Last year was the deadliest on record for environmental activists, according to new figures released by the UK NGO Global Witness.
The organization’s latest report documents a “crisis” spreading globally as the number of countries in which killings were recorded countries shot up from 16 to 24. 60% of deaths occurred in Latin America, which means that the region remains the most dangerous one in the world in which to oppose environmental degradation.
Yet again, Brazil, which has witnessed particularly bloody land conflicts in recent months, ranks first with 49 murders. Nicaragua has the highest rate of killings per capita: 11. And in Colombia, figures hit an all-time high: 37.
“This report tells a very grim story. The battle to protect the planet is rapidly intensifying and the cost can be counted in human lives”, says Ben Leather, a campaigner at Global Witness.
In Asia, resistance to big mining projects in such countries as India and the Philippines has been met with state-sanctioned repression and violence. India has witnessed a three-fold increase in killings and the Philippines, where 28 activists were killed last year, stands out as the most lethal country in the region.
Logging and agriculture, including extensive cattle ranching, are two other main drivers of conflict, the report says.
Peace is dangerous for Colombia
Last year, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) gave up control of swathes of rural territory as part of a historic peace process, deforestation and environmental degradation increased.
Deforestation rose 44 percent in 2016, encompassing an area of 690 square miles, as criminal groups moved into areas vacated by the FARC and engaged in illegal logging and mining, according to figures released by the Colombian government’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM). The Amazonian regions of Putumayo, CaquetÃ¡, Meta and Guaviare, in the south, were the worst affected.
“They [the FARC] weren’t environmentalists, but they did regulate activity, and—since they had the guns—people complied”, activist Susana Muhamad recently told The Guardian. Under their watch, they limited deforestation by civilians to 2 hectares per year, so as to maintain forest cover which helped their protection from government forces.
Along with rising deforestation, killings of those defending land and the environment have also increased. “The peace process in Colombia has paradoxically fueled more violence against those who defend their land and the environment against destructive industries”, says Billy Kyte, leader of Global Witness’ land and environmental defenders campaign.
Kyte explains that communities returning to reclaim lands lost during the armed conflict are now facing paramilitary groups, large landowners and criminal gangs eager to profit from Colombia’s rich natural resources.
It is the Colombian government’s responsibility to promote the rule of law in rural Colombia and make areas safe for communities, Kyte adds, before promoting environmentally degrading development projects.
Earlier this year, at least one expert questioned Global Witness’ methodology in a special report profiling the situation in Honduras. He argued that it conflated killings of environmentalists and victims of agrarian conflict.
“Global Witness’ report doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny,” said JosÃ© Herrero, vice-president of the conservation foundation FUCSA, arguing that the “confusion” of the categories of victims in the report inflated the figures.
Kyte, who was intimidated and threatened with arrest for promoting the report in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, defends Global Witness’ data collection methods: “We compile data on land and environmental defenders – people who defend land or environmental rights. Our definition and criteria for inclusion is and always has been very clear – we don’t just record killings on environmentalists,” he says.