#9 – Deadly Decade for Environmental Activists

by Shealeigh
Published: Last Updated on

Independent reporting in Fall 2022 revealed that, between 2012 and 2021, at least 1,733 environmental activists were killed—amounting, on average, to nearly one killing every two days across ten years. This figure from the Global Witness study, Decade of Defiance, is “almost certainly an underestimate” because “conflict, restrictions on a free press and civil society, and lack of independent monitoring of attacks on defenders can lead to underreporting,” Global Witness asserted.

The killing of environmental activists has been concentrated in the Global South, with 68 percent occurring in Latin America. Three-hundred-forty-two killings occurred in Brazil, 322 in Colombia, 154 in Mexico, 177 in Honduras, and eighty in Guatemala. Outside Latin America, the Philippines accounted for 270 killings and India accounted for seventy-nine.

Indigenous land defenders are disproportionately impacted. The Guardian reported that 39 percent of those killed were from Indigenous communities, despite that group constituting only 5 percent of the global population. In Brazil, about a third of those killed were Indigenous or Afro-descendants, and in the Philippines, that number was about 40 percent. Additionally, 85 percent of the killings in Brazil occurred in the Amazon rainforest.

Grist’s report on the Global Witness study quoted Dinamam Tuxá of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), Brazil’s largest coalition of Indigenous groups: “There has been an increase in the amount of conflict—socio and environmental conflict—in our lands,” Tuxá told Grist, “It’s destroying communities and it’s destroying our forests.”

Although most of these killings cannot be traced to a specific cause, the Independent explained that a “big proportion of these attacks” are associated with opposition to “mining and infrastructure, including large-scale agribusiness and hydroelectric dams.” In 2021 alone, twenty-seven killings were linked to mining, thirteen to hydropower, five to agribusiness, four to roads and infrastructure, and four to logging. In total, Global Witness documented two hundred killings in 2021, down slightly from the 227 verified the previous year.

Threats to environmental activists are not limited to killings. Environmental activists also face beatings, arbitrary arrests and detention, strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) brought by companies, sexual violence, and surveillance. A separate April 2022 report from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, as reported by Grist, documented more than 3,800 attacks on human rights defenders—including not only killings and death threats but also beatings, arbitrary arrests and detention, and lawsuits—between January 2015 and March 2021. Grist noted that many of these human rights defenders were “known in particular for defending their communities’ natural resources from mining, deforestation, water contamination, and other threats.”

Those who kill, injure, detain, or harass environmental activists often do so with impunity, due to insufficient or nonexistent criminal investigations, corruption, and intimidation. Nevertheless, the BBC reported that in Honduras a former energy executive was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison for the 2016 murder of activist Berta Cáceres. In 2021, the Escazú Agreement—the first human rights and environmental treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean—also went into effect. Mexico has ratified the agreement, but Brazil and Colombia have not.

In September 2022, the New York Times published an article by Oscar Lopez, reporting how Mexico was deemed the deadliest country for environmental activists by Global Witness. In October 2022, a short piece in the New York Times’s climate newsletter “Climate Forward” about why Latin America is so dangerous for environmental activists also cited Global Witness’s report. And on February 26, 2023, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Rafael Lozano and Anjan Sundaram about attacks on Mexican Indigenous communities fighting climate change that referenced Global Witness’s findings. Otherwise, the corporate media have largely ignored the Global Witness study about the deadly wave of assaults on environmentalists during the past decade.

Project Censored previously covered the 2014 edition of Global Witness’s report on the killing of environmental activists, Deadly Environment, which was also significantly under-reported by establishment news outlets in the United States.

Patrick Greenfield, “More Than 1,700 Environmental Activists Murdered in the Past Decade— Report,” The Guardian, September 28, 2022.

Stuti Mishra, “Over 1,700 Environmental Activists Murdered in 10 Years, Investigation Finds,” Independent, September 29, 2022.

Matt McGrath, “Over 1,700 Environment Activists Killed in Decade— Report,” BBC, September 29, 2022.

Joseph Lee, “Every Two Days, a Land Defender Is Killed. Most Are Indigenous,” Grist, September 30, 2022.

Matt Alderton, “NGO Reports ‘Deadly Decade’ for Environmental Defenders,” TreeHugger, October 12, 2022.

Student Researcher: Annie Koruga (Ohlone College)

Faculty Evaluator: Robin Takahashi (Ohlone College)