Nearly 2,000 Environmental Defenders Killed in Last 10 Years

Guarani Indigenous people and environmental activists protest the murder of British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in the Amazon rainforest
Guarani Indigenous people and environmental activists protest the murder of British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in the Amazon rainforest, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 18, 2022. NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP via Getty Images
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At a rate of every other day for the past 10 years, an environmental defender has lost their life protecting their home.

That’s one sobering statistic from the latest Global Witness report “Decade of Defiance: Ten Years of Reporting Land and Environmental Activism Worldwide.” For every year since 2012, the environmental and human rights organization has published a record of every death of a land or environmental defender it could verify. Now, in 2022, the organization is taking a moment to reflect on the 1,733 lives lost in what amounts to a war for the future of life on Earth.

“We are not just in a climate emergency,” Dr. Vandana Shiva wrote in the report’s foreword. “We are in the foothills of the sixth mass extinction, and these defenders are some of the few people standing in the way. They don’t just deserve protection for basic moral reasons. The future of our species, and our planet, depends on it.”

A Decade of Defiance 

Over 10 years of completing their reports, Global Witness has noticed some patterns. Thirty-nine percent of the defenders killed have been Indigenous and 68 percent of the killings have taken place in Latin America. Almost all of them have occurred in the Global South.  

The deadliest countries for defenders for the past decade have been Brazil, with 342 killings; Colombia, with 322; and the Philippines, with 270. In Brazil, more than 85 percent of the killings have taken place in the Amazon rainforest, which is a constant battleground between extractive industries looking to exploit the territory and Indigenous peoples defending their homes and way of life. Around a third of those killed in Brazil were either Indigenous or Afro-Brazilian. In the Philippines, violence has also been linked to extractive industries, in this case mining followed by agribusiness. More than 40 percent of the victims have also been Indigenous. 

There are also certain things the most violent countries for defenders have in common. These include highly unequal land ownership, a history of violent conflict — as in Colombia, government corruption, a shrinking civil society and no accountability for large corporations. 

“We’ve seen clear trends and patterns when it comes to threats and attacks against defenders over the last ten years: across the Global South violence occurs where there is a lack of civic protections for activism and where the priority is placed on resource extraction,” a Global Witness spokesperson told EcoWatch in an email. “Communities, many of them Indigenous, who have protected their land for generations, are left in the firing line of unaccountable companies, state security forces and contract killers. Impunity is rife, with credible investigations into killings rare, and even fewer prosecutions.”

One trend that’s harder to see is whether the situation is getting better or worse for defenders overall. That’s because Global Witness has gotten better at collecting data over the years, but is also aware it is likely underestimating the number of deaths, since many are never reported and the organization strives for a high standard of accuracy. 

“Whilst the figures for individual countries may vary from year to year, overall figures remain horribly high and urgent action is needed from governments to protect defenders,” the spokesperson said. 

2021’s Report: Dismissing the ‘Zone of Silence’

The new report also gathers figures from 2021. Last year, a total of 200 land and environmental defenders were killed, or about four people for every week. In keeping with decadal patterns, more than 40 percent of the murdered defenders were Indigenous. More than three quarters of the attacks were in Latin America and more than a quarter had known connections to extractive activities like mining, logging, agribusiness and hydroelectric dams. 

On a country-by-country basis, Mexico saw the most killings, followed by Colombia and Brazil. In Mexico, killings increased for a third year in a row. A total of 54 people lost their lives in the country in 2021, nearly half of them Indigenous. Two-thirds of the deaths were connected to land conflicts or the mining industry.

One of these was the death of José Santos Isaac Chávez, an Indigenous lawyer who dared to run for office in his community of Ayotitlán while vocally opposing the operations of the Peña Colorada iron ore mine. Owned by the Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal and Ternium steel corporations, the mine has operated since the 1970s in the area around the Sierra de Manatlán UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. 

“The mine has destroyed the Cerro de Los Juanes mountain, turning the surrounding area into a wasteland,” the report states. “Mining operations have driven deforestation, loss of wildlife, climatic changes and toxic contamination.” 

Activists and journalists have maintained that people who opposed the mine in the past have disappeared or been murdered, and Chávez was only the most recent. In April of last year, his body was found in the wreck of his car at the bottom of a cliff. There was evidence he had been tortured. 

Adriana Sugey Cadenas Salmerón, a lawyer who coordinates the human-rights and environmental organization Tskini, said that violence was indeed increasing in Mexico. While there are several hypotheses as to why, Indigenous communities like one in Ayotitlán that Tskini is defending have lived for centuries in areas rich in natural resources that large companies now want to exploit. 

“We are going against their interests, which are the interests of millionaires,” she told EcoWatch. 

Salmerón saw hope in the immediate publication of the Global Witness report because it would bring attention to the struggles of the Ayotitlán community, which has been stuck in what she called a  “zone of silence.” The report noted that the mining company does not allow outside researchers to enter the mine to assess conditions. 

“This report will help a great deal to dismiss this zone of silence,” she said. 

The Next Decade? 

While stories like Chávez’s are tragic, there are signs of hope that a global movement is coalescing around defending land defenders. 

“Where we are seeing change is in the opportunities to tackle violence against defenders. Businesses are now more aware of the threats that defenders face with a number establishing specific policies on human rights defenders; and some governments, predominantly in Europe, either have or are in the process of introducing mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence for companies,” a Global Witness spokesperson said.

Further, on April, 22, 2021, the first-ever legal agreement applying to environmental defenders entered into force. This is the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, or the Escazú Agreement, and signatories must both investigate and take steps to combat violence against defenders. So far, it has been ratified but yet not carried out in Mexico. Salmerón said there were many positives to the accord, but the government in Mexico moves slowly. In Colombia and Brazil, it has not yet been ratified. 

There is some hope the situation might improve in Colombia following the June election of the country’s first left-wing President Gustavo Petro and its first Black Vice President Francia Marquez, a Goldman Environmental Prize winner. However, a Global Witness spokesperson said it was too soon to assess any impact the new government might have. In Brazil, there is also a chance for change if right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, whose anti-Indigenous rhetoric has emboldened the violence of extractive industries against land defenders in the Amazon, is defeated in October’s election

Moving into the next decade, Global Witness wants to see governments step up to defend their own citizens by overturning any legislation that criminalizes defenders and respecting the rights of Indigenous communities to free, prior, and informed consent; maintaining their lifestyles; enjoying a healthy environment; life; freedom; and free speech. 

“Ultimately, we’d like to see governments reporting, investigating, and providing remedy for the killings of defenders themselves,” a Global Witness spokesperson said. 

They also emphasized the role of governments in the Global North, who need to ensure companies based in their countries are held accountable for the violence in their supply chains. 

Defenders and the Climate Crisis 

As in last year’s report, Global Witness emphasized the link between the violence of the climate crisis and the violence against environmental defenders.

“Defenders are not only on the frontline protecting their land and resources — and ultimately our earth — from climate-destructive industries such as logging and mining, but they are also the ones most [affected] by extreme weather events caused by the climate crisis, from the wildfires in the Amazon to floods in the Philippines,” a Global Vision spokesperson said. 

Yet the report also offers a warning of what might happen to these same defenders if wealthy companies in the Global North attempt to mitigate the climate crisis using the same exploitative logic that birthed it.  An emerging displacer of Indigenous communities is the voluntary carbon market, in which wealthy companies offset their emissions by funding forestry or renewable energy projects in the Global South. While this might sound positive, it can be harmful in practice. Thousands of people in Uganda were forced from their traditional homes to make way for a Green Resources tree plantation, and three Indigenous defenders were killed in Honduras in 2015 for resisting a dam on their land that had been funded as a carbon offset. 

Salmerón also said the demand for minerals for clean energy projects and electric vehicles was fueling the mining industry in Mexico, and, therefore, violence against people who did not want their ancestral lands exploited for the profits of others.

“While the capitalist system exists, violence will keep increasing in our country and around the world,” she said. 

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