Last year was the deadliest year on record for environmentalists. More than three activists a week were assassinated across 16 countries while struggling to protect their land, forests and rivers from corporate encroachment.

In a report titled "On Dangerous Ground", the NGO Global Witness says 185 murders occurred in 2015, by far the highest annual death toll on record – and more than double the number documented in the previous year.

The killings were among the many human-rights violations by mines, logging companies, agribusiness and dam construction companies expanding into ever more remote regions of the planet in pursuit of raw materials and agricultural products.

"These numbers are shocking, and evidence that the environment is emerging as a new battleground for human rights," warns the group.

The highest levels of violence against locals defending ancestral land are unfolding in Brazil, the Philippines, Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua, the Congo, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Mexico, Indonesia, Liberia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Pakistan. This trend, the report warns, is symptomatic of wider tendencies undermining basic human rights in these countries.

In many cases, murders were preceded by repeated threats, yet governments did little to protect activists and their families. Instead, environmental defenders were denigrated, criminalised and branded as "anti-development". Witnesses, fellow community activists and family members continued to be threatened even after the killings.

At the same time, says the report, governments turned a blind eye to corporate corruption, illegalities and environmental degradation, with known perpetrators of violence and murder evading investigation.

"Killing has become politically acceptable to achieve economic goals. Working for the past ten years in the Amazon, I’ve never seen a situation so bad," says Brazilian conservationist Felipe Milanez. UN expert Victoria Tauli-Corpuz has referred to the expansion of the agricultural frontier deeper into the Amazon as "open warfare".

With little to fear from the law, hit squads have become increasingly brazen. Environmental defender Rigoberto Lima Choc was shot dead in broad daylight on the steps of a court building in Guatemala after denouncing pollution of a nearby river.

Brazilian defenders of the Amazon rainforest, Raimundo dos Santos Rodrigues and his wife Maria, were ambushed by gunmen on a public road. Maria survived, but her husband did not.

Berta Caceres Protest 2016 06 24
The release of the Global Witness report comes just months after the murder of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres, which prompted widespread international condemnation and protest. Cáceres led a decade-long fight to block construction of the Agua Zarca Dam along the Gualcarque River. Image: UM Women, Flickr

In some countries, particularly those in Asia and Africa, estimating the death toll is hampered by lack of monitoring, along with suppression of the media and civil society. "Our data on killings is likely to be an under-estimate," warns Global Witness. 

In the village of Ginchi in Ethiopia, peaceful protesters against plans to clear a local forest for an investment project were fired upon. Yet media restrictions meant that Global Witness could not verify the number of deaths. Some reports say dozens of protesters were killed.

In the Philippines, observers told Global Witness: "On September 1, at around 3am, the killers came. They woke the people up and forced them to gather in the basketball court. They prevented [eco-activist] Tatay Emok from leaving. They tied his hands and feet, slit his throat, shot his chest and left him dead. They told us to leave our community in two days or else they will finish us all."

"This is a rapidly growing crisis which shows no signs of abating," warns Global Witness. "Without urgent intervention, the numbers of deaths we’re seeing now will be dwarfed by those in the future."

The NGO has called on governments in affected countries to:

  • Increase protection for land and environmental activists at risk of violence, intimidation or threats
  • Investigate crimes, including their corporate and political masterminds as well as the triggermen, and bring perpetrators to justice
  • Support activists' right to say no to projects on their land, and ensure that companies are proactively seeking their consent
  • Resolve the underlying causes of violence against defenders, by formally recognising communities’ rights to their land, and tackling the corruption and illegalities that blight natural resource sectors.


Top header image: Rainforest Action Network