A disturbing number of people are losing their lives in an effort to protect undeveloped land, preserve natural resources and defend community rights, according to a report released this summer. Environmental protectors and indigenous rights leaders were killed at a rate of nearly four per week in 2016, totaling 200 globally, says the watchdog group Global Witness.
That makes 2016 the deadliest year ever recorded for environmental and indigenous activists, and Global Witness warns that this sinister trend is creeping into more countries across the world. Such violence against activists is often backed up by force — police and soldiers are suspected perpetrators in at least 43 recorded murders, and state actors are often behind landgrabs in indigenous communities that lead to violent conflict and loss of life.
“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,” John Knox, a U.N. special reporter on human rights and the environment, told the Guardian. As demand for oil, minerals and forest products continues to rise, the frequency of violence is only accelerating. According to data provided exclusively to the Guardian, 98 killings were recorded during the first five months of this year.
Here we acknowledge some of those who paid the ultimate price for their convictions and analyze ways to protect environmental defenders around the world.
1. Berta Cáceres
Berta Cáceres’ more than 20 years of unwavering support for environmental, indigenous and women’s rights in Honduras is known around the world. She recently received the Goldman Environmental Prize for standing with the indigenous Rio Blanco Lenca community to oppose the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project in northwest Honduras, but this work ultimately cost Cáceres her life at the age of 44. In the wee hours of March 2, 2016, gunmen stormed her home, killing her and wounding a friend and fellow activist.
Cáceres’ murder is part of an ongoing and bloody conflict over the Agua Zarca dam. Three years earlier, Honduran soldiers opened fire on a peaceful demonstration at the dam site, killing community leader Tomas Garcia and wounding his 17-year-old son, Alan. And in June of this year, men wielding machetes attacked Cáceres’ daughter Bertha Zúñiga, who took leadership of the indigenous rights organization founded by her parents, though she managed to escape with her life.
2. Patrick Prince Muhayirwa
In December 2016, Patrick Prince Muhayirwa became the latest ranger to pay with his life for protecting wildlife in Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The 26-year-old was killed and another ranger was wounded when their anti-poaching patrol was ambushed by militia members near the Ugandan border, the Guardian reported. “Ranger Muhayirwa was a young and highly dedicated ranger, and the park is in deep mourning for his loss,” park director Emmanuel de Merode said in a statement.
Virunga is a hotspot for militia groups formed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the Congo’s two bloody wars in the late 1990s. More than 150 rangers have been killed there over the past decade, and it is considered one of the world’s deadliest parks, reports National Geographic. While rangers told the magazine that conditions have improved since de Merode took charge, the job remains incredibly dangerous.
3. Luiz Araujo
Brazil is among the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental and indigenous activists. Forty-nine people were killed last year while trying to protect Brazilian ecosystems like the Amazon and Cerrado, according to the Global Witness report.
The murder of Luiz Araujo in October of last year brought international attention to the country’s growing problem. Araujo, an environmental official who rigorously enforced deforestation laws in his Amazonian community, was gunned down in front of his family as he drove up to his home. Two gunmen fled on a motorcycle without taking anything, “leading to speculation that they were paid assassins,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
Environmental conflicts in Araujo’s city of Altamira, located the northern Amazonian state of Para, have grown increasingly deadly. “Journalists, activists and locals who collaborate with environmental authorities have been killed,” reported Vincent Bevins of the Times.
4. Manda Katraka
India also saw a disturbing uptick in violence against activists in 2016. In eastern India, members of the indigenous Dongria Kondh community and their advocates have warned for years that the local government has “declared war” against them to protect mining interests on their land, Global Witness campaigners say.
Manda Katraka, a Dongria Kondh tribesman, was one of 16 advocates killed in India last year. According to an eyewitness account provided to the National Confederation of Human Rights Organizations, Katraka was shot and killed by local police while collecting natural liquor from the forest. The eyewitness, Dambaru Sikaka, said he saw the security officials carrying his friend’s body away. Katraka was only 21 years old.
The Dongria Kondh filed complaints and demanded that his killers be charged, but “security forces dismissed them and labeled Manda a Maoist insurgent,” according to Global Witness, which warned the increase of such killings in India “is a sign of rising state repression and the criminalization of civil society.”
5. Gloria Capitan
The Philippines remained the most deadly country in Asia for environmental and indigenous activism, with 28 recorded killings in 2016, most linked to the country’s mining sector. One of those was Gloria Capitan, a 57-year-old grandmother of 18 who was shot at point-blank range in front of her husband and grandson, the Manila Times reported.
Human rights watchdog groups like Front Line Defenders say the July 2016 attack was prompted by Capitan’s opposition to the expansion of mining in her Bataan province community. “Since the start of her work opposing the coal mining and storage project in 2015, Capitan had faced intimidation and threats allegedly from representatives of the companies owning the coal facilities,” according to a report from Front Line Defenders, which called for an immediate investigation into her murder.
6. Néstor Iván Martínez
Violence against environmental and social activists reached an all-time high in Colombia last year. Global Witness recorded 37 killings, while the British NGO Justice for Colombia put the number at more than 50.
In September, Nestor Ivan Martinez, an anti-mining and social justice advocate, was killed in his brother’s home in the Cesar district of northwest Colombia. Justice for Colombia and the Dutch NGO Pax for Peace condemned the murder and warned it is emblematic of mounting conflict around mining in the region. “Pax fears that this targeted killing could mark the start for a new wave of violence in the mining region, where paramilitary violence has already claimed tens of thousands of victims,” the group said in a statement.
Time for a change
As the gruesome reality of these widespread murders gains notoriety, people are standing up and demanding action. Launched in December of last year, Speak Out For Defenders is an interactive tool Amnesty International hopes can bring awareness to the problem and give concerned citizens a way to stand behind at-risk activists, Mashable reports.
Concurrently, a movement is building to hold financial institutions accountable for their backing of conflict-ridden projects that lead to loss of life. While most put the blame on a lack of local government oversight, "investors often escape from attention and criticism," Ben Leather, an author of the Global Witness report, told DW magazine. "Most of the defenders murdered are opposing big projects which could not exist without the financial backing of international investors."
In fact, financing of large-scale projects connected to human rights abuses can often be traced to global development banks like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the International Finance Corp., Leather and other experts told the magazine. Although these institutions have standards that protect environmental and human rights, the projects they finance do not necessarily meet them, and there is often little oversight of this indirect impact.
Representatives of these banks condemned violence against activists in interviews with DW, but experts like Leather insist the public must do more to pressure financial institutions to increase transparency and protect human rights.
"The U.K., German and U.S. governments are shareholders in the World Bank," Leather told the magazine. That means citizens of those countries can ask of their governments, "What are you doing to make sure that our money is not associated with these attacks?"
In July of this year, Global Witness launched an editorial partnership with the Guardian to further track violence against activists around the world and called on “governments, companies and investors to make 2017 a watershed year.”
“States are breaking their own laws and failing their citizens in the worst possible way,” Leather said in a statement. “Governments, companies and investors have a duty to guarantee that communities are consulted about the projects that affect them, that activists are protected from violence, and that perpetrators are brought to justice.”