According to the Global Witness NGO new report the 2015 was the worst year on record for killings of land and environmental defenders – people struggling to protect their land, forests and rivers through peaceful actions, against mounting odds.
The numbers are shocking. Global Witness documented 185 killings across 16 countries, a 59% increase on 2014 and the highest annual toll on record. On average, more than three people were killed every week in 2015 – more than double the number of journalists killed in the same period.1 The worst hit countries were Brazil (50 killings), the Philippines (33) and Colombia (26).
Mining was the industry most linked to killings of land and environmental defenders with 42 deaths in 2015. Agribusiness, hydroelectric dams and logging were also key drivers of violence.Many of the murders we know about occurred in remote villages or deep within rainforests – it’s likely the true death toll is far higher.
For every killing we are able to document, others cannot be verified, or go unreported. And for every life lost, many more are blighted by ongoing violence, threats and discrimination.
This report sheds light on the acute vulnerability of indigenous people, whose weak land rights and geographic isolation make them particularly exposed to land grabbing for natural resource exploitation. In 2015, almost 40% of victims were indigenous.
MINING AND EXTRACTIVES INDUSTRIES 2015
Mining and extractives industries were the sector most linked to killings of land and environmental defenders in 2015 with 42 cases across 10 countries. Shockingly, this represents almost a 70% increase from 2014. Colombia, Peru and the Philippines were the hardest-hit countries for anti-mining activists.
Mining companies are increasing production in order to make up for the loss in profits from the fall in commodity prices – causing environmental damage in the process and conflicts with communities. This intensification of resource extraction has led to environmental disasters like in Minas Gerais, Brazil where toxic mud released by a breach of a dam owned by a mining company killed 10 villagers in 2015.93 The upsurge in mining activity has been coupled with weakening of regulations by governments eager to spur new mining investments, meaning riskier projects are approved that impact on communities.
Land and environmental defenders from these communities are being killed in record numbers for standing up to mining companies polluting their water sources, land grabbing and threatening their livelihoods. Too often affected communities are not being consulted on decisions that impact their environment and way of life. Governments must ensure transparency in the granting of mining concessions and that communities give their consent for projects on their land. They must also heed broader calls for the rights of indigenous people to pursue their own development paths.
Many governments in developing countries actively promote mining as part of ‘development’ agendas, although there is limited evidence that this sector benefits local communities. Over 2015 the continued fall in commodity prices meant companies and states cut corners on environmental regulations. In Peru, for example, Law 30230 reduced the time designated for environmental impact assessments in an effort to promote more mining investment.98
Peru is one of the deadliest countries for activists protesting against mining. Approximately 80% of the 69 killings there since 2002 were linked to the mining sector, including 11 of the 12 in 2015.
HYDROELECTRIC DAMS 2015
The growth in energy demand has driven the construction of large hydroelectric dam projects in developing countries,107 leading to conflicts with local communities. 2015 saw a spike in killings of land and environmental defenders with 15 killed due to their opposition to hydroelectric projects, mainly in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. They were opposing the threat of hydroelectric dam’s displacing villages, disrupting farmers’ irrigation, and drowning fertile valleys. Often little or no meaningful consultation with affected communities took place. Corruption plays a significant role in projects being approved and leading to conflict. For example, last year in Honduras three indigenous activists were killed related to their opposition to the Los Encinos dam whose concession was fraudulently approved.
Hydroelectric dams continue to be built despite the conclusions of a recent study that large-scale dams are economically unviable and that costs overrun on average 96%. Guatemala has seen serious conflicts in recent years because of the construction of hydroelectric dams. In Barillas, northern Huehuetenango, indigenous Mayan leaders have been killed, threatened and criminalized because of their opposition to numerous dams planned in the region.118 On 24 March 2015, community leader Pascual Pablo Francisco, disappeared from his home in Barillas.119 Three days later, his body was found in a ditch with signs of torture.120 The same day as Pascual’s disappearance two other leaders, who actively opposed the dams, were detained in Guatemala City.121 The most contentious project planned is run by Hidro Santa Cruz, a subsidiary of the Spanish energy company Ecoener Hidralia Energia. From the outset in 2007 the community has overwhelmingly opposed it, but the government refused to acknowledge community rights and still issued licenses.122 The conflict with the company stems from the failure of the government to comply with its international and national obligations regarding the right to consultation.
“Killing has become politically acceptable to achieve
economic goals….. I’ve never seen, working for the
past 10 years in the Amazon, a situation so bad.”
– Felipe Milanez, former deputy editor of National Geographic Brazil
A 5 POINT PLAN FOR LAND AND
Governments, companies and the international community must do far more to address the crisis.
Consistent, coordinated and legally binding measures are necessary across the world to:
▶▶Protect land and environmental defenders so they are
able to carry out their work without fear of violence,
intimidation or threats against themselves or their families,
colleagues or communities
▶▶Investigate crimes against activists, bring the perpetrators
to justice, and expose the corporate and political interests
that lie behind the persecution of people defending land
and environmental rights.
▶▶Remedy the situation faced by victims and their
communities by holding those responsible for crimes to
account, providing compensation and other assistance,
and reviewing controversial projects.
▶▶Support defenders’ rights to speak out against projects
imposed on their land, instead of denigrating them, and
facilitate constructive dialogue with civil society.
▶▶Resolve the underlying causes of violence against
defenders, including prioritizing formal recognition of
land rights as well as tackling corruption and illegalities
in resource exploitation.