1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

5 deadly countries for environmental defenders

July 29, 2020

A new report reveals a spike in the murder of global land defenders, especially in Latin America. The failure to combat climate change is forcing the most vulnerable to the frontlines, and to pay with their lives.

Brazilian indigenous leader with elaborate headdress
Image: Reuters/F. Lenoir

Environmental activists are being murdered in ever-increasing numbers. According to a new report by London-based NGO, Global Witness, 212 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019 alone, a 30% rise from the 164 killed in 2018. Around 40% were indigenous people and traditional land owners.

More than two-thirds of killings took place in Latin America, with Colombia topping the list with 64 murders due to the failure to implement the 2016 peace agreement with FARC and protect farmers transitioning from coca to cocoa and coffee to reduce cocaine production. 

The overall rise in murders is part of a broader trend. Astudy published in Nature in 2019 showed that in the 15 years between 2002 and 2017, more than 1,558 environment defenders were killed, doubling from two to four per week over that time. 

An infographic showing the number of killings in 2019

Mary Menton, a research fellow in environmental justice at University of Sussex who co-authored the report, told DW that she "would not be surprised" if the real figure were double due to the failure to report and even investigate killings. Meanwhile, Menton says only 10% of perpetrators are prosecuted. 

Increasing conflict over scarce land resources in a time of rising global consumer demand is forcing indigenous and traditional community leaders to protect their territories, says Rachel Cox,  a campaigner at Global Witness. 

"Indigenous people are disproportionately vulnerable to attack," she says of minorities resisting mining, logging and the agribusiness projects encroaching on the frontiers they call home.

But the killings are only the tip of the iceberg. "Many more defenders were attacked, jailed or faced smear campaigns because of their work," said Cox.

The following five countries experienced especially high activist death rates in 2019.  

Read moreAustralia: Aboriginal protesters defend ancient forest against logging

1. The Philippines

The deadliest country for environmental activists in 2018, at least 46 environmental defenders were murdered last year in the Philippines, a 53% increase and a return to the high murder rate during the first years of the Duterte regime. Twenty six murders were related to agribusiness, the highest in the world.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte
Under President Duterte, the Philippines has seen an uptick in the number of environmental defenders murderedImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division/A. Morandante
Environmental activists protest against mines in the Philippines
The Mindanao Indigenous Federation KALUMARAN protested against the expansion of miningImage: picture-alliance/Pacific Press

Leon Dulce, the national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, says "we are bracing for more spates of violence" due to government efforts to expand mining and logging "under the guise of a COVID-19 economic recovery." President Duterte is also using draconian anti-terror laws to suppress activists by labeling them as criminals. 

The southern island of Mindanao remains a hotspot with 19 environment-related killings in 2019 due to ongoing opposition to palm oil and agribusiness fruit plantations. 

Attacks are especially prevalent on the territory of these indigenous or Lumad people, Dulce explained, because it forms "the last forest corridors of the island." Indigenous communities "continue to stand in the way of mining, dam, and agribusiness tenements," he said. 

The Philippines' high vulnerability to climate change, especially typhoons, has further necessitated this resistance, according to the report. 

2. Brazil

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s aggressive push to expand large-scale mining and agribusiness in the Amazon has forced indigenous peoples further into the frontlines of the climate crisis, especially as deforestation on indigenous land increased by 74% from 2018 to 2019. Of the 24 murders of land defenders in Brazil, 90% occurred in the Amazon.

An aerial shot of the Amazon being burned
An increase in fires in the Amazon have been attributed in part to ranchers clearing land. Brazil saw over 30,000 fires sweep through its rain forests in 2019 Image: Reuters/U. Marcelino
Indigenous leader Cacique Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapo tribe
Indigenous leader Cacique Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapo tribe was one of several Amazon indigenous leaders that have formed an alliance against President Bolsonaro's threats to open their homelands to miningImage: Getty Images/AFP/C. de Souza

The uptick in violence in the resource rich region that is also the planet's largest carbon sink, comes as the Bolsonaro government introduced a controversial bill in 2019 that calls for the legalization of commercial mining on indigenous land.

Read moreBrazil: Illegal loggers kill indigenous man during Amazon attack

Bolsonaro himself is also "actively encouraging violence" against indigenous defenders through hate speech, says Mary Menton.

In June last year, it was reported that dozens of miners dressed in military uniform invaded the Wajapi community in the Brazilian Amazon, stabbing and killing one of its leaders.

3. Mexico

Eighteen land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019 in Mexico, a rise of four. They included Otilia Martínez Cruz, 60, and her 20-year-old son, Gregorio Chaparro Cruz, who were found dead outside their home in the town of El Chapote in north-west Mexico on May 1, 2019. The indigenous Tarahumara defenders were allegedly killed by assassins in retaliation for their efforts to stop the illegal deforestation of their ancestral land in the Sierra Madre. 

Mexico's endangered conservationists

Two months earlier, Samir Flores Soberanes was shot dead outside his home on February 20, 2019. An Indigenous Nahuatl farmer and environmental activist from Amilcingo, Morelos, Samir publicly spoke out against the Morelos Integral Project (MIP) to develop coal and gas energy infrastructure the day before he was killed.

4. Romania

Europe has rarely witnessed deaths by environment defenders, but two rangers fighting illegal logging were killed in 2019.

Romania has over half of Europe’s remaining old-growth and primeval forests that have been dubbed the "lungs of Europe."

But according to Greenpeace, some 3 hectares (7.4 acres) of this pristine forest is degraded every hour in Romania, much of it by the "wood mafia" that the two forest rangers opposed. The Global Witness report notes that there were hundreds of threats and attacks against the rangers before they were killed.

Despite the thousands who marched in Bucharest and across Romania in late 2019 to oppose illegal logging and to demand an investigation into the attacks, no one has been charged.   

5. Honduras

Killings rose from four in 2018 to 14 last year in Honduras, making it the most dangerous country per capita for land and environmental defenders in 2019. Lethal attacks against activists were especially prevalent against women, continuing the upward trend since Honduran activist and indigenous leader Berta Caceres was brutally murdered in 2016, months after winning the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, for opposing dam construction in her region. 

Slain Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres posters are carried
The 2016 murder of Honduran Berta Caceres remains a stark reminder of the brutality environmental defenders faceImage: Getty Images/AFP/O. Sierra

"Women have an important leadership in the fight against extractive companies and criminal groups that want to take away their land," said Marusia Lopez of the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, which documented 1,233 attacks against these women defenders between 2017-18.  

Afro-indigenous Garifuna people living on the east coast were especially targeted in 2019, with 16 killed for defending their lands, mostly from palm oil and tourism development. Criminal groups have long attacked Garifuna communities with impunity.

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.