Today, reporting on the environment is almost as dangerous as reporting on war. That is the sad conclusion of a new report, which found that at least 13 – and as many as 29 – journalists have died investigating environmental destruction over the past decade. Many more have faced violence, harassment, intimidation and legal persecution.
Sadly, this comes as little surprise. For the past seven years, we at Global Witness have been recording the rising numbers of activists who have been killed defending their land and the environment. Their deaths are emblematic of the increasing drive by big business and often corrupt governments to exploit our natural resources at all costs – and stop anyone standing in their way.
In 2017, 201 activists were murdered, probably far more as figures are so hard to verify. These numbers not only include journalists, but indigenous leaders, lawyers, activists and NGO workers amongst others. Not only are the numbers of attacks growing, but the industries driving them are becoming more diverse. As the scramble for resources intensifies, we are increasingly seeing conflict over not just agriculture and extractive industries but also illegal logging and hydropower (see more in our report At What Cost? here.)
They include people like Isidro Baldenegro, whose work defending the forests of Mexico’s Sierra Tarahumara from loggers and drug dealers saw him assassinated by a suspected hitman, just like his father. Or environmental journalists like Jagendra Singh, who was reportedly doused with petrol and set alight inside his own home for his coverage of illegal sand mining in India.
But deadly violence is only the tip of the iceberg. As defenders like Rene Pamplona know, exposing human rights abuses linked to extractive industries can make you a target for other kinds of intimidation. Rene won last year’s Alex Soros Foundation award for his campaigning, but that has not protected him from surveillance, intimidation and being placed on a suspected hit list.
There is also a murkier force at the heart of this conflict: the money that drives it. As our investigations have exposed, often environmental destruction and land grabbing are being financed by ordinary people’s savings without their knowledge. Global banks and even development institutions are fuelling the industries that put the environment, and the lives of activists and journalists, at risk.
Most people would be horrified to learn that investments like their very own pensions could be unwittingly funding violence against journalists and people defending their homes. But despite the UK’s pledges to lead the fight against climate breakdown, we are falling behind in holding our financial institutions accountable for funding human rights abuses and the destruction of the planet. We need stronger regulations to stop investors making profits at any cost and a more transparent system so we know how money is being used and where it is going.
At the end of July, we will release our newest annual figures on the deadly attacks and violence carried out against land and environment defenders in 2018. Whatever the numbers, one trend continues to be certain: the battle to protect our planet is more crucial than ever. As competition for ever-scarcer resources becomes more acute, we must push even harder to hold those in power accountable.