A new report documents 2015 as the worst year on record for murders of land and environmental defenders. Latin American countries were among the most dangerous for activists, in part due to the prevalence of criminal resource extraction in the region.
The report (pdf), produced by Global Witness — an organization that investigates environmental and human rights abuses driven by corruption and natural resource exploitation — documented 185 killings of “land and environmental defenders” in 16 countries. This represents a 59 percent increase over 2014 and the largest total since 2002.
Global Witness defined land and environmental defenders as “people who take peaceful action to protect environmental or land rights.” Almost 40 percent of 2015 victims were indigenous people, who are often targeted for protecting ancestral lands.
The worst affected countries were Brazil (50 killings), the Philippines (33), and Colombia (26). (See graphic)
The image in the graphic is that of Berta Cáceres, a Honduran environmental and indigenous activist who resisted the construction of hydroelectric dams along the Gualcarque River for over a decade. She was murdered in March 2016.
In Brazil, violence was particularly concentrated in the Amazon, where agricultural interests and “gangs of illegal loggers” are encroaching on local communities. According to Global Witness, an estimated 80 percent of Brazilian timber is illegal, accounting for 25 percent of illegal wood on global markets.
Global Witness not only blamed a rise in illegal logging in Brazil for driving deforestation, but also for violence against land and environmental defenders. In April 2015, for instance, an indigenous man from the Alto Turiaçu reserve in the Brazilian Amazon was shot dead by two men on a motorbike. He had been active in leading patrols to monitor illegal logging and closing tracks used to extract timber.
Mining, however, was the industry most linked to killings of land and environmental defenders, with 42 deaths in 2015.
In Peru, of the 12 deaths documented by Global Witness during 2015, 11 were linked to mining and extractive industries. One case highlighted in the report was that of a Peruvian forest worker from Madre de Dios who had been resisting the incursion of illegal gold miners into the biodiverse Tambopata region. He was killed in his home in November.
Since 2002, around 80 percent of the 69 killings documented by Global Witness in Peru have been linked to the mining sector.
As Global Witness noted, many of the murders of land activists occur in remote regions and few perpetrators are brought to justice, often due to the indifference or active collusion of government officials.
InSight Crime Analysis
Illicit resource extraction in Latin America is a major source of revenue for criminal groups in the region. Illegal mining in Peru has been estimated to generate some $2.6 billion per year. Brazil has struggled to rein in wood trafficking, with the illegal market offering tempting opportunities for profit despite government attempts to promote sustainable timber harvesting. The illegal timber trade is worth up to $30 billion annually.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco Trafficking
As the Global Witness report indicates, those individuals and groups that seek to halt illicit resource extraction in Latin America often find themselves confronting powerful interests — whether they are state, corporate, or criminal in nature — putting themselves at great personal risk.
Unfortunately, this not uncommonly leads to the death or disappearance of land activists, as evidence by the March 2016 murder of Berta Cáceres, a Honduran indigenous woman who struggled to halt the construction of hydroelectric dams.
The alleged direct authors of Cáceres killing have been arrested amid massive international pressure on the Honduran government. However, questions remain about possible intellectual authors belonging to the Honduran elite. Many of cases documented by Global Witness have resulted in no arrests at all.