Two Environmental Activists Are Killed Each Week

Killings of people protecting the environment and rights to land increased sharply between 2002 and 2013 as competition for natural resources intensifies, the new Deadly Environment report from Global Witness has revealed.

The report, which is the most comprehensive global analysis of the problem on record, shows that at least 908 people are known to have died in this time. Disputes over industrial logging, mining and land rights are the key drivers, and Latin America and the Asia-Pacific have been particularly hard hit.

The report was released the day before the shooting of Emmanuel de Merode, the head of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park. De Merode was shot at least twice in an ambush on Tuesday and is in a serious but stable condition.

You can see a video of de Merode speaking at TEDx in 2011 below.

Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park, a World Heritage Site and home to some of the last remaining mountain gorillas on the planet. De Merode has been chief warden of Virunga since 2008 and a vocal opponent of oil exploration and the lucrative, illegal charcoal trade in the park.

The lack of attention to crimes against environment and land defenders is feeding endemic levels of impunity, and just over one per cent of the perpetrators are known to have been convicted.

“This shows it has never been more important to protect the environment, and it has never been more deadly,” said Oliver Courtney of Global Witness. “There can be few starker or more obvious symptoms of the global environmental crisis than a dramatic upturn in killings of ordinary people defending rights to their land or environment. Yet this rapidly worsening problem is going largely unnoticed, and those responsible almost always get away with it. We hope our findings will act as the wake-up call that national governments and the international community clearly need.”

The key findings of the report are as follows:

- At least 908 people were killed in 35 countries protecting rights to land and the environment between 2002 and 2013, with the death rate rising in the last four years to an average of two activists a week.

- 2012 was the worst year so far to be an environmental defender, with 147 killings. That’s nearly three times more than in 2002.

- Impunity for these crimes is rife: only 10 perpetrators are known to have been convicted between 2002 and 2013 – just over one per cent of the overall incidence of killings.

The problem is particularly acute in Latin America and South East Asia. Brazil is the most dangerous place to defend rights to land and the environment, with 448 killings, followed by Honduras with 109 and the Philippines with 67.

John Knox, UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment, added: “Human rights only have meaning if people are able to exercise them. Environmental human rights defenders work to ensure that we live in an environment that enables us to enjoy our basic rights, including rights to life and health. The international community must do more to protect them from the violence and harassment they face as a result.”

Indigenous communities are particularly hard hit. In many cases, their land rights are not recognized by law or in practice, leaving them open to exploitation by powerful economic interests who brand them as ‘anti-development’. Often, the first they know of a deal that goes against their interests is when the bulldozers arrive in their farms and forests.

Land rights form the backdrop to most of the known killings, as companies and governments routinely strike secretive deals for large chunks of land and forests to grow cash crops like rubber, palm oil and soya. At least 661 – that’s over two-thirds – of the killings took place in the context of conflicts over the ownership, control and use of land.

The research suggests that as well as failing to reduce emissions, governments are failing to protect the activists and ordinary citizens who find themselves on the frontline of this problem.

“This rapidly worsening situation appears to be hidden in plain sight, and that has to change,” said Andrew Simms of Global Witness. “2012, the year of the last Rio Summit, was the deadliest on record. Delegates gathering for climate talks in Peru this year must heed this warning – protection of the environment is now a key battleground for human rights. While governments quibble over the text of new global agreements, at the local level more people than ever around the world are already putting their lives on the line to protect the environment.

“At the very least, to start making good on official promises to stop climate change, governments should protect and support those personally taking a stand.”