At least 227 environmental defenders died last year as a direct result of their efforts to protect land, water, wildlife, and their own climate futures. That’s the highest number ever recorded, according to the annual report released Monday by the Global Witness organization.
“On average, our data shows that four defenders have been killed every week since the signing of the Paris Climate agreement – but this shocking figure is almost certainly an underestimate, with growing restrictions on journalism and other civic freedoms meaning cases are likely being unreported,” said the UK-based group.
These deaths also appear to be on the increase. Just three years ago, Global Witness found at least 164 people had died while defending themselves and their communities from environmental threats. These may come from mining companies in Honduras, or armed militia groups attacking wildlife defenders in Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo.
They also include the death of Óscar Eyraud Adams, a water rights activist in Mexico. About three out of every four documented deaths happened in the Americas, with 70% of the most challenged countries in Latin America.
Colombia saw the highest number of fatal outcomes from disputes over environmental resources. A total of 65 people died there in 2020, with Mexico next at 30, followed by the Philippines (29) and Brazil (20). In Brazil, as well as neighboring Peru, at least three fourths of the attacks happened in the Amazon region.
Logging was the industry linked to the most murders with 23 cases spread across Brazil, Peru, Nicaragua and the Philippines. About 30% of recorded attacks overall were linked to logging, hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure, mining, and large-scale agribusiness.
“One day, we hope to report an end to the violence against those defending our planet and their land, but until governments get serious about protecting defenders, and companies start putting people and planet before profit, both climate breakdown and the killings will continue,” said Chris Madden, a senior campaigner with Global Witness.
The full report makes clear that deaths linked to environmental activism – particularly among indigenous people – occur everywhere, from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia to South Africa.
Although the African continent didn’t see the level of cases that Colombia did in 2020, there were nearly three times the activism-related deaths in African nations than were seen in 2019.
“This dataset is another stark reminder that fighting the climate crisis carries an unbearably heavy burden for some, who risk their lives to save the forests, rivers and biospheres that are essential to counteract unsustainable global warming,” Madden said. “This must stop.”
The report echoes calls for better protection for activists coming from the United Nations, European Union and other global bodies. It also calls on businesses to ensure their practices are aligned with human rights and climate protections in their countries of operation.
The complete report is available from Global Witness here.