In the last decade, at least 1,733 people have been killed trying to protect their lands and the environment worldwide. More than half of the attacks have taken place in Latin American countries, the report A Decade of Resistance by Global Witness, a London-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that documents these types of abuses since 2012, indicates.
“The panorama is devastating,” Carolina Oviedo, a researcher at the Center for Development Alternatives, a Colombian NGO that seeks alternatives to socio-environmental conflicts, told Diálogo on October 11. “This report allows us to take up discussions about the violence to socio-environmental leaders that is rooted in a deeply extractive development system.”
According to the report, released on September 29, 200 environmentalists were killed worldwide in 2021, an average of nearly four people per week. The report also finds that 40 percent of all fatal attacks were directed at indigenous peoples, even though they represent only 5 percent of the world’s population.
Mexico and Colombia
Mexico had 54 cases of defenders killed, followed by Colombia with 33 deaths, and Brazil with 26 cases. In Nicaragua, criminal groups killed 15 indigenous land rights defenders in systematic and widespread violence against the Miskitu and Mayangna indigenous peoples.
Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places for activists. Violence is widespread in areas where drug cartels and other criminal groups fight for control of territory. In the north of the country criminal groups exploit timber, mines, and fishing resources, The New York Times reported.
In Colombia, on August 7, 2022, environmental and animal rights leader Javier Usechi was murdered in the north of Valle del Cauca, one of the most violent regions in the country. This case brings to 111 the number of leaders murdered in 2022, the Colombian newspaper El Espectador reported.
Also in Valle del Cauca, Sandra Liliana Peña, governor of the indigenous territory La Laguna, had openly opposed illegal crops and had been the target of threats. In April 2021, four armed men forced her out of her home and shot her dead, the report details.
“Our data on killings represent the tip of the iceberg,” this is because conflict, restrictions on press freedom, civil society, and the lack of independent monitoring of attacks on defenders, results in underreporting, Global Witness indicates.
Many activists and communities are also being silenced through death threats, surveillance, sexual violence, or criminalization. These types of attacks are even less reported than killings, the report says.
Although “in Colombia we had a reduction in cases of deaths of environmental leaders, they continue to be high compared to other countries in the region,” Oviedo said. “The deaths of environmentalists and the defense of territory will continue.”
According to Global Witness, most of the attacks and threats to activists are related to land conflicts, resource exploitation, mining, logging, and infrastructure construction. Organized crime is also one of the main threats against defenders.
The murders of defenders represent not only the loss of lives, but of cultures, languages, and traditional knowledge. Species are also disappearing at an accelerating rate. In addition, “we are in the midst of a climate emergency,” the report indicates.
Global Witness calls on governments to create a safe environment for human rights defenders and civic space to develop, as well as encourage companies and financial institutions to fulfill their legal responsibility regarding human rights.
Companies must guarantee the traceability of the products they receive (such as meat, gold, timber, fish), so that “they do not come stained with blood,” Oviedo said. They must also create “a public-private alliance to ensure that traceability processes are more effective.”