In 2020, a record number of environmental activists were killed in the world

    12 Dec 2021

    227 environmental activists were killed in the world last year. Global Witness NGO called on its site on governments to take their defense seriously. Most of the killed activists fought against deforestation.

    In 2020, a record number of environmental activists were killed globally – 227 people, which is 25 more than a year earlier, according to the Global Witness in its report released in September.

    Almost three-quarters of the killings took place in Latin America. As in the previous year, Colombia took first place in the number of deadly attacks on activists – 65 environmental activists were killed in this country. Thirty-six environmental activists have been killed in Mexico, 29 in the Philippines, 20 in Brazil and 17 in Honduras.

    Most of the activists killed in the attacks last year fought against deforestation. Others gave their lives in the struggle to protect rivers, coastal regions and oceans. Almost one in three of the dead is a representative of indigenous peoples. The organization notes that ttheirigures do not take into account unofficial statistics, so the actual number of activists killed may be much higher.

    “Activists who challenged powerful interests have paid a high price for it – they have lost their freedom, livelihood and even their own lives,” the Global Witness report said. “Until governments take the protection of environmental activists seriously and businesses put people and the planet above their own profits, climate destruction and killing will continue,” the study said.

    Key findings

    • Colombia was once again the country with the highest recorded attacks, with 65 defenders killed in 2020. A third of these attacks targeted indigenous and afro-descendant people, and almost half were against small-scale farmers.
    • In 2020 the disproportionate number of attacks against indigenous communities continued – with over a third of all fatal attacks targeting indigenous people. Attacks against indigenous defenders were reported in Mexico, Central and South America, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
    • Nicaragua saw 12 killings – rising from 5 in 2019, making it the most dangerous country per capita for land and environmental defenders in 2020.
    • Where reports indicate that defenders were attacked for protecting specific ecosystems, the majority – 70% – were working to defend the world’s forests from deforestation and industrial development, efforts vital to curbing the climate crisis. Others died for their work protecting rivers, coastal areas and the oceans.
    • Almost 3 in 4 of the attacks took place in the Americas – with 7 out of the 10 highest countries located in Latin America. In Brazil and Peru, nearly three quarters of recorded attacks took place in the Amazon region of each country.
    • We documented 18 killings across Africa in 2020, compared to 7 in 2019. Most of these took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with two in South Africa and one in Uganda. In the DRC, 12 park rangers and a driver were killed in an attack by militia groups in the Virunga National Park. Verifying cases from across the continent continues to be difficult and it is possible cases are widely unreported.

    Report recommendations

    The United Nations through its member states should:

    • Formally recognise the human right to a safe, healthy, and sustainable environment.
    • Ensure that commitments and actions made at COP26 to implement the Paris Agreement integrate human rights protections.

    Governments have the primary duty to guarantee that defenders’ human rights are protected and that they can carry out their activism safely, and should:

    • Ensure national policies protect land and environmental defenders – and scrap any legislation used to criminalize them
    • Require companies and financial institutions to carry out mandatory due diligence, that provides accountability for violence and other harm to land and environmental defenders throughout their global operations and supply chains. 
    • Ensure access to justice by investigating and pursuing prosecutions of all relevant actors, including implicated corporate actors, for violence committed against land and environmental defenders.

    The European Commission is currently preparing two essential pieces of legislation: an initiative on Sustainable Corporate Governance, and a Regulation on forest-risk commodities. The EU must ensure that:

    • The Sustainable Corporate Governance initiative requires all companies doing business in the EU to undertake steps to prevent, identify, address and account for human rights and environmental harms along their value chains as part of their due diligence and includes a strong enforcement mechanism with robust liability regimes and penalties to hold companies accountable;
    • The proposed due diligence Regulation on Forest-risk Commodities explicitly requires companies and financiers doing business in the EU to only source from or finance operations that have obtained the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

    Businesses need to do everything in their power to ensure that they are not causing, contributing to, or benefiting from these attacks, whatever the costs. In particular they must:

    • Publish and implement robust due diligence systems to identify, assess, prevent and mitigate human rights and environmental harms throughout their supply chains and operations.
    • Adopt and implement a zero-tolerance stance on reprisals and attacks on land and environmental defenders

    ·  Provide for and facilitate effective remedy processes when adverse human rights and environmental impacts occur.

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