coal mine
Machinery operating in the annex pit at the Cerrejon Coal Mine in Barrancas, La Guajira, Colombia. Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hundreds of environment defenders have been murdered in countries. Environment defenders face lethal attacks and violence.

Global Witness in Last Line of Defence report said:

In 2020, we recorded 227 lethal attacks – an average of more than four people a week – making it once again the most dangerous year on record for people defending their homes, land and livelihoods, and ecosystems vital for biodiversity and the climate.

As ever, these lethal attacks are taking place in the context of a wider range of threats against defenders including intimidation, surveillance, sexual violence, and criminalization. Our figures are almost certainly an underestimate, with many attacks against defenders going unreported.

Global Witness defines land and environmental defenders as people who take a stand and peaceful action against the unjust, discriminatory, corrupt or damaging exploitation of natural resources or the environment.

The report, released in September 2021, said:

The climate crisis is a crisis against humanity.

Since 2012, Global Witness has been gathering data on killings of land and environmental defenders. In that time, a grim picture has come into focus – with the evidence suggesting that as the climate crisis intensifies, violence against those protecting their land and our planet also increases. It has become clear that the unaccountable exploitation and greed driving the climate crisis is also driving violence against land and environmental defenders.

The report’s top findings include:

> Global Witness recorded 227 land and environmental defenders killed in 2020 – an average of more than four people a week. As ever, these lethal attacks are taking place in the context of a wider range of threats against defenders – including arrests, smear campaigns and nonlethal attacks.

> Colombia was once again the country with the highest recorded attacks, with 65 defenders killed in 2020. A third of these attacks targeted indigenous and Afro-descendant people, and almost half were against small-scale farmers.

> Nicaragua saw 12 killings – rising from 5 in 2019, making it the most dangerous country per capita for land and environmental defenders in 2020.

> Where reports indicate that defenders were attacked for protecting particular ecosystems, the majority – 71% – were working to defend the world’s forests (earth’s natural carbon sinks) from deforestation and industrial development – vital to efforts to curb the climate crisis. Others died for their work protecting rivers, coastal areas and the oceans.

> Almost 3 in 4 of the attacks recorded took place in the Americas – with 7 out of the 10 highest countries located in Latin America. In Brazil and Peru, nearly three quarters of recorded attacks took place in the Amazon region of each country.

> Global Witness documented 18 killings across Africa in 2020, compared to 7 in 2019. Most of these took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with two in South Africa and one in Uganda. In the DRC, 12 park rangers and a driver were killed in an attack by militia groups in the Virunga National Park. Verifying cases from across the continent continues to be difficult and it is possible cases are widely unreported.

> Over a third of the attacks were reportedly linked to resource exploitation – logging, mining, and large-scale agribusiness – and hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure. However, this figure is likely to be higher as the reasons behind these attacks are often not properly investigated nor reported on.

> Logging was the sector linked to the most murders with 23 cases – with attacks in Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines. Mexico saw a large rise in logging and deforestation related killings, with 9 in 2020.

> Agribusiness and mining were each linked to 17 attacks in 2020. Since 2015 these two sectors alone have been linked to over 30% of all the killings that Global Witness has documented against land and environmental defenders.

> In 2020 the disproportionate number of attacks against indigenous peoples continued once again – with over a third of all fatal attacks targeting indigenous people despite only making up 5% of the world’s population. These were documented across Mexico, Central and South America and the Philippines. This year we also recorded attacks against indigenous people in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

> Indigenous peoples were the target of 5 of the 7 mass killings recorded in 2020. In the most shocking of these, 9 Tumandok indigenous people were killed and a further 17 arrested in raids by the military and police on the 30th of December on the island of Panay in the Philippines. Numerous reports state that these communities were targeted for their opposition to a mega-dam project on the Jalaur river.

> 28 of the victims killed in 2020 were state officials or park rangers, attacked whilst working to protect the environment. Attacks were documented across eight countries: Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Uganda.

> Over 1 in 10 of the defenders killed in 2020 were women. Whilst the recorded killings against women appear lower, those who act and speak out may also face gender-specific threats, including sexual violence. Women often have a twin challenge: the public struggle to protect their land, water and our planet, and the often invisible struggle to defend their right to speak within their communities and families. In many parts of the world, women are still excluded from land ownership and discussions about the use of natural resources.

Predatory Economic Model

The report said:

This is a crisis against humanity. We all depend on the natural world, and when we set about its systematic destruction, people get killed. It may sound simplistic, but it’s a fact worth considering – the process of climate breakdown is violent, and it manifests not just in violence against the natural world, but against people as well.

Each killing is a complex and deeply personal tragedy, rooted in a predatory economic model driven by greed.

It might feel morbid to record and analyze each death of a land and environmental defender. But it’s important to understand what connects these seemingly disparate cases – the water defenders murdered in northern Mexico, to the South African grandmother shot dead outside her home seemingly for rejecting the expansion of a nearby coal mine. Analyzing the whole dataset helps us understand the overlap between the causes of these attacks, what they represent, what’s at stake and the actions that governments and companies must take to prevent them.

Between 2001 and 2015, over 300 million hectares of tree cover was lost: nearly the size of India. 2020 saw the worst ever North Atlantic hurricane season. It was also the hottest year on record, tied with 2016, with the International Panel on Climate Change stating that historical and current emissions mean the world is already on track to reach the destructive 1.5C rise within the next twenty years. As the climate crisis intensifies, so too does its impact on people, including on land and environmental defenders. This data on lethal attacks can be understood as another climate metric, in step with these other more familiar datasets – 2020 so far being the worst year on record for land and environmental defenders, with a record 227 lethal attacks reported.

Unequal Impact

The Global Witness report said: Impact of this is unequal.

It said:

While climate breakdown is global and affecting every nation on earth, its impacts are disproportionately felt by countries in the Global South. The Global North has extracted natural resources in far greater quantity – yet it is the far more populous Global South that is suffering the most immediate consequences of global warming on all fronts. Violence against land and environmental defenders is yet more unequal and is overwhelmingly concentrated in countries in the Global South. In 2020, all but one of the 227 killings of defenders that Global Witness recorded took place in the Global South. In the period since Global Witness began collecting data, less than 1% of all recorded lethal attacks were documented in the Global North.

Business is Responsible

The report said:

Business is responsible for the incidents.

Many threats and attacks against land and environmental defenders occur after communities voice their concerns about companies and their projects affecting their rights, including to their land. In their pursuit of profit, decades of research by human rights organizations document how companies and financial institutions have failed to respect communities and defenders impacted by their value and investment chains. Worse still, some global companies have been known to dupe well-meaning and conscientious consumers with misleading sustainability brochures, neglecting to mention corporate human rights abuses linked to their global operations.

In too many countries, rich in natural resources and climate critical biodiversity, corporations are operating with almost complete impunity. Entire villages are leveled, waste is dumped into rivers, and shareholders continue to profit without paying the price for this pursuit of unsustainable economic growth. It is business – often enabled or encouraged by negligent governments – that is commonly responsible for the toxic waste, air pollution and mass deforestation destroying our planet and hurting communities across the world. This devastation is wrought in pursuit of one thing – profit, soaked up almost entirely by the richest 1%, who are today twice as wealthy as 6.9 billion people.

Corporations’ Power

The report said:

Because the balance of power is stacked in the favor of corporations, and against communities and individuals, these companies are seldom held to account for the consequences of their commercial activities. It’s rare that anyone is arrested or brought to court for killing defenders. When they are it’s usually the trigger-men – the ones holding the guns, not those who might be otherwise implicated, directly or indirectly, in the crime.

In many cases, access to information, often held by the company, makes it difficult to find those responsible.

At a local level, corruption often prevents any effective investigation by state law enforcement.

Companies have devolved their operations to include global supply and value chains that are unnecessarily opaque and complex. Where resource extraction and exploitation occurs in countries with weaker governance systems, they are able to benefit from the accountability gap that exists between countries. In the words of Christiana Ochoa, “globalization has produced a disjuncture between business-related activities and the development of capabilities to govern those activities.

These ‘governance gaps’ create an environment in which business-related human rights abuses can occur with relative impunity”.

The report added:

When looking at the dataset on attacks in totality, it’s clear that many companies engage in an extractive economic model that overwhelmingly prioritizes profit over human and environmental harm. This unaccountable corporate power is the underlying force that has not only driven the climate crisis to the brink, but which has continued to perpetuate the killing of defenders.

Governments’ Failure

The report said: Governments are both causing and failing to prevent the activities.

It said:

Governments have been all too willing to turn a blind eye and fail in providing their core mandate of upholding and protecting human rights. They are failing to protect defenders – in many cases directly perpetrating violence against them, and in others arguably complicit with business.

States around the world – from Liberia and Sri Lanka to the Philippines – used the COVID pandemic to strengthen draconian measures to control citizens and close civic space. With journalists, activists, campaigners, and academics confined to their homes, and the freedom of press under renewed attack, the scant pre-pandemic protections that defenders had are under increasing strain.

An October 2020 Freedom House report found restrictions on the news media as part of the response to COVID-19 occurred in at least 91 countries. Governments enacted new laws against spreading “fake news” – Hungary, for example, passed legislation that criminalizes anyone spreading misinformation about the pandemic, which critics say has been misused to further erode democracy in the country. Many civil society actors claim these laws aimed at stopping “fake news” have been used by governments to limit independent questioning at press conferences, enable the suspension of printing of newspapers, and to block the use of legitimate websites.

According to the International Land Coalition, throughout 2020 activism was limited in many countries “at a crucial time, with protests and demonstrations often banned even though controversial activities, including evictions, demolitions, and extractive projects such as mining”, were allowed to continue. The Freedom House report found that 158 countries have placed new restrictions on demonstrations due to the pandemic. This is despite the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association calling on countries not to use COVID-19 state of emergency declarations to “impose wholesale restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and association”.

But if the state steps in to ensure the protection of land and environmental defenders’ human and environmental rights, including through regulation that holds offending companies to account for their global operations, change is possible. There is a correlation between civic space and attacks against defenders – the most open and tolerant societies see very few attacks, whereas in restricted societies, attacks are much more frequent. Governments can turn the tide on the climate crisis and protect human rights by protecting civil society, and through passing legislation to hold corporations to account for their actions and profits.

The report said:

There are positive signs of change. Since 2012, Magnitsky legislation, laws providing for governmental sanctions against foreign individuals who have committed human rights abuses, has been passed in the United States, the UK, Canada, as well as in some EU jurisdictions.

These are aimed at deterring human rights abuses, but governments need to go further and target corporate supply chains, which are the root cause of many environmental and human rights abuses against land.

The report added:

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, and related sectoral supply chain guidelines, clearly set out responsibilities and expectations for global business on human rights and environmental protection.

However, ten years after the former was officially adopted by the UN, evidence suggests that little has changed.

States have relied too much on corporate self-reporting and voluntary corporate mechanisms. As a result, companies continue to cause, contribute to, and benefit from, human rights abuses and environmental harms.

Efforts to regulate international business for harm linked to their global operations have not yet matched the scale of the problem. Progress towards a Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights at the United Nations is underway but slow. Corporate human rights regulation has started to emerge in key jurisdictions, such as France and Norway.

La Rumorosa, the highway that connects Tijuana to Mexicali that runs past Tecate where Óscar lived. Felipe Luna/Global Witness

The report said:

Defenders are our last line of defence against climate breakdown, and we can take heart from the fact that even after decades of violence, people continue to stand up for their land, for our planet. In every story of defiance against corporate theft and land grabbing, against deadly pollution and against environmental disaster, is hope that we can turn the tide on this crisis and learn to live in harmony with the natural world.

Until we do, the violence will continue.

Recommendations made by the report include:

Companies and governments need to be held to account for violence against land and environmental defenders, who are often standing on the frontline of the climate crisis. Urgent actions are needed at international, regional, and national levels to end the violence and other injustices that they face.

At the global level, the United Nations, through its

member states should:

> Formally recognize the human right to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment, as called for by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, which would fill ‘a glaring gap in the architecture of international human rights’.

> Ensure State commitments made at COP26 to implement the Paris Agreement align with existing international human rights obligations and standards applicable to business operations, defenders, and indigenous and other communities.

> Explore all avenues within the UN system to support the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, as well as UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

At the national level, Governments should:

> Protect land and environmental defenders in the context of business by ensuring effective and robust regulatory protection of the environment, labor rights, land rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, livelihoods and cultures, including to free, prior and informed consent.

Any legislation used to criminalize defenders should be declared null and void.

> Require domiciled companies and financial institutions to carry out mandatory due diligence, that provides accountability for violence and other harm to land and environmental defenders, throughout their global operations, including supply chains and business relationships.

> Ensure access to justice and due process by investigating and pursuing prosecutions of all relevant actors, including implicated corporate actors, for violence committed against land and environmental defenders.

Any decision to not prosecute these actors should be made publicly available.

Businesses: To ensure they are not contributing to or profiting from human rights and land rights harms across their supply chains and operations, companies and investors must:

> Publish and implement robust due diligence procedures that seek to prevent, identify, mitigate and account for human rights and environmental harms in their global operations, including supply chains and business relationships. Explicit reference to respecting the rights of land and environmental defenders should be included. At a minimum, these policies should include meaningful details including who at the senior level is responsible for its overall oversight, as well as how it will be implemented and monitored, and clear redlines for suspension or termination of contracts for suppliers who continue to perpetuate environmental, human rights, and land rights harms.

> Adopt and implement a zero-tolerance stance on

reprisals and attacks on land and environmental defenders in their global operations, supply chains and business relationships, illegal land acquisition and violations of the right of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) for affected communities.

> Provide for and facilitate effective remedy processes when adverse human rights and environmental impacts and harms occur.


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