In Brazil, 50 environmentalists were murdered in 2015. In the Phillippines, 33 were murdered. In Colombia, 26.
Across the world, Global Witness recorded 185 murders of environmentalists in 2015, making it the deadliest year on record. Murders increased by 60 percent from the year before, which suggests an ominous crossroads in the fight against climate change: Will environmentalists be emboldened to take action or will they be stunned into silence?
The 185 men and women who were killed in the report refused to watch their lands be ruined. They refused to watch forests be mowed down, mines stripped bare and the Earth ripped apart. For this refusal, they were killed in their communities or along picket lines. They were killed because they raised two persuasive objections: people have a right to not be displaced and the Earth should be protected, not defiled.
Oftentimes, these activists are indigenous people who have no serious representation in government, making them easy targets. And, ultimately, they are killed because of a dangerous collusion between state and corporate actors.
Most of the murders in 2015 were committed by the mining industry, followed by agribusiness, hydroelectric dams, and logging. Up to 80 percent of the logging in Brazil is illegal. These illegal operations employ gangs that terrorize remote communities and murder the most vocal dissidents.
It’s an easy pattern to predict: when people are executed in front of villages, witnesses become fearful. When two men were shot in their village in the Philippines, 3,000 people fled.
Environmentalists are doing courageous, important and dangerous work. They're fighting to save the planet and stop climate change. They deserve, at the very least, protection from death.
“We get threatened, vilified and killed for standing up to the mining companies on our land and the paramilitaries that protect them," said Michelle Campos, an indigenous environmentalist in the Phillippines. "My father, grandfather and school teacher were just three of countless victims. We know the murderers – they are still walking free in our community. We are dying and our government does nothing to help us.”
Global Witness has four recommendations to protect environmentalists.
- Increase protection for land and environmental activists at risk of violence, intimidation, or threats
- Investigate crimes, including their corporate and political masterminds as well as the triggermen, and bring perpetrators to justice
- Support activists’ right to say no to projects on their land, and ensure that companies are proactively seeking their consent
- Resolve the underlying causes of violence against defenders, by formally recognising communities’ rights to their land, and tackling the corruption and illegalities that blight natural resource sectors
2015 was also the year that the world decided to get serious about climate change. For the first time ever, 193 countries agreed to sweeping steps to protect the planet and reverse environmental degradation.
But as the world celebrated these commitments, environmentalists were being killed at a faster pace than ever before--two events that seem to contradict one another.
In the Paris Climate Agreement, protection of indigenous rights and the rehabilitation of ecosystems were key provisions.
If countries actually adhere to these measures, then environmentalists will no longer be so terrorized for making a simple stand in favor of their lives and the lives of others.
And then instead of being branded as threats that need to be put down, they will be celebrated for their bravery.
After all, an environment that is protected can yield far more than an environment that is depleted.