Dying for the planet

Hundreds of people are killed every year while trying to defend the planet

14th January 2019

As the climate crisis escalates, activists who strive to protect the environment will likely prove to be more vital than ever. But as figures show, defending mother Earth is a shockingly dangerous line of work.

At least 207 people were killed in 2017 as a result of their attempts to defend the environment. Among other things, protestors have been shot by paramilitary organisations on the orders of businesses trying to take over forests for agricultural use. Many charities and organisations are coming together to draw attention to this heinous problem, and pressure governments to thoroughly punish those responsible.

Criminal gangs are thought to be responsible for 32 of the killings, with poachers contributing a further 12 murders. Shockingly, the armed forces are thought to be behind 30, and an additional 13 are attributed to paramilitary forces. The police are believed to have committed a further 12. While these are only the suspected killers in some cases, 58 environmental defenders were killed by unknown perpetrators. To make matters worse, the real figure is likely to be higher, as there are major limitations in what is reported.

Across 22 countries, the deaths reached almost four per week throughout 2017. Most deaths occurred in Latin America, which saw 60% of those killed. Brazil saw 57 people killed – the most of any country over the year. The highest death toll of any Asian country came in the Phillippines, where 48 were killed.

Former Brazilian President Michel Temer took steps during his relatively short presidency to reduce the rights of landowners and indigenous people. Despite the growing threat of Global Warming and environmental destruction, Temer also gave more power to big businesses seeking to plunder the Amazon.

Agribusiness is a major driver behind deforestation in the Amazon

His successor, the recently appointed Jair Bolsanaro, is a highly-controversial figure often likened to Donald Trump. Throughout the election campaign Bolsonaro had signalled that we would go further in offering up Brazil’s rainforests to big business, and within hours of taking office he had transferred powers relating to Rainforest and environmental protections to the agriculture ministry, which is widely understood to be controlled by the agribusiness lobby.

The mining industry has historically been the cause of the most bloodshed, yet 2017 saw agriculture overtaking it. The major cause of the bloodshed is big corporations acting unethically or illegally. In addition to those who are killed, many more are threatened into compliance with death threats, arrests, legal action and sexual assault threats.


Hernán Bedoya, leader of the Mi Tierra Biodiversity Zone, was riding home on his horse in December 2017, when he was stopped by two members of the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia – a name the paramilitary group took to detract from their drug trafficking background. They shot him 14 times. He was targeted for protesting the banana and palm oil plantations set up on land which had been taken from his community. Bedoya wasn’t the first leader killed for opposing the plantations on his land, and he most likely won’t be the last.

When paramilitaries murdered his father in December 2017, eighteen-year-old Ramón Bedoya inherited the struggle against palm oil plantations who want to develop an area covering his family’s land and a biodiversity zone.

Colombia has seen a surge in killings of human rights and environmental activists following the 2016 peace accord between the Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia (FARC) and the government. Since then, other armed groups have filled the vacuum with deadly consequences for activists and indigenous groups opposed to exploitative business projects. 

Elsewhere, other countries face similar issues. Since 2009’s US-supported coup, Honduras has seen 130 environmental defenders killed, meaning there have been more deaths of this kind there per capita than anywhere else in the past decade.

A graffiti mural honouring Berta Cáceres in her hometown of Tegucigalpa 📷 disoniador

The trial for the murder of indigenous leader Berta Cáceres began on 17th September 2018, and resulted in the conviction of seven men for her murder, with an eighth defendant being cleared. Cáceres was shot in her home town of Tegucigalpa, for her role in protesting against the controversial Agua Zarca hydropower dam in Río Blanco. Her death ignited fury across Honduras and despite the results of the trial, many still feel justice is yet to be fully served. 

Prior to her death in March 2016, the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winner was a co-founder of Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) – an organisation now calling on the government of Honduras to prosecute those who ordered the killing, not just the aforementioned eight.

Global Witness previously highlighted the links between DESA – the company building the Agua Zarca dam – the Honduran state, and it’s military. Of the eight who stood trial, most have links to the Honduran military or DESA, although Global Witness and COPINH believe those who ordered Cáceres’ death are still out there.

The way forward

Heather Iqbal, Senior Communications Advisor at Global Witness went into detail about how members of the public can help. “Land and environmental defenders are on the frontline of fighting climate change, preserving ecosystems, safeguarding human rights and ensuring a cleaner, greener planet for us all. We need them. And if we want to ensure they can continue to do their work in safety, we have to become a critical part of the equation.

“It’s up to us to let businesses know that their reputations will suffer if they don’t do more to prevent attacks against defenders, and that governments who fail to protect them will be called out.

“To do so, we need to use our voices to amplify the voices of defenders, highlighting the critical work they do and the challenges they face on a daily basis. Sign up to the Global Witness campaign to keep updated with the action that you can take. Despite the odds they face, the global community of environmental and land defenders is not going away – it’s only getting stronger. We will campaign alongside them, taking their struggle to the corridors of power and the boardrooms of corporations. We will not tire in our fight to ensure that their voices are heard.”

The inaction of governments and business has helped fuel the surge in killings of people protesting against large-scale agriculture,

Heather continued to explain how the problem is still continuing in the modern age. “The combined force of both governments and businesses failing to act responsibly is a massive part of why this is happening. That’s both ethically and even legally – making them a major driving force behind a litany of crimes against activists last year.

“Their inaction has helped fuel the surge in killings of people protesting against large-scale agriculture, as the global rush for land gathers pace.

And their willingness to turn a blind eye has permitted the systemic impunity that lets perpetrators know they will almost certainly never be brought to justice. In fact, governments are often complicit in the attacks. One of the most shocking facts outlined in our annual report is the number of killings committed by government security forces at the behest of their political bosses and in league with industry.”

14th January 2019