Dangerous times for eco-defenders

Cleared land in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. CIFOR photo

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — Indigenous leader Isidro Baldenegro Lopez tried to protect the old-growth forests of the Sierra Madre mountain range in northern Mexico from a powerful alliance of local strongmen, drug traffickers and loggers. After receiving numerous threats, Baldenegro was shot and killed by a suspected hitman.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 12 park rangers were killed while protecting wildlife. All but two killings were attributed to Mai Mai militia, who are known to be involved in illegal poaching and mining activities.

Hernan Bedoya protested against palm oil and banana plantations in Colombia that were expanding over his community’s territory and clearing the forest. He was shot by a paramilitary group 14 times, according to reports.

Around the world last year, at least 207 land and environmental activists, many of them indigenous, were targeted and murdered for defending their forests, rivers, wildlife and homes against destructive industries, according to human-rights watchdog Global Witness.  This is six more murders than in 2016, making it the worst year on record.

Bobby Banerjee, a researcher at the University of London’s Cass Business School, has studied resistance to global development projects for 15 years.

“The conflicts are happening worldwide now because of globalization,” said Banerjee. “Capitalism is violent and global corporations are looking to poor countries for access to land and resources. Poor countries are more corruptible and have weaker law enforcement. Companies and governments now work together to kill people.”

British newspaper The Guardian has partnered with Global Witness to document and publish such killings, of which there have been 66 so far this year.

Billy Kyte, campaign leader on this issue at Global Witness, said that the killings that make the list are just the tip of an epidemic of violence.

“Communities that take a stand against environmental destruction are now in the firing line of companies’ private security guards, state forces and contract killers,” he said. “For every land and environmental defender who is killed, many more are threatened with death, eviction and destruction of their resources.

“These are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of a systematic assault on remote and indigenous communities by state and corporate actors.”

Of the 19 land and environmental defenders reported killed across Africa, 17 lost their lives while defending protected areas against poachers and illegal miners – 12 in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone.

Wildlife defenders are being increasingly targeted. More than 1,000 park rangers have been killed by commercial poachers and armed militia groups in the past 10 years, according to U.S. group Global Conservation.

“Rangers face high levels of violence and are being [killed] at an alarming pace,” says Sean Willmore, president of the International Ranger Federation. “Almost 60 percent of those killed in 2016 were from Asia, with the majority from India.”

Many other countries and regions could be suffering elevated numbers of killings which have not been documented or which Global Witness has been unable to verify.

Fewer indigenous people were killed in 2017 – falling to 25 percent of the total, from 40 percent in 2016. However, with indigenous groups making up just 5 percent of the world’s population, they remain massively overrepresented among defenders killed. And it is not only killings: in one of the most brutal attacks, Gamela indigenous people were assaulted with machetes and rifles by Brazilian farmers, leaving 22 of them severely injured, some with their hands cut off, the Global Witness report states.

It is primarily the responsibility of states (through their governments) to guarantee that all human rights defenders can carry out their activism safely. However, according to Global Witness, those defenders who work on land and environmental issues face specific and heightened risks because they are seen as a threat to profit as well as power. In the vast majority of cases, they are killed because they have questioned or opposed a business enterprise – one usually linked to the extraction of natural resources, such as mining, large-scale agriculture or logging.

In its annual report, Global Witness says the number of people killed while protesting against large-scale agriculture more than doubled last year compared to 2016. For the first time, agribusiness surpassed mining as the most dangerous sector to oppose, as 46 defenders who protested against palm oil, coffee, tropical fruit and sugar cane plantations, as well as cattle ranching, were murdered in 2017.

Opposition to mining and oil operations (40 killings), poaching (23 murders) and logging (23 cases) were the other main reasons defenders were killed last year.

Brazil was the scene of three horrific massacres, during which 25 defenders died. Eight indigenous activists were massacred in the Philippines, while Mexico, Peru and the Democratic Republic of Congo also saw incidents where more than four defenders died at the same time.

Once again, Latin America saw the highest number of murders, accounting for almost 60 percent of the total. According to Global Witness data, Brazil recorded the most killings of any country ever with 57 people killed, 80 percent of them while protecting the natural resources of the Amazon. In Colombia, 24 defenders were murdered in 2017, as conflicts over land raged on.

Mexico and Peru saw a jump in killings from three to 15 and two to eight, respectively. There were fewer murders in Honduras – five compared to 14 in 2016 – but the growing repression of civil society has restricted what defenders can say and do. Nicaragua registered the most murders per capita, with four defenders killed.

In Asia, the most alarming developments took place in the Philippines, which saw 48 killings – almost a 71 percent rise on 2016 and the most murders ever recorded in Asia in a single year, according to the report. Almost half of the killings in the Philippines were linked to struggles against agribusiness.

“The continuing killing of indigenous land rights defenders and activists clearly illustrates the intensifying conflicts in indigenous territories due to systematic grabbing of land and resources of indigenous peoples,” said Joan Carling, the co-convenor of the Indigenous Peoples’ Major Group (IPMG) for Sustainable Development.

Carling, who in March was speciously placed on a terrorist list in her native Philippines, said that these killings remain unabated “due to lack of access to justice, increasing numbers of authoritarian states in different regions, and the use of violence with impunity to silence any opposition and resistance to this continuing colonization and subjugation of indigenous peoples.”

Added Carling: “The race to control and exploit the remaining resources in the name of development and skewed conservation, resulting in killings and criminalization of indigenous peoples, needs global condemnation and concerted action to make states and corporations accountable and to realize peace, justice and dignity for all.”

Learn more about this topic at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany, Dec. 1-2, 2018. For further information, click here.

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