Killings against environmental defenders are on the rise, doubling over the last 15 years. According to a study published in the journal Nature Sustainability, more people die each year from defending the environment than UK and Australian soldiers are killed in overseas combat.
These stats are supported by data collected by international NGO Global Witness, who published a report titled Enemies of the State? last week. Their research shows that – taken as a mean – more than three people were killed every week in 2018. This doesn’t include the countless others who have been threatened, arrested, and jailed.
"As demand for products like timber, palm oil and minerals continue to grow, governments, companies and criminal gangs are routinely stealing land and trashing habitats in pursuit of profit," write Global Witness. "When the ordinary people who live on these lands take a stand, they come up against companies’ private security, state forces, contract killers, or in less violent confrontations, teams of aggressive lawyers."
The Philippines topped the list for the country with the most killings (30 in total), overtaking Brazil for the first time since Global Witness began keeping tally in 2012. This was followed by Colombia (24), India (23), Brazil (20), Guatemala (16), Mexico (14), and the DRC (8). There were 164 deaths worldwide recorded in 2018. Still, Global Witness believes this figure is an underestimate, with many more likely to go unreported and un-investigated.
What's more, according to the study authors, 1,558 people in 50 countries were killed for defending the environment between 2002 and 2017 – twice the number of UK and Australian soldiers killed on active duty in the same period. At least 185 occurred in 2017, with indigenous peoples facing the brunt of the killings (30 percent). Just over 10 percent of these murders ended in a conviction.
But these killings are just the tip of the iceberg with non-lethal violence and intimidation also playing a role, not to mention the use of various legal systems to snuff out dissenting voices and slash their funding.
Global Witness point to the steady rise of "populist strongmen", who have stamped out protest under the guise of national security. Think: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who has advocated the opening up of indigenous land to miners and agriculturists while overseeing a ramp-up in deforestation rates, or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who "red-tags" rights activists of all stripes as communist sympathizers, insurgents, and terrorists. There was a 71 percent jump in the number of murders between 2016 (when Duterte took office) and 2017.
Meanwhile, in the States, retaliation against environmental activists might not be quite so violent, but Donald Trump’s White House has clamped down on protests and undermined environmentalists at the same time as ripping up legislation and loosening regulations designed to protect the environment. The report cites a bill passed in South Dakota that gave state and local governments greater power when it comes to disciplining those involved in the pipeline protests.
While it can be difficult to determine who exactly is responsible, the authors say they were able to link state security forces to as many as 40 of the killings in 2018. Hitmen, criminal gangs, landowners, and other private entities were suspected in another 40 cases.
When it comes to the industries with the most blood on their hand, the mining industry takes first place, accounting for 43 of the killings in 2018. This was followed by agribusiness (21), water and dams (17), logging (13), and poaching (9).
"We can never undo the sacrifices made by those documented in this report or the damage done to their loved ones," Global Witness adds. "But we can ensure their deaths were not entirely in vain by calling on our governments to urgently tackle the problems that they put their lives on the line to highlight. We should protect and empower the courageous individuals who follow their lead – for their sake and for ours."