Record number of environmental activists killed in 2019

A record 212 land and environmental defenders were killed last year, equivalent to an average of more than four per week, according to a new report from NGO Global Witness.

The figure makes 2019 the deadliest year on record for activists defending land and water resources from mining, agribusiness and fossil fuel interests, said Global Witness in a report published Wednesday.

This represents a significant spike from 164 killings in 2018, and the true number is likely far higher, said the NGO, adding that cases often go undocumented.

Defenders are those who take a stand against environmental and human rights abuses driven by the exploitation of natural resources, according to Global Witness.

Colombia was the deadliest country in 2019 with 64 killings — up from 24 in 2018 — and was 30% of the global total last year.

Next on the list was the Philippines, with 43 killings. Brazil had 24 and almost 90% of the killings took place in the Amazon region.

Seven of the top ten worst affected nations are in Latin America, where more than two thirds of total killings took place. The region has consistently been the worst affected since Global Witness started gathering data in 2012.

It is also home to Honduras, the country with the largest percentage increase in killings, which jumped from four in 2018 to 14 last year.

Europe remains the least affected region, with two killings in Romania related to illegal logging. Seven killings were recorded in Africa, but verifying cases is a problem in the region, said Global Witness.

Mining was the deadliest sector, with 50 people killed, followed by agribusiness with 34.

Asia was a hotspot for attacks related to agribusiness, representing 85% of the global total. Of this number, nearly 90% took place in the Philippines.

There were also 24 killings related to logging, an 85% increase compared to 2018 and the largest spike of any sector.

Many campaigners are also silenced by arrests, lawsuits, threats and violent attacks, according to the report, and indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected.

In 2019, 40% of defenders killed were indigenous, despite the fact that these communities represent just 5% of the global population.

Female defenders face a specific set of threats, according to Global Witness. Women represent 10% of those killed in 2019, but they also face smear campaigns using sexist or sexual content, as well as sexual violence, said the NGO.

Global Witness underlined the work that defenders do in combating climate breakdown by opposing carbon intensive industries.

“Agribusiness and oil, gas and mining have been consistently the biggest drivers of attacks against land and environmental defenders — and they are also the industries pushing us further into runaway climate change through deforestation and increasing carbon emissions,” Rachel Cox, campaigner at Global Witness, said in a press release.

“If we really want to make plans for a green recovery that puts the safety, health and well-being of people at its heart, we must tackle the root causes of attacks on defenders, and follow their lead in protecting the environment and halting climate breakdown.”

The report also highlights several successes enjoyed by defenders around the world, praising them for their resilience.

One example is the Dayak Iban indigenous community in central Borneo, Indonesia, which now has legal ownership of 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) of land after a struggle that lasted decades.

Another is the Waorani indigenous tribe in Ecuador, which won a landmark ruling that bans the government from selling their lands for oil and gas exploration.