Number of murdered environmental activists rose once again in 2017

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  • According to a new report by London-based NGO Global Witness, 207 activists were killed in 2017, the highest total number since the group started tracking violence against “land and environmental defenders” around the world. Previous reports documented 185 murdered activists in 2015 and 200 in 2016.
  • Latin America is still the most dangerous place on Earth to protest the destruction of the environment and violations of land rights, with 60 percent of the killings in 2017 occurring there. In particular, Mexico saw a large increase in murders last year, from three to 15. And Brazil alone was the site of 57 murdered activists — the most deaths Global Witness has ever recorded over the course of one year in a single country.
  • But Latin America is hardly alone: every region of Earth saw a growing number of attacks against activists in 2017.

The number of indigenous leaders, community activists, and environmentalists killed every year while protecting their lands and communities from agribusiness, mining, and other industries continues to rise.

According to a new report by London-based NGO Global Witness, 207 activists were killed in 2017, the highest total number since the group started tracking violence against “land and environmental defenders” around the world. Previous reports documented 185 murdered activists in 2015 and 200 in 2016.

Latin America is still the most dangerous place on Earth to protest the destruction of the environment and violations of land rights, with 60 percent of the killings in 2017 occurring there. In particular, Mexico saw a large increase in murders last year, from three to 15. And Brazil alone was the site of 57 murdered activists — the most deaths Global Witness has ever recorded over the course of one year in a single country.

The group reports that seven “massacres,” involving four or more murders at the same time, occurred last year. “In one of the largest-scale attacks of 2017, Gamela indigenous people were assaulted in Brazil,” the report states. “Machetes and rifles were used in an attempt to forcibly seize control of their land, leaving 22 severely injured, some with their hands cut off. Months later, nobody had faced justice for this appalling incident, reflecting a wider culture of impunity and inaction to support defenders by the Brazilian government.”

While no one was killed in that particular attack, indigenous activists represent a disproportionate number of those killed every year. For instance, 13 of the 15 people killed in Mexico were indigenous people defending their ancestral lands. Though the number of indigenous people killed in 2017 was just 25 percent of the total, down from 40 percent in 2016, indigenous groups account for 5 percent of the global population, meaning they are still “massively overrepresented among defenders killed,” Global Witness found.

Latin America is hardly alone: every region of Earth saw a growing number of attacks against activists in 2017.

Per the report, 48 “defenders” were killed in the Philippines last year, the most ever in any Asian country. In one especially tragic incident, eight members of the Taboli-manubo community in the Philippines who opposed a coffee plantation on their land were murdered in a single attack.

“President Duterte’s aggressively anti-human-rights stance and a renewed military presence in resource-rich regions are fuelling the violence,” the authors of the report write. “Almost half of the killings in the Philippines were linked to struggles against agribusiness.”

Another 19 people were killed in Africa, 17 of whom lost their lives “while defending protected areas against poachers and illegal miners,” the report notes. 12 of those murders were in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Whereas the mining industry was connected to the most attacks in the past, that is no longer the case. “Agribusiness was the most dangerous sector,” the report finds, “overtaking mining for the first time ever, with 46 defenders killed protesting against the way goods we consume are being produced.” Mining and oil operations were linked to 40 killings, poaching to 23, and logging to 23.

While it is often difficult to identify the perpetrators of this violence because in many cases they are never brought to justice, Global Witness says it was able to link government security forces to 53 killings (militaries were linked to 30, and police 23). The group was able to connect criminal gangs, security guards, landowners, poachers, and other non-state actors to 90 murders.

As alarming as the numbers Global Witness has reported are, the group says that they are only “the tip of the iceberg,” as limited data on killings means that several more likely went unrecorded.

“Our data on killings is likely to be an underestimate, given that many murders go unreported, particularly in rural areas. Our methodology requires cases to be verified according to a strict set of criteria, which can’t always be met by a review of public information like newspaper reports or legal documents, nor through local contacts. Having a strict methodology means our figures don’t represent the scale of the problem, and we are working to improve this.”

Ben Leather, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, said that while governments and businesses are often complicit in violence against activists, they also must be part of the solution.

“Local activists are being murdered as governments and businesses value quick profit over human life,” Leather said in a statement. “Many of the products emerging from this bloodshed are on the shelves of our supermarkets. 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.”


The aricle, originally appeared on Mongabay.com, is republished under Creative Commons license.

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