The year 2020 proved once again to be the most dangerous for the people who defend land and the environment. The year saw 227 lethal attacks (an average of more than four people a week) on people defending their homes, land and livelihoods, and ecosystems vital for biodiversity and the climate, according to a recent analysis by Global Witness, an international organisation.
In the analysis, they however, say that the data on killings does not capture the true scale of the problem. “In some countries, the situation facing defenders is hard to gauge – restrictions on a free press, or where the independent monitoring of attacks on defenders is not taking place, can lead to underreporting,” they noted n the analysis.
They also said that land disputes and environmental damage, which are the two prominent underlying causes behind communities’ activism, is also difficult to monitor.
Global Witness is an international NGO established in 1993. It works to break the links between natural resource exploitation, conflict, poverty, corruption and human rights abuses.
- Colombia has 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 five in 2019, making it the most dangerous country per capita for land and environmental defenders in 2020.
- 71 per cent of those killed were working to defend the forests from deforestation and industrial development. 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 seven 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.
- In Africa, 18 killings reported in 2020, compared to seven 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 nine 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.
- 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 five per cent of the world’s population. These were documented across Mexico, Central and South America and the Philippines. Indigenous people were also attacked in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. They the target of five of the seven mass killings recorded in 2020. In the most shocking of these, nine Tumandok indigenous people were killed and a further 17 arrested in raids by the military and police on the island of Panay in the Philippines.
- 28 of the victims killed in 2020 were state officials or park rangers, attacked whilst working to protect the environment.
- Over 1 in 10 of the defenders killed in 2020 was women. 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.
- At the global level, the United Nations, through its member states should:
- Formally recognise the human right to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment
- 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 environment defenders by ensuring effective and robust regulatory protection of the environment, labour rights, land rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, livelihoods and cultures,
- 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.