At least 1,733 environmental activists and land defenders have been killed for their work over the past decade, according to a new report from the nonprofit Global Witness.
That means that a person defending the environment is killed every other day, a harrowing statistic especially in the context of the worsening climate and biodiversity crisis. Brazil, Colombia, and the Phillippines accounted for roughly half of the murders during this period, and Mexico became the deadliest place for environmental activists in 2021 during an explosion of violence.
"All over the world, Indigenous peoples, environmental activists, and other land and environmental defenders risk their lives for the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss,” a spokesperson for Global Witness said in a statement.
“They play a crucial role as a first line of defense against ecological collapse, yet are under attack themselves facing violence, criminalization, and harassment perpetuated by repressive governments and companies prioritising profit over human and environmental harm."
The murders documented in the report only reflect part of the violence sustained by communities protecting the planet. In reality, cover-ups, censorship, and other obstacles obscure the true scale of the crisis. But what’s clear, Global Witness argues in the report, is that the ongoing violence is an attack not just on specific communities and ecosystems, but also the global environment and humanity overall.
Beleaguered activists and land defenders are protecting the global commons, the biodiversity that undergirds all human activity — rivers and lakes that provide water, the land that provides food, and the forests that provide clean air and myriad climate benefits.
They’re standing up to and denying the advance of industrial forces that destroy the environment for profit and, when they’re attacked, the perpetrators often face little repercussions or accountability. Global Witness stressed that in many countries law enforcement fails to even investigate the murders, sending an unmistakable signal that this sort of violence will be tolerated.
NEW 🔴 200 land & #EnvironmentalDefenders were killed in 2021, nearly four people per week.— Global Witness (@Global_Witness) September 29, 2022
This is just the tip of the iceberg, defenders are frequently targeted with violence, intimidation and criminalisation. #DefendTheDefendershttps://t.co/SxE8MMY1Ttpic.twitter.com/k590PpsQxC
Killings are the most gruesome outcome, but far more common are beatings, sexual assaults, intimidation tactics, and harrasment. Advocates have long noted that each attack that goes unpunished paves the way for more environmental destruction.
The report notes that the economic imperative for growth at all costs is the main force behind this violence. The primary industries responsible are logging, mining, agribusiness, and energy production.
More than three-quarters of the documented murders over the past decade took place in Latin America, Global Witness found. Violence against environmentalists has increased most markedly in India, Brazil, and Mexico, whereas killings have subsided in the Philippines and Colombia.
The report describes the work of various land defenders who were killed as a way to bring light to their stories and spur accountabiltiy and reform. For example, M.Karthi was an Indian activist protesting air and water pollution who was likely killed by police in 2018, and Joannah Stutchbury was a forest defender in Kenya who was shot in her car in 2021.
As countries reel from mounting ecological catastrophe, the need to protect environmental activists and land defenders grows ever more urgent, Global Witness argued.
“We are not just in a climate emergency,” Vindana Shiva, the acclaimed environmental writer and defender, wrote in the report’s foreword. “We are in the foothills of the sixth mass extinction, and these defenders are some of the few people standing in the way. They don’t just deserve protection for basic moral reasons. The future of our species, and our planet, depends on it.”
The report outlines several recommendations for governments and businesses.
Governments should develop and enforce laws that protect land defenders and environmental activists and bring wrongdoers to justice as soon as possible in order to mitigate the atmosphere of fear and patterns of violence that pervade many countries. They can also go after the countries that benefit from supply chains associated with violence.
Companies, for their part, have a role to play in rooting out violence in their supply chains and only supporting ethical, transparent sourcing practices.
More broadly, governments and businesses have to meaningfully engage with the Paris climate agreement and begin phasing out environmentally destructive industries.
Although violence acts as a major deterrent for anyone interested in protecting the environment, the bravery of frontline communities, particularly Indigenous communities, continues to elevate new leaders for the climate movement.
Now it’s up to all of us to protect them.
“As in any war, the dominant side will always want the number of victims and their names to be unknown, for them not to be personalized,” Global Witness wrote in the report. “In this way, the powerful can create their own narrative around the victims.
“Yet through our reporting on where they have succeeded in halting damaging projects, or won rights to their land, we can see power lies in resistance and collective protest,” they wrote. “So while this report aims to raise the alarm in urgently calling for greater protections for defenders, it also aims to inspire rather than deter so that there is even more attention on their struggle.”