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Women from Yulchen Frontera who are members of the Ixquisis Peaceful Resistance against the San Mateo Hydroelectric Project in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, whose story we covered in our 2019 report Enemies of the State. Credit: James Rodriguez.

Land and environmental defenders

Land and environmental defenders play a crucial role in protecting their land - and our climate - against destructive business practices. Yet more defenders than ever are being killed, while others are threatened, criminalised and attacked. Businesses, financiers and governments must protect defenders and bring those who harm them to justice.

In 2012 Global Witness mourned the death of a fellow campaigner, Chut Wutty, who was murdered by military police while showing journalists an illegal logging site. His death prompted us to research others like it and we published the first in what has become a series of annual reports, to raise awareness - particularly among policymakers - of the killings and threats against those who stand up to destructive business practices.

Land and environmental defenders are ordinary people trying to peacefully protect their homes, livelihoods and the health of our planet from the harmful impacts of industries like oil and gas, mining and agribusiness. For years, they have led the global fight  against the causes and impacts of climate breakdown, challenging irresponsible businesses rampaging unhampered through forests, wetlands, oceans and biodiversity hotspots.

Yet, as we documented in Defending Tomorrow, 212 land and environmental defenders were murdered in 2019 - the highest number of killings we have ever recorded and an average of four people a week since the Paris Agreement was signed.  While mining and logging continue to drive many attacks, agribusiness has risen in recent years as a major arena in which threats and attacks against defenders take place, as companies seek to expand their beef, soy and palm oil operations.

Communities, many of them indigenous, who have protected their land for generations, are left in the firing line of unaccountable companies, state security forces and contract killers. A lack of attention to the problem has fed endemic levels of impunity, with investigations into killings rare, and even fewer prosecutions.

In a savage irony, while the killers go free, the activists themselves are being branded as criminals. The powerful are increasingly using laws, arrests, intimidation and smear campaigns to silence those who oppose them. These subtler threats don’t make headlines like murders do – which is why they are so effective for silencing dissent.

Our ultimate goal is to end the attacks and killings of land and environmental defenders and to address the root causes of attacks against them. To work towards this goal, we raise awareness of the issue with global decision makers, amplify defenders’ voices and support their campaigns and advocacy. The international coverage we helped generate for our partners in the Philippines has, they told us, increased pressure on the government to cease extra-judicial killings of defenders. 

We campaign for governments and international organisations to adopt regulations that respect and protect environmental defenders, and to bring perpetrators to justice. Alongside local NGOs we helped push the government of Honduras to actively investigate the murder of Berta Caceres.

Lastly, we are pressuring businesses and financiers to look at their supply chains and operations, such as securing a commitment from agribusiness companies named in our report Defending the Philippines that they will review and strengthen their policies and commitments to defenders.

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Defending Tomorrow

Our annual report into the killings of land and environmental defenders in 2019 shows the highest number yet have been murdered in a single year
Defenders Multiple - Hub page image

Land and environmental defenders: annual report archive

Since 2012, we have reported annually on killings of land and environmental defenders around the world.

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Press releases

Blogs

Policy Briefings

Joseph Sandinao Defender from Philippines

Philippines

Duterte’s broken promises are leaving activists at the mercy of business at all costs in the Philippines, the country with the most killings of land and environmental defenders in 2018
Brazil Environment Deforestation

Brazil

The climate-critical Amazon rainforest is under major threat from destructive agribusiness. Brazil is also one of the deadliest countries in the world for land and environmental defenders, many of them from indigenous communities