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Defending the environment can be a death sentence

Julett Pineda
December 1, 2022

More than 1,700 environmental and land defenders have been killed in the last decade. Most of them were Indigenous people — and most were in Latin America, a DW analysis shows.

A woman activist sits on the shovel bucket of a piece of heavy machinery to stop it from being used in a construction zone
Mexico is among the most lethal countries around the world for environmental activists, like this woman in Quintana Roo stateImage: Paola Chiomante/REUTERS

When Indonesia's government decided to build a new capital, environmental defenders sounded the alarm. Sinking Jakarta will be the first metropolis to lose its capital status due to the climate crisis. But the decision to house the seat of government on the lush island of Borneo could worsen environmental damage in the archipelago and displace Indigenous communities from their ancestral lands, critics say.

While plans for a new capital city are recent, the fight for land rights is an old story for native Borneans. In 2020, three Indigenous farmers were jailed after harvesting from land they said a palm oil firm stole from them. One of the farmers, Hermanus Bin Bison, died in police custody shortly after he was imprisoned.

Bison is just one of many environmental defenders globally who has paid the ultimate price for protecting the lands they inhabit from extractive industries or for working to protect the environment. 

Aerial view of a forest cleared for starting a palm oil plantation
Forest land in the East Kotawaringin district on Borneo has made way over the last decade for palm oil plantationsImage: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images

Businesses, criminal groups and governments have long violently displaced communities from their ancestral lands — and Indigenous people are seemingly more likely to be killed than other defenders. At least 613 Indigenous activists have been murdered over the last decade, according to data published by environmental and human rights watchdog Global Witness.

Between 2012 and 2021, rights groups and organizations documented the deaths of more than 1,700 environmental and land defenders in about 60 countries. More than 35% of those killed identified as Indigenous.

But the true death toll is likely higher. Some 5% of cases documented by Global Witness didn't specify details such as ethnicity.​​​​​​

The lack of a free press, independent monitoring and a robust civil society can also lead to underreporting. Some countries have a longer tradition of documenting such attacks and have established stronger networks across their territories, which means better monitoring.

Over the last three years, the reported rate at which Indigenous activists were killed was even higher than over previous years. Though they make up just 5% of the world's population, Indigenous people were victims of more than 41% of the fatal attacks documented against environmental defenders in 2021. Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines were the most lethal countries.

A fight over land and resources

"Indigenous peoples have long been treated as an obstacle to development and are fought all over the world," Antonio de Oliveira, a rights defender and executive secretary of Brazil's Indigenous Missionary Council, told DW.

The fight over ancestral lands is the main driver of this violence, he said.

Although this is not always explicit in the data, land conflicts seem to be behind more than half of the killings recorded globally in the last decade. In many cases the reasons go unreported, Global Witness notes, pointing out that these conflicts often relate to land ownership and cultivation of illicit crops.

Mining and extraction — connected to 18% of killings — was the most-dangerous discreet sector. That was followed by agribusiness, which made up 10% of cases, while logging made up 9%.

Lethal violence hot spots

Indigenous communities in Latin America have long been battling for the rights to their lands. The region has for years consistently ranked as the most lethal for environmental and land defenders. 

Rich in natural resources and home to the world's largest rainforest — the Amazon — Latin American countries recorded nearly 80% of the total killings of Indigenous defenders documented over the last decade. 

Protection of the environment and Indigenous communities became a flashpoint this year in the region as candidates battled it out in presidential campaigns in Colombia and Brazil. These two countries recorded the highest such death tolls.

Colombia is the most-dangerous country for Indigenous defenders, with 135 reported killings over the last decade.

Gustavo Petro, Colombia's newly elected leftist president, vowed to include Indigenous communities in politics after his predecessor, Ivan Duque, faced strong criticism for ignoring their warnings on lethal violence. 

In Brazil, recently ousted far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro publicly dismissed concerns over Amazon deforestation, instead prioritizing foreign investment. The country has become one of the deadliest places for environmental defenders. Over the past decade, 77 Indigenous activists have been killed there.

Macaws sit in a tree in a patch of rainforest in Manaus, Amazonas State, Brazil
Stretching across several south American countries, the Amazon rainforest is famous for its rich biodiversity — and regularly hits the headlines for new deforestation records Image: BRUNO KELLY/REUTERS

A similar story is playing out on the opposite side of the world.

Also in the Philippines, killings soared between 2012 and 2021. Of the 270 environmental leaders killed in the southeast Asian country, 114 were Indigenous. Recently elected Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. promised to safeguard the interests of Indigenous people in the archipelago when he was a senator in 2015.

But the data show that lethal attacks against these communities have remained consistent. That's the case, at least, in countries where information is available. 

Killings go unreported in Africa, Asia, Mideast

Jon Bonifacio, a 25-year-old environmental activist in the capital, Manila, is used to receiving threats for his work. As part of a national network of environmental activists, he organizes climate campaigns with people from across the Philippines, and monitors killings. He said activists in rural provinces, where natural resources and lush forests remain nearly untouched, are even more likely to face lethal violence.

"The hot spots are in the rural areas, places where there are spaces for agricultural plantations, mining or logging; areas where Indigenous people care for the land and have been preserving biodiversity for generations," Bonifacio told DW.

With tensions mounting in remote areas, underreporting makes it difficult to uncover the true scale of this violence. The cases documented in Global Witness report are likely "just the tip of the iceberg," Bonifacio said.

Many Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries didn't report any killings. But that doesn't mean they are a haven for environmental defenders, Global Witness spokesperson Marina Comandulli told DW.

Cut-off tree trunks in a forest near Kisangani, DRC
These tree stumps were all that was left after 850 hectares of forest were felled to plant oil palms in the Congo BasinImage: SAMIR TOUNSI/AFP/Getty Images

Instead, killings in these nations tend to go unreported for several reasons, she said. One reason is that many people actively protecting the environment might not see themselves as environmental or land defenders. 

Who defends the defenders?

Campaigners worldwide, including in the Philippines, are pushing for legal frameworks to change this dangerous reality. 

"One of the laws we're trying to pass is the environmental defense bill," said Bonifacio. 

Introduced in 2020 and still pending in the Philippine congress, the proposed law would guarantee the safety of environmental defenders and the prosecution of those who perpetrate lethal and nonlethal violence against activists.

The bill also compels the government and businesses to guarantee access to information related to the environment, such as environmental and health risks around specific activities, projects or policies.

A "people's new green deal" is another initiative on the horizon in the Philippines. Bonifacio said it would provide a way for the country to claim compensation from top polluting nations and companies while also working with grassroots movements to tailor environmental policies.

Environmental activists wearing facemasks and face shields to protect against COVID-19, hold signs at a rally protesting for more climate action.
Environmental activists around Mitzi Jonelle Tan (middle) rallied in Manila as part of the Global Climate Strike in September 2020Image: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Regional treaties elsewhere are paving the way for the effort to protect environmental defenders. The Escazu Agreement is a landmark treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean that entered into force in 2021. It became the first legally binding instrument to guarantee access to environmental information and to require the investigation of environmental killings.

Still, several countries in the region haven't ratified the treaty, Brazil among them. But this could change after leftist leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva recently secured a narrow victory against Bolsonaro. In his first public statement, da Silva pledged to reduce deforestation in the Amazon and protect Indigenous rights. 

But ratifying the treaty isn't enough. Other countries, such as Mexico and Colombia, have done so but are not effectively enforcing it.

For Antonio de Oliveira of Brazil's Indigenous Missionary Council, Indigenous environmental defenders are on the front lines of climate change and environmental destruction, and the importance of protecting them is clear. 

"These Indigenous leaders are not just fighting for their territory, or for a tree or a river," said de Oliveira "They're fighting for the entire planet. For a better life."

Editors: Jennifer Collins and Gianna Grün

For data, code and methodology behind this analysis, see this repository. You can find more data-driven stories by DW here.