2019 saw record killings of environmental human rights defenders

Anna Triponel

July 27, 2020

In its latest annual report on land and environmental defenders, Defending Tomorrow: The Climate Crisis and Threats Against Land and Environmental Defenders, advocacy organization Global Witness reports that threats and violence against defenders continue to rise, with 2019 being “the highest year ever for killings – 212 were murdered in 2019.” In total, Global Witness finds there is an average of four defenders killed every week since December 2015, the month of the signature of the Paris Climate agreement.

Global Witness’s data comes from its own database which pulls from international and national datasets on killings and disappearances, desk research, and verified accounts with stakeholders on the ground in the highest-risk countries. Nonetheless, Global Witness believes that its “data on killings is likely to be an underestimate, given that many murders go unreported, particularly in rural areas.” In addition to the 212 defenders murdered in 2019, “reports show that many more were attacked, jailed or faced smear campaigns because of their work.”

Below are some of the top-line findings of Global Witness’s reporting:

Geographical trends:

  • Colombia and the Philippines were the source of more than half of reported killings in 2019:
  • “Both have seen a rise in attacks against land and environmental defenders since 2018, with killings in Colombia in 2019 peaking at 64 activists – the highest Global Witness has ever recorded in the country.”
  • In 2018, the Philippines experienced 30 murders of defenders, the most recorded killings of any country; this number spiked to 43 in 2019, likely due to the “relentless vilification of defenders by the government and widespread impunity for their attackers.” The Philippines also had the highest number of murders linked to the extractives and mining sector in 2019.
  • The highest number of murders of defenders per capita occurred in Honduras, followed by (in order) Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the Philippines.
  • Latin America experienced the most killings of defenders of any region (two-thirds of the total number), a trend that has continued since Global Witness began publishing data in 2012. Global Witness also reports that the Amazon region experienced 33 deaths in 2019, with nearly 90% of killings in Brazil occurring in the Amazon.

Sector trends:

  • The mining and extractives sector accounted for 50 killings in 2019, followed by agribusiness (34), logging (24), illegal crops substitution (14), land reform (11), water and dams (6), poaching (4), and fishing (1). A further 80 killings occurred in other sectors or had no clear link to a sector.
  • In 2019, 85% of attacks linked to agribusiness occurred in Asia, with nearly 90% of these occurring in the Philippines.
  • The logging sector had an 85% increase in the number of attacks since 2018, the highest increase of any sector in 2019.

Particularly vulnerable groups:

  • Although they make up only 5% of the global population, “40% of murdered defenders belonged to indigenous communities” in 2019. Further, “between 2015 and 2019 over a third of all fatal attacks have targeted indigenous people,” compounding the already high risks of human rights abuses they face.
  • More than 10% of defenders killed in 2019 were women. Global Witness reports that “women tend to take on more of the responsibility of looking after children and elderly relatives, on top of trying to earn a living and work as activists.” As a result, they face disproportionate human rights risks, including risks to the security of their families and communities.
  • In addition, “women who act and speak out may also face gender-specific threats, including sexual violence. If other members of their household are defenders, they can become targeted too.”

Global Witness urges governments, companies and investors to take action to end killings of environmental and land defenders. Some of the key recommendations for private sector actors are below.

Global Witness calls on companies to:

  • Respect defender rights by addressing adverse human rights impacts of their operations and supply chains, consulting with impacted stakeholders, and preventing reprisals against defenders
  • “Develop and implement zero-tolerance policies on threats against defenders,” and monitor compliance and effectiveness of these policies in practice
  • “Ensure full cooperation with any investigations into attacks” and provide remedy for human rights impacts on defenders and communities
  • Use their leverage to put pressure on business partners and suspend projects where defenders have been threatened, “until robust measures are taken to protect those at risk and prevent further harm.”

Global Witness calls on investors to:

  • “Screen portfolios for defender-related risks”
  • “Establish early warning systems to detect and prevent potential conflicts”
  • “Include contractual provisions in all project contracts requiring compliance with the company’s defender policy”
  • Pressure companies to provide “transparent and accessible publication of human rights impact assessments and due diligence processes”

Source: Global Witness, Defending Tomorrow: The Climate Crisis and Threats Against Land and Environmental Defenders (July 2020)

“Communities across the world are standing up to carbon-intensive industries and exposing unsustainable business practices wreaking havoc on ecosystems and our climate. These are the people on the frontline of the climate crisis, trying to protect climate-critical areas and reverse these devastating practices.”                      

        Global Witness, Defending Tomorrow: The Climate Crisis and Threats Against Land and Environmental Defenders (July 2020)

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