In an exclusive report published earlier this month, the Guardian highlighted a disheartening and highly disturbing reality, one that reveals itself quite profoundly in the article’s opening paragraph:
“Last year was the most perilous ever for people defending their community’s land, natural resources or wildlife, with new research showing that environmental defenders are being killed at the rate of almost four a week across the world.”
The Guardian worked with watchdog group Global Witness, an organization whose aim — according to its mission statement — is to expose “the hidden links between demand for natural resources, corruption, armed conflict and environmental destruction.”
According to Global Witness’ data, 200 environmental activists, indigenous leaders, and wildlife rangers were violently killed in 2016, the highest number ever recorded.
But that record is set to be broken if the current trend continues, as 98 people were killed in the first five months of 2017.
Billy Kyte of Global Witness says the incidents are not isolated, but rather “symptomatic of a systematic assault on remote and indigenous communities by state and corporate actors” and indicative of an atmosphere of intimidation:
“Communities that take a stand against environmental destruction are now in the firing line of companies’ private security guards, state forces and contract killers. For every land and environmental defender who is killed, many more are threatened with death, eviction and destruction of their resources.”
What’s worse, says John Knox, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, is that no one is being held accountable. Speaking to the Guardian, Knox said a “culture of impunity” has arisen, largely due to the fact that the people being victimized are usually far removed from political and judicial spheres:
“There is an epidemic now, a culture of impunity, a sense that anyone can kill environmental defenders without repercussions, eliminate anyone who stands in the way. It [comes from] mining, agribusiness, illegal logging and dam building.”
The data shows that the deadliest industry to go up against in 2016 was mining, which accounted for 33 deaths. The logging and agribusiness sectors were tied for second with 23 killings apiece.
The hydroelectric industry was responsible for the deaths of seven environmental defenders last year, and poachers claimed the lives of 18.
The most startling trend Global Witness researchers found, however, is that agribusiness is set to rival or even surpass mining as the deadliest industry in 2017. In the first five months of 2017, agribusiness had already killed 22 people — one short of its total for all of 2016.
As it did in 2015, Latin America proved to be the most dangerous region in the world for those looking to defend the environment, accounting for 60 of last year’s 200 deaths.
In terms of countries, South America’s Brazil is once again the deadliest nation for defenders. Forty-nine killings occurred in the country, mostly in the Amazon Rainforest.
Cutting straight to the heart of this “culture of impunity” that the U.N.’s John Knox spoke of, environmental defenders often say their governments are unresponsive to their requests for aid and that the governments themselves have been corrupted into complicity.
In The Ecologist last month, American writer Olesia Plokhii — who bore witness to the murder of Cambodian illegal logging activist Chut Wutty in 2012 — explained that even well-connected defenders don’t get a pass when it comes to the forward march of industry:
“Wutty ran his own environmental organisation, had Western financial backers, the support of high-ranking Cambodian military officials, hundreds of local supporters who watched out for him and tools — multiple cell phones, a GPS tracker. He was still murdered.
“Much less organised and prepared defenders, people who might be forced unexpectedly into protecting their lands due to evictions or enormous infrastructure developments, are up against the same violence.”
Global Witness’ 2016 report also noted that a global clampdown on environmental protest — even in wealthy nations — is also gaining strength. As evidence, the group cited the campaign at Standing Rock, where environmental protesters tried and failed to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.