200 land and environmental defenders murdered in 2021

Anna Triponel

October 7, 2022
Our key takeaway: In its tenth year of cataloguing attacks and violence against land and environmental defenders Global Witness reports a mixed picture, with some countries reducing the numbers of defenders killed annually while others continue to increase exponentially year over year. Overall, resource extraction is the biggest driver of conflict, with most murders of defenders in 2021 occurring in relation to mining, logging and agribusiness; others are linked to hydroelectric projects and other infrastructure. The human toll of these attacks is already devastating. But what does this mean for a world in climate crisis when defenders are often the last line of defence for serious human rights and environmental harm? In her foreword to the report, defender Dr. Vandana Shiva points out that the viewpoint of profits over people and planet has brought us to the “brink of collapse. We are not just in a climate emergency. 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.” Business has a crucial role to play by conducting robust human rights due diligence, committing (and acting) to respect human rights and environmental defenders, protecting and promoting land rights in the supply chain and working with governments and other partners to influence change at scale. 

Global Witness published Decade of Defiance: Ten Years of Reporting Land and Environmental Activism Worldwide (September 2022), focusing on the murders and disappearances of human rights and environmental defenders between January and December 2021:

  • Latin America remains a hotspot for violence, followed by Asia and Africa: Latin America accounted for more than 75% of attacks against defenders. Mexico had the highest recorded number of killings, with 54 people killed over the course of the year, 40% of whom were indigenous and a third of the total number were forcibly disappeared. The Amazon region was also a prime area, with 78% of the attacks in Brazil, Peru and Venezuela occurring in the Amazon. Globally, both Brazil and India experienced increases in killings, while Colombia and the Philippines dropped in numbers—regardless, Colombia and the Philippines are still two of the countries with the highest number of murders of defenders over the past decade. Global Witness also identified 10 murders in Africa, with 8 of these occurring in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, Global Witness cautions that it is difficult to catalogue cases across Africa, so many cases may be unreported
  • Top sectors implicated in killings of defenders, and who is at highest risk: According to the report, over 25% of the killings were reported to be linked to resource exploitation, specifically logging, mining and large-scale agribusiness, as well as to hydroelectric dams and infrastructure. Yet “this figure is likely to be higher as the reasons behind attacks on Land and Environmental Defenders are often not properly investigated nor reported on. In the majority of cases where a sector could not be identified, land conflicts were found to be a key driver of the attacks against defenders.” Mining was linked to the most killings (27 total), occurring in Mexico (15), followed by the Philippines (6), Venezuela (4), Nicaragua (1) and Ecuador (1). In keeping with the sectors and regions where attacks happen most often, Global Witness finds that indigenous people, small-scale farmers and women are at high risk of violence. For instance, more than 40% of attacks were against indigenous people, even though they make up only 5% of the global population. A quarter of all defenders killed were small-scale farmers, “highlighting how the relentless commodification and privatisation of land for industrial agriculture is putting small-scale farmers increasingly at risk as land deals ignore local tenure rights. Small-scale family agriculture, on which most of the world’s rural poor still depend, is threatened by large-scale plantations, export-led agriculture and the production of commodities over food.” And, approximately 1 in 10 of defenders killed were women, almost two-thirds of whom were indigenous. 
  • Three steps for companies to address this issue: The report includes three recommendations for companies to address attacks on defenders in their supply chains. Two of these actions can be taken directly by business acting alone: (1) “Identify, prevent, mitigate and remedy any harms in their operations against defenders: Implement robust due diligence procedures that seek to prevent, identify, mitigate and account for human rights and environmental harms throughout their operations. Company policies must explicitly include protocols for safeguarding the rights of Land and Environmental Defenders. Businesses must swiftly provide remedies where human rights and environmental harms occur.” (2) “Ensure legal compliance and corporate responsibility at all levels: Strictly implement a policy of zero-tolerance on reprisals and attacks on Land and Environmental Defenders, illegal land acquisition and violations of the right of free, prior and informed consent at all levels of business operations, including in their global operations, supply chains and business relationships. These policies should state who at the senior level will be responsible for legal compliance, as well as how it will be implemented and monitored, and clear red lines for prompt suspension or termination of contracts for non-compliant suppliers.” The report also calls on business and governments to jointly (3) “Implement a rights-based approach for addressing climate change: Ensure commitments to implement the Paris Agreement align with existing international human rights obligations and standards, and promote just and equitable solutions to climate change. This should include strengthening the land rights of Indigenous and traditional communities, and enhancing their participation in decision-making in recognition of the key role they play in protecting the world’s last remaining biodiverse areas.”

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