Press release | July 24, 2018

Deadliest year on record for land and environmental defenders, as agribusiness is shown to be the industry most linked to killings

NB: Since publication of this report new information has come to light which has meant the killing of 6 indigenous farmers in Peru in September 2017 no longer fits our criteria for inclusion. As such, the figures for 2017 have been revised to 201 killings globally with 40 linked to agribusiness and 2 occurring in Peru over the year.  Please contact us at [email protected] if you have any further enquiries on this or the methodology involved. 

Global Witness today reveals that at least 207 land and environmental defenders were killed last year – indigenous leaders, community activists and environmentalists murdered trying to protect their homes and communities from mining, agribusiness and other destructive industries.

For interviews with activists and field visits, please contact Heather ([email protected] +447828 505 758). High-quality imagery and video testimony can be found here. 

  • Global Witness annual figures show at least 207 land and environmental activists were killed in 2017 across 22 countries, almost 4 a week, making it the worst year on record.
  • The report shows a huge rise in killings linked to consumer products. Brutal attacks on those defending their land from destructive agriculture - such as land grabs for palm oil, used in household goods like soap, and coffee - are on the rise.      
  • It critically urges government and business to take action to end the attacks and support defenders, with campaigners such as Yuri Herrera, Margaret Atwood, Lily Cole, George Monbiot and Ben Fogle speaking out against the killings.

Global Witness today reveals that at least 207 land and environmental defenders were killed last year – indigenous leaders, community activists and environmentalists murdered trying to protect their homes and communities from mining, agribusiness and other destructive industries.

Severe limits on the data available mean the global total is probably much higher. Murder is the most egregious example of a range of tactics used to silence defenders, including death threats, arrests, intimidation, cyber-attacks, sexual assault and lawsuits.

The report “At What Cost?” shows that agribusiness has overtaken mining as the industry most associated with these attacks.

These include the murder of Hernán Bedoya in Colombia, shot 14 times by a paramilitary group for protesting against palm oil and banana plantations on land stolen from his community; an army massacre of eight villagers in the Philippines who opposed a coffee plantation on their land; and violent attacks by Brazilian farmers, using machetes and rifles, which left 22 members of the Gamela indigenous people severely injured, some with their hands chopped off.

The report links this violence with the products on our shelves: large-scale agriculture, mining, poaching, logging all produce components and ingredients for supermarket products such as palm oil for shampoo, soy for beef and timber for furniture.

The report also reveals that some governments and businesses are complicit in the killings, with Global Witness calling for urgent action if the trend is to be reversed. As well as being part of the problem, governments and business can be part of the solution. They must tackle the root causes of the attacks, for example ensuring communities are allowed to say ‘no’ to projects, like mining, on their land; support and protect defenders at risk and ensure justice is served for those suffering from the violence.

Ben Leather, Senior Campaigner, Global Witness said:

“Local activists are being murdered as governments and businesses value quick profit over human life. Many of the products emerging from this bloodshed are on the shelves of our supermarkets. Yet as brave communities stand up to corrupt officials, destructive industries and environmental devastation, they are being brutally silenced. Enough is enough.

“Governments, companies and investors have the duty and the power to support and protect defenders at risk, and to guarantee accountability wherever attacks occur. But more importantly, they can prevent these threats from emerging in the first place, by listening to local communities, respecting their rights, and ensuring that business is conducted responsibly.

“Despite the odds they face, the global community of land and environmental defenders is not going away – it’s only getting stronger. We invite consumers to join us in campaigning alongside defenders, taking their fight to the corridors of power and the boardrooms of corporations. We will make sure their voices are heard. And we will be watching to ensure that defenders, their land, and the environment we all depend on are properly protected.”

Other key findings include [More details on the report’s case studies can be found at the end of this release]:

  • Brazil recorded the worst year on record anywhere in the world, with 57 murders in 2017.
  • 48 defenders were killed in the Philippines in 2017—the highest number ever documented in an Asian country.
  • 60% recorded murders were in Latin America. Mexico and Peru saw marked increases in killings, from 3 to 15 and 2 to 8, respectively. Nicaragua was the worst place per capita with 4 murders.
  • For the first time, agribusiness was the bloodiest industry, with at least 46 murders linked to the sector. Killings linked to mining increased from 33 to 40, and 23 murders were related to logging.
  • Taking on poachers became even more dangerous, with a record 23 people murdered for taking a stand against the illegal wildlife trade - mostly park rangers in Africa.
  • Global Witness linked government security forces to 53 of last year’s murders, and non-state actors, like criminal gangs, to 90.
  • There was a large decrease in killings of land and environmental defenders in Honduras, though repression of civil society in general worsened.
  • Recent years has seen some increased recognition and action taken by governments and business, but much more must be done, and urgently, to tackle this issue.

The campaign has gained support from a number of high profile environmental campaigners including Yuri Herrera, Margaret Atwood, Lily Cole, George Monbiot, Ben Fogle, Paloma Faith and Martin Freeman. 

Margaret Atwood, writer and environmental commentator said:

“Communities who have cared for and lived from the same land for generations are being targeted by corporations and governments that want only to turn a profit rather than to support people’s futures.

“The appalling stories of women threatened with rape, homes burnt down, and families attacked with machetes are shocking at an individual level. Collectively, they show an epidemic of violence visited upon defenders of the earth. This violation of human rights calls for vigorous protest. This year, those people; next year, all who raise a hand to stop the pillaging of Nature for short-term gain.

“Global Witness’ report shows that up to four environmental defenders are killed a week protecting their land, their home, their livelihoods, and their communities. We need to salute their astounding bravery and pledge to add our voices to support their continued struggle against those who want to rip their land up for oil or gas, tear down its trees for timber, flatten it for intensive non-organic and polluting farming or poison it with industrial waste.”

Yuri Herrera, Political Scientist and writer:

“If you care about the future of our planet, about preserving our heritage and the natural habitats that provide a home to rare plants and species, you should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with environmental defenders who face danger on a daily basis to protect their land.

This report from Global Witness shows the shocking level of violence they face – here in Mexico and across the world. More must be done to protect their human rights and bring to justice those who violate them in the most appalling way.”

George Monbiot, writer and environmental campaigner said:

“Environmental Defenders are on the frontline of a generational battle against climate change. We can never be serious about building a greener, cleaner and more sustainable planet if we fail to speak out when governments and big business work hand in glove to forcibly seize, rip up, drill and intensively farm land that is not only vital for carbon capture, but also supports rare species of plant and wildlife.

“Global Witness and its partners have been steadfast in documenting the violence and killings directed at land and environmental defenders. All of us who care about human rights and climate change must now join them, not only adding our voices to the outrage, but demanding real action from governments and business  to protect those defending land and bringing to justice the criminals who carry out these brutal attacks.”

 Paloma Faith, musician and activist said:

 “The brutality and violence faced by Environmental Defenders around the world each day is truly shocking. And yet there appears to be no consequences for so many of those carrying out these appalling acts, even when someone is killed trying to protect their land or way of life.

“Despite international outcry, we still have not seen anyone face justice for the brutal killing of the activist Berta Caceres, who was shot in 2016 during a campaign to stop the development of the Agua Zarca Dam at the Rio Gualcarque in Honduras. Like so many of those who have seen their loved ones murdered in the pursuit of a cleaner, fairer, more sustainable world, her family is still fighting for those who carried out this attack to be held to account. We should all add our voices to aid their struggle – and to put pressure on the Honduran Government to ensure Berta’s case and the human rights violations against many thousands more campaigners in the country are properly investigated.”

Ben Fogle, broadcaster, writer and environmental activist said:

“Defenders are protecting some of the world’s most important climate-critical and biodiverse habitats. Whether that’s the remaining handful of intact tropical rainforests that are under attack from illegal logging or intense farming, the rivers being polluted by industrial waste, or the erosion caused by mining of open land, the scramble to develop rich, natural spaces is having a disastrous impact on the environment.

“These communities who are fighting to protect their land, their homes and their livelihoods are part of a global struggle to safeguard our planet. I salute their bravery and hope more people will join me in standing in solidarity in this campaign.”

Lily Cole, actress and environmental activist said:

"This year marks the 30th anniversary of the murder of the Brazilian environmental activist, Chico Mendes. “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity,” Mendes said of his life-long fight to protect the Amazon forest from industry-driven deforestation. Mendes formed a wild rubber tapper’s union, and developed the concept of extractive reserves: areas of the forest that could be maintained by developing and selling forest-friendly produce in them. He sought to align business interests with environmental interests.

“Mendes’ work was recognised throughout the world, and the Brazilian government declared him Patron of the Brazilian Environment. Yet, for his efforts, he was shot dead in front of his family - joining a shockingly long list of environmental campaigns who are killed for their altruistic efforts. And the killings haven’t stopped: last year alone, 57 Environmental Defenders were killed in Brazil, out of 207 killed globally. That’s someone killed every 1-2 days, simply for fighting to protect the environment.

“Global Witness’ new report on Environmental Defenders shows how our voracious appetite for more and different food products, for unsustainable fossil fuels, and for minerals is complicit in this death toll. We have turned homes and neighbourhoods into a highly prized commodity for companies and governments that prize profit above people.

“Most of us do not realise our complicity in these chains of events.  As consumers we need to demand that the companies we buy from are not directly or indirectly causing environmental degradation in their supply chains, and therefore perpetuating localised conflict.

“With Global Witness’ work, we will be watching to ensure products that reach our shelves are not dipped in the blood of Environmental Defenders and that those found committing or being complicit in attacks will face the full force of the law.”



Notes to editor:

  • *Whilst Global Witness maintains a real time data base with the Guardian (include link to this reports represents a consolidated data set of all killings from 2017 that have been through an additional verification process that has been complemented by an in-depth analysis, case studies and recommendations.
  • Severe limits on available information mean the global total is likely far higher. Murder is the sharp end of a range of tactics used to silence defenders, including death threats, arrests, sexual assault, abductions and aggressive legal attacks.

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