At least 177 people were killed last year for defending the environment, according to the latest report produced annually for the past 11 years by the nonprofit Global Witness, with a fifth of killings taking place in the Amazon rainforest.
These figures follow a decade’s long trend between 2012 and 2022 that has seen a person defending the environment killed for their work every other day. This takes the total number of murdered environmental activists and land defenders to 1,910 over the past 10 years, a harrowing statistic especially in the context of the worsening climate and biodiversity crisis.
Almost nine in 10 recorded killings in 2022 were in Latin America, with more than a third of all fatal attacks taking place in Colombia, making it the deadliest place for environmental activists in 2022.
Brazil saw the second most killings, including the high-profile murders of Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips. Brazil was followed by Mexico, Honduras, and the Philippines.
The research also found that Indigenous communities around the world face a disproportionate level of lethal attacks, making up over a third (34%) of global killings last year whilst representing only around 5% of the world’s population.
“For too long, those responsible for lethal attacks against defenders have been getting away with murder. Violence, intimidation, and harassment are also being inflicted to silence defenders around the world,” said Shruti Suresh, Co-Director of Campaigns (Interim) at Global Witness.
Indeed, despite the relentlessness of killings over the past 11 years, very few of those responsible are ever brought to justice due to government failures to properly investigate these crimes, resulting in impunity fuelling further attacks. In reality, a culture of cover-ups, censorship, and other obstacles is obscuring the true scale of the crisis.
What’s more, the murders documented in the report only reflect part of the violence sustained by communities protecting the planet. As well as lethal attacks, defenders are also subject to beatings, sexual assaults, intimidation tactics, and harassment, as well as being increasingly subject to criminalization as a strategy for silencing those who speak out, with laws being weaponized against them.
The findings come ahead of world leaders convening at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates in November, where nations will take stock of the progress made in implementing the historic Paris climate agreement, established in 2015.
What’s clear, the new Global Witness report argues, is that the ongoing violence is an attack not just on specific communities and ecosystems, but also the global environment and humanity overall.
As countries reel from increasingly extreme weather events, the need to protect environmental activists and land defenders has never been more urgent.
“We are not just in a climate emergency,” Vindana Shiva, the acclaimed environmental writer and defender, wrote in last year’s report 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.”