The fight against land grabbing and the overexploitation of nature is becoming more and more dangerous: Last year, 227 environmentalists were killed worldwide, as the non-governmental organization Global Witness announced on Monday when a new study was presented. That was more than four murders a week and more than ever before. Three quarters of the fatal attacks were registered in Latin America.
65 conservationists and environmental activists were killed in Colombia, 30 in Mexico, 29 in the Philippines and 20 in Brazil. The organization assumes, however, that the actual number of environmentalists killed is significantly higher.
“2020 was the worst year so far. The aggression against environmentalists and human rights activists has increased sharply,” says Lourdes Castro of the Colombian non-governmental organization Somos Defensores. “The most common target is indigenous people who are defending their ancestral lands.” In 2019, 212 environmental activists were killed around the world.
Behind the acts of violence are mostly companies, farmers and, in some cases, state actors as well as criminal gangs, paramilitary groups and rebels. Globally, most of the killings of environmentalists were related to forestry, followed by water and dam construction projects and agriculture, according to the Global Witness report.
“As long as governments don’t take protecting environmentalists seriously and companies don’t start putting people and the planet before profit, both climate collapse and killings will continue,” said Chris Madden of Global Witness. “Those who risk their lives fighting the climate crisis to save forests, rivers and ecosystems bear a heavy burden. It has to stop.”
In September last year, indigenous activist Óscar Eyraud Adams was shot dead by strangers in front of his home in northern Mexico. The spokesman for the Kumiai people had previously protested against the water shortage in Tecate, Baja California. He accused the state water authority Conagua of allowing the Heineken brewery to use wells without consulting the indigenous population. The Citizens Commission for Human Rights holds Conagua and Heineken responsible for the murder of Adams.
“The government is not taking the problem seriously. Many of the acts of violence therefore go unpunished,” complains Luz Coral Hernández from the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda).
In July last year, attackers shot and killed Rodrigo Salazar of the Awá indigenous people in southwest Colombia. The 44-year-old was on his way to a meeting to discuss the implementation of the peace treaty between the government and the FARC rebels with other indigenous leaders and the prosecutor.
“The violence in Colombia comes mainly from former paramilitaries, dissidents of the guerrilla organizations and the state security forces,” says the activist Castro. “But lately there have been more and more small gangs that suddenly appear and then disappear again. That makes the investigation even more difficult.”
In terms of population, the most dangerous country for environmentalists was Nicaragua with twelve murders, followed by Honduras and Colombia. In Africa, the number of murders of environmentalists soared from seven in 2019 to 18 last year. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone, twelve rangers and one driver were killed in a militia attack in Virunga National Park.
In addition to acts of violence and murders, threats, defamation campaigns and legal proceedings against environmentalists have increased. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), activists are increasingly being spied on and threatened on the Internet. “Oppression, intimidation and open surveillance can seriously affect activists’ motivation and mental health,” a report by Sipri said.
Experts agree that, especially in view of climate change, the consistent protection of nature and the preservation of ecosystems are also of global importance. That is why they are calling for better protection for activists. “In order to improve the situation of environmentalists and indigenous peoples, we must end the widespread impunity,” demands lawyer Hernández from the Mexican organization Cemda. “The government must take the acts of violence seriously and persecute the perpetrators consistently.”
According to Castro, companies and consumers in Europe are at least partly responsible for the violence against environmentalists. “Companies and customers should be aware that mining, agriculture and deforestation in Latin America often go hand in hand with violence,” says the Somos Defensores activist.