Over 200 Environmentalists Murdered in 2017

By Nina Rygh, Asia Reporter

Environmentalists across the world are being threatened, attacked, or even killed protecting the land and traditional ways of life.

A record number of 207 environmentalist activists were killed last year while protecting local land against development. These killing are most often linked to lucrative projects overseen by global agribusinesses or government actors.

Global Witness, an international NGO that works to protect human rights and the environment, has released a report called At What Cost? documenting 207 cases of environmentalist killed while safeguarding local land against development, making 2017 the deadliest year on record for environmentalists.

These rarely prosecuted murders are being documented more than ever before, with 24 countries studied this year compared to 16 in 2016. The agribusiness which includes, coffee, palm oil, and banana plantations is associated with the most attacks, and 46 defenders were killed during protests against these productions.

Latin America was the deadliest region with 60 % of the murders, with Brazil having 57 deaths in total, the most ever recorded in one year in a single country.

Mario do Socorro Costa da Silva campaigns with indigenous communities in Brazil against hydro aluminum factories and openly states, "Of course my life is at risk, I receive death threats 24 hours a day because I'm not going to shut my mouth in the face of this atrocity."

Hernán Bedoya from Colombia was shot 14 times by a paramilitary group for protesting palm oil and banana plantations encroaching on his community’s territory and destroying the forest.

The violence is not contained to one continent. Africa remains a continent challenging to secure accurate reports from, but the deaths include five park rangers in Africa’s Virunga National Park, which is home to some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.

The Philippines saw more killings in 2017 than ever documented in a single Asian country. In this country, a community near Lake Sebu was protesting the expansion of a major coffee plantation, was attacked by military forces, leaving eight dead, five wounded, and forcing 200 to flee.

The data collected is most likely a sizeable underestimate, but it demonstrates the risks defenders face every day and how they continue to grow.

Widespread impunity makes it difficult for global witnesses to identify perpetrators, but government security forces have been linked to 53 of the killings and non-state actors to 90 of the incidents. The search is ongoing and relies upon a unification between the law enforcement and the local community.

“We have strict criteria for documenting murders of land and water defenders, but many other killings go unreported,” said Billy Kyte, campaign leader for Global Witness, co-author of the report.

Ben Leather is a senior campaigner at Global Witness and said that governments are not doing enough to protect these individuals.

"Governments have a legal and ethical duty to protect human rights defenders, but they're usually attacking them verbally and, as our statistics show, through their armed forces who are conducting some of the killings," said Leather.

As well as calling for more accountability and greater protection for at-risk communities, leather said agribusiness investors and even consumers could help reduce the violence by demanding better transparency.

The debate over how to stop these killings is ongoing, and while governments and law enforcement discuss the best policies, human rights activists and environmentalists continue to worry about their own safety.