Ethan Shone 29th July 2020
At least 212 people were killed in 2019 for trying to defend the environment against agri-business, mining and other industries — the highest annual death rate ever recorded, according to a monitoring group.
A new report by Global Witness also reveals how thousands more environmental defenders suffered violence, threats and persecution from organised criminals, poachers and even state actors.
Global Witness investigate and log the killings of environmental defenders every year, and found that 2019 was the most deadly yet. Now, on average, four environmental defenders have been killed every week since the Paris Climate agreement was signed in 2015.
These killings most often result from campaigns to defend resource-rich lands from business interests. The mining industry was linked to 50 killings in 2019, the highest number of deaths associated with any sector. A further 34 deaths were linked to large-scale agriculture projects.
Aside from industry, repressive governments and their armed forces were linked to 37 of the killings, with most of the rest attributed to organised criminals and paramilitary groups.
Too much bloodshed
Half of all the killings took place in Colombia and the Philippines, and while there was only one murder logged in Europe, violence is common across the world.
When a 2016 agreement put an end to the decades-long war between government forces and rebels in Colombia, many hoped that lasting and widespread peace would soon follow. But as the government has failed to reassert control in those areas previously held by rebel groups, the paramilitary and criminal elements which have filled the power vacuum are responsible for considerable violence against land and environmental defenders.
Global Witness recorded the killings of 64 defenders in Colombia in 2019 – more than anywhere in the world. Half of those killed came from indigenous communities, who make up less than 5% of the population.
A genocide is being presented against the indigenous communities
Colombia’s constitutional court declared several indigenous cultures at risk of extinction in 2019, and the National Organisation for the Indigenous People of the Colombian Amazon said: “A genocide is being presented against the indigenous communities.”
The Cauca region, in south-western Colombia, is particularly dangerous. It’s here that the Goldman Environmental prize-winning activist Francia Márquez successfully campaigned against illegal mining in La Toma, before being forced from her home due to threats and harassment.
Márquez and several other activists were attacked by men armed with guns and grenades in the town of Lomitas, in May 2019, though miraculously managed to escape unharmed after a prolonged assault. Following the attack, Márquez took to Twitter with a message of defiance, she wrote:
“The attack that we leaders were victim to yesterday in the afternoon invites us to continue working towards peace in our territory, in the department of Cauca and in our country, there has already been too much bloodshed.”
While people were being killed, harassed and persecuted all over the world in retaliation for their efforts at protecting the environment, the planet itself provided ever more validation for their cause. Global temperatures spiked, again, forest fires turned huge swathes of woodland to ash at opposite ends of the map, and sea-levels crept higher, and higher.
Nowhere is this dire need for action made more apparent than in the Phillippines, the country most at-risk of multiple climate hazards, yet those who attempt to defend their lands are persecuted and killed more often here than almost anywhere else in the world.
Fighting for the future
The rainforests of the Pantaron Mountain Range stretch for countless miles across six provinces in the Philippines. They are one of the country’s most biodiverse areas, providing a home for endangered animals such as the Philippines eagle. They are also home to the indigenous Talaingod-Manobo people of Mindanao. Their chieftain, Bai Bibtaon Ligkayan — the first ever woman chieftain of the Manobo peoples — has spent decades leading the defence of this lush and vital environment against commercial logging and mining companies. But in recent years, as more companies came to the area, followed by the military, this has become an increasingly dangerous cause.
When Datu Kaylo Bontolan, a Manobo leader and friend of Bigkay, was killed during a military airstrike operation in northern Mindanao while documenting violence against his community, the armed forces attempted to characterise him as a criminal, posting an image of his body online alongside misleading claims about the nature of his death.
Global Witness report that this is an increasingly common tactic across the world. Activists are described as rebels or terrorists, which then gives authoritarian governments cover to commit human rights abuses against them, particularly using legislation such as the Philippines’ Anti-Terrorism Act, which can too easily be used to target anyone critical of the government, according to campaigners.
If these lands are taken away from us it will not just hurt our tribe and our culture, but also our future
While their communities are increasingly put at risk, indigenous schools in the Philippines continue to educate the next generation about their culture and the ecology of their ancestral lands. By doing so, they enable these children to follow in their family’s footsteps to defend their homelands, but the government has initiated a crackdown on these indigenous schools, with the department for Education ordering their closure in October last year.
Rius Valle, a spokesperson for Save Our School Network, said: “For all indigenous people around the world, our culture is rooted in our land. If these lands are taken away from us it will not just hurt our tribe and our culture, but also our future. That is why the creation of our indigenous schools is an expression to defend out ancestral land and the environment.”
Ethan Shone 29th July 2020