Latin America remains the region where there are the most killings of environmental defenders, with sixty percent of the killings reported there in 2016.
The most recent murder of a high-profile environmentalist in the region was that of Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, a leader of the indigenous Tarahumara people.
Baldenegro was shot in January this year after campaigning against a powerful alliance of loggers, drug gangs, and local political leaders.
His work to protect the forests of the Sierra Madre area in northern Mexico earned him the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005.
Honduras has been the most dangerous place for environmental activists over the past decade, with 127 murders since 2007. Fourteen environmental defenders were killed there in 2016.
In February, Global Witness released a scathing report about the murder of environmental defenders in Honduras.
The NGO named the president of Honduras’ ruling party, Gladis Aurora López, as one of several top politicians and business tycoons it alleges are implicated in a violent crackdown on citizens who defend their land against theft and destruction.
The murders in Honduras include that of the internationally renowned indigenous activist Berta Cáceres Flores, who was gunned down in her home in La Esperanza in March 2016.
There was international outrage over the murder of Cáceres, who was the coordinator and co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) and was a key opponent of plans to build the Agua Zarca dam on indigenous community land in Río Blanco.
Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize (South and Central America) in 2014.
Less than two weeks after Cáceres was assassinated, another member of COPINH, Nelson García, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen as he returned home after the Honduran security forces evicted a Lenca community from its land.
A few months later, in July 2016, the body of another COPINH activist, Lesbia Janeth Urquía, was found on a rubbish dump with machete wounds to the head.
In 2016, Brazil remained the deadliest country in terms of the numbers of murders (49) and Nicaragua, where there were 11 killings, was the worst country in terms of murders per capita.
“An inter-oceanic canal is set to slice the country in two, threatening mass displacement, social unrest and the violent suppression of those who stand against it,” Leather said.
There was an 18 percent increase in the murders of environmental activists in Asia in 2016 as compared with 2015.
The new Global Witness report, entitled “Defenders of the Earth”, documents a threefold increase in killings of environmental activists in India, where there were 16 murders in 2016, mostly of people protesting against mining projects.
“Police brutality and state repression of peaceful protests is worsening in India,” Leather said.
He added: “The battle to protect the planet is rapidly intensifying and the cost can be counted in human lives. More people in more countries are being left with no option but to take a stand against the theft of their land or the trashing of their environment.
“Too often they are brutally silenced by political and business elites, while the investors that bankroll them do nothing.”
Projects are frequently imposed on indigenous communities without their free, prior and informed consent.
The projects are backed up by force, Leather says. “A lack of prosecutions makes it hard to identify those responsible, but we found strong evidence that the police and military were behind at least 43 killings, with private actors such as security guards and hitmen linked to 52 deaths.”
Protest is often the only option left to communities exercising their right to have a say about the use of their land and natural resources, Leather says, “and this puts them on a collision course with those seeking profit at any cost”.
Recorded killings hit an all-time high in Colombia, where there were 37 murders in 2016 – a 40 percent increase on 2015. This is despite – or perhaps because – of the recently signed peace deal between the government and the guerrilla group, the FARC, Leather says.
“Areas previously under guerrilla control are now eyed enviously by extractive companies and paramilitaries, while returning communities are attacked for reclaiming land stolen from them during half a century of conflict.”
Colombian indigenous leader Jakeline Romero told Global Witness: “They threaten you so you will shut up. I can’t shut up. I can’t stay silent faced with all that is happening to my people. We are fighting for our lands, for our water, for our lives.”
Romero has faced years of threats and intimidation for speaking out against the devastating impacts of Latin America’s largest open-pit mine, El Cerrejón.
Owned by London-listed companies Glencore, BHP Billiton and Anglo-American, the project has been blamed for water shortages and mass displacement.
The local operator has denied causing water shortages and has condemned the threats made against activists, Global Witness says.
Key findings from the new report include the following:
- Most of the environmental activists murdered were opposing mining projects. (Thirty-three killings were linked to the mining industry.)
- Killings of activists protesting about logging increased from 15 in 2015 to 23 in 2016.
- There were 23 killings of people protesting about agribusiness.
- There were 28 recorded killings of environmental defenders in the Philippines, where there is a voracious mining industry.
Global Witness notes that protecting national parks is now riskier than ever. Ten environmental defenders were killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2016, and nine of them were park rangers.
Global Witness documented fewer killings of environmental activists in Peru and Indonesia than in previous years, although defenders in both countries continued to be threatened, attacked and criminalised.
The new report also highlights the increasing criminalisation of environmental activism throughout the world, including in the United States.
“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,” Leather said.
“This criminalisation is used to intimidate defenders, tarnish their reputations and lock them into costly legal battles.”
States, Leather says, are breaking their own laws and failing their citizens in the worst possible way.
“Brave activists are being murdered, attacked and criminalised by the very people who are supposed to protect them. Governments, companies and investors have a duty to guarantee that communities are consulted about the projects that affect them, that activists are protected from violence, and that perpetrators are brought to justice.”
Almost 1,000 murders of environmental activists have been recorded by Global Witness since 2010.
It is increasingly clear, Leather says, that, globally, governments and business are failing in their duty to protect activists at risk.
“They are permitting a level of impunity that allows the vast majority of perpetrators to walk free, emboldening would-be assassins.
“Investors, including development banks, are fuelling the violence by backing projects that harm the environment and trample human rights.”
The facts paint a bleak picture, Leather says, but many of the stories told in the Global Witness report are inspirational.
It was the bravery of park ranger Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and his colleagues, that has ensured that mountain gorillas remain in Virunga, in spite of local poaching and the impact of big business, Leather says.
Katembo was a 2017 Goldman Prize winner.
Leather also cites the case of Prafulla Samantara, an iconic leader of social justice movements in India, and also a 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, who has faced numerous threats and smears.
Samantara led a historic 12-year legal battle that affirmed the indigenous Dongria Kondh’s land rights and protected the Niyamgiri Hills from a massive, open-pit aluminum ore mine.
In the heavily forested state of Chhattisgarh in central India, the Adivasi tribespeople have been brutally repressed for opposing large-scale mining. They’ve been subjected to a crushing combination of alleged land grabs, intimidation, and criminalisation by government and legislative representatives, Global Witness says.
“They’ve been threatened and attacked for resisting eviction, and protestors have been detained.”
Writer and social activist Rinchin told Global Witness: “There is a complete breakdown of the law. Large numbers of the Adivasi population are illegally losing their land to corporations through land grabs.”
The new Global Witness report also documents the case of Ana Mirian Romero from the Santa Elena community in Honduras, who was at the forefront of protests against the Los Encinos dam project.
In October 2015, Romero’s home was raided by thirty heavily armed men, including soldiers and police.
They held guns to her children’s heads, and savagely beat her and her pregnant sister-in-law, who lost her baby.
A few months later, Romero lost all of her family’s belongings in an arson attack on her home, but she refused to be cowed, Leather says.
“She was pregnant when the police beat her up, and almost lost her baby. But her determination that her daughter grow up in a brighter Honduras has prevented a hydro company from stealing her community’s indigenous lands.”
Global Witness also highlights the “tireless mobilisation” of Francisca Ramírez in Nicaragua.
Ramirez, who has been threatened, assaulted and arrested for opposing plans for the inter-oceanic canal that would force up to 120,000 indigenous people from their land, told the NGO: “We have carried out 87 marches, demanding that they respect our rights and we have had no response. The only response we have had is the bullet.”
According to campaigners, more than a hundred protesters have been imprisoned in Nicaragua. Ramirez told Global Witness that, in an attack against one march, one member of her community lost an eye and another was shot in the stomach.
Global Witness urges governments, companies, and investors to take steps to tackle the root causes of risk, guaranteeing that communities can make free and informed choices about whether and how their land and resources are used.
The NGO calls for environmental defenders to be protected via specific laws, policies, and practices and says that accountability for attacks on environmentalists must be assured.
“This has to go beyond prosecuting those responsible for ordering or carrying out an attack,” Leather said.
Those, including international investors, who fail to support threatened environmental defenders must face consequences for their inaction, Global Witness says.
The NGO has dedicated its latest report to the environmental defenders murdered in 2016.
“This report is dedicated to their lives, and to all those around the world who stand up for land rights and the protection of the environment.”
Left to right: Rinchin, who has been supporting local communities in their struggle to stop coal mining companies grabbing their land and causing pollution in Chhattisgarh; Rodrigue Katembo, who risked his life going undercover to document and release information about bribery and corruption in the quest to drill for oil in Virunga National Park; and Jakeline Romero (photo by Christian McLaughlin).
The photo of Rinchin is courtesy of Ravi Mishra/Global Witness and the photo of Rodrigue Katembo is courtesy of the Goldman Prize.
Headline photo: The funeral of Berta Cáceres.
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