More land and environmental activists were killed in Latin America last year than anywhere else in the world, according to a new report, underscoring how shifting organized crime dynamics put environmental defenders at greater risk.
A total of some 207 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2017, according to the new report from the watchdog group Global Witness. Nearly 60 percent of those killings took place in Latin America, making it the deadliest year on record for this community.
Brazil recorded the largest number of killings in the region with 57, while Colombia and Mexico recorded the next highest with 24 and 15, respectively, according to the report. Mexico and Peru saw “marked increases” in killings between 2016 and 2017 as the number of killings jumped 400 percent in Mexico, and 300 percent in Peru.
There was also a significant decrease in the number of land defenders killed in Honduras, down from 14 in 2016 to five in 2017, although the report stressed that the repression of civil society is “worse than ever.”
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According to the report, the agribusiness industry is one of the main sectors driving attacks against land defenders, in addition to mining and extractive industries and logging. Criminal gangs were often found to be the suspected perpetrators, followed by soldiers, police and paramilitary forces.
In addition, the report found that there are a number of factors that “accentuate and perpetuate” the risks that land defenders face, including widespread impunity that gives the “green light” to potential attackers and corruption among government officials and businesses that sometimes also collude with criminal groups.
(Video courtesy of Global Witness)
InSight Crime Analysis
These latest findings reinforce the growing threat that land and environmental activists face when they threaten the lucrative criminal activities of organized crime groups in Latin America, and how shifting criminal dynamics can put them at greater risk.
For example, the report makes a direct link between the drastic increase in the murders of land defenders in Mexico to a “massive rise” in organized crime-related murders nationwide. Indeed, organized crime-related homicides reached a record high in 2017 amid an increasingly fragmented criminal landscape.
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Colombia is also undergoing intense criminal fragmentation after the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), and was again among the top three most dangerous countries for land and environmental defenders last year. Social leaders continue to be killed at an alarming rate so far in 2018 as competing criminal organizations battle for control over illicit economies.
But organized crime is not the only actor at fault. On the other hand, legislative and other reforms have put Brazil’s environmental activists in greater harm. The report found that Brazil President Michel Temer has “systematically weakened the legislation, institutions and budgets” that could have protected human rights defenders and “skewed the balance of power” against activists. This has contributed to Brazil holding the rank as the most dangerous country to be a land defender in Latin America for the last decade.