Our insatiable demand for food, tech-economy minerals and other resources is wreaking havoc on the planet, but it’s also directly linked to the deaths of global citizens – dozens of them – who are killed because they were trying to protect their lands and communities.
At least 164 people died in 2018 because they were standing up to governments and companies whose business interests were opposed by these environmental defenders. That’s according to an annual report published by the UK-based Global Witness organization and released on Tuesday. Global Witness has for years tracked the connection between natural resources and the environment, and the conflict and corruption that so often attach to their exploitation.
That mission has become all the more critical as the world confronts an ever-deepening climate crisis.
“Calls to protect the planet are growing louder – but around the world, those defending their land and our environment are being silenced,” said Global Witness as it launched its “Enemies of the State” report. That’s especially true over mining operations and water rights.
On average, more than three people were murdered every week in 2018, though the researchers believe the number is higher because not all deaths are reported or unambiguously linked to environmental defense activities. The losses were greatest in the Philippines, which saw 30 people killed after standing up to multinational firms and the forces that align with them.
They included nine sugar cane farmers on the island of Negros who were shot and burned in their tents over a land dispute. “Often, these crimes are aided by the people and institutions meant to prevent them,” the report authors said, noting that the Philippine military – as is the case in other nations – protects powerful companies and influential investors against those seeking to interfere with profits.
“Meanwhile, the country’s legal system is used to criminalize and intimidate land and environmental defenders, while officials who are complicit in these crimes go unpunished,” the authors added.
While the Philippines saw the highest number of deaths, it was Guatemala that had the fastest-growing rate of killings. The increase in 2018 was five-fold and made the impoverished Central American nation the world leader in environmental defender deaths per capita.
“They say we are terrorists, delinquents, assassins and that we have armed groups here, but really they’re just killing us,” said Joel Raymundo, a member of the Peaceful Resistance of Ixquisis movement in Guatemala.
The indigenous people’s group has opposed hydropower plant development on ancestral lands, including lucrative projects that are linked to a powerful and wealthy Guatemalan family but pollute water resources, and threaten crops and fish stocks.
Raymundo’s remark reflects a growing trend in criminalizing environmental defense as another means of silencing activists. “Private security groups, state forces and contract killers – sometimes working together – are all suspected of carrying out killings,” warns Global Witness. “But deadly violence is only the most visible of the myriad threats that defenders face.”
Those threats exist from Iran, where nine environmentalists were accused as terrorists and jailed, to the UK or United States, where authorities crack down on protesters or advance legislation that makes their activities illegal. Among them was Kavous Seyed Emami, above, an Iranian-Canadian environmentalist who died in prison after he was accused of using wildlife research as a pretext for spying.
In Guatemala, Raymundo is afraid to report threats against him to the police because he is likely to be taken into custody, and that’s a growing concern under authoritarian rulers from Cambodia, where three people died in 2018, to Brazil, which lost at least 20 last year.
“Criminalizing defenders in this way makes attacks on them seem legitimate, making them more likely,” the organization said. “These trends continue across the globe, helped by populist politicians who are stripping away vital environmental protections when we need them most.”
Ultimately, the environmental defenders are human rights defenders, and Global Witness calls on governments, corporations and consumers alike to end the corruption they’re supporting and the cultures of impunity in which more deaths are likely to occur.