Independent reporting in Fall 2022 revealed that, between 2012 and 2021, at least 1733 environmental activists were killed—amounting, on average, to nearly one killing every two days. This figure, from Global Witness’ “Decade of Defiance” report, 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 noted.
Killing of environmental activists have been concentrated in the Global South, with 68 percent occurring in Latin America. Three-hundred-forty-two killings occurred in Brazil, 322 occurred in Columbia, 154 occurred in Mexico, 177 occurred in Honduras, and 80 occurred in Guatemala. Outside Latin America, the Philippines accounted for 270 killings and India accounted for 79.
Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted, as 39 percent of those killed were indigenous, despite that group constituting a mere five percent of the global population. In Brazil about a third of those killed were indigenous or Afro, and in the Philippines that number was about forty percent. Additionally, 85 percent of the killings in Brazil occurred in the Amazon rainforest.
Grist’s report 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… It’s destroying communities and it’s destroying our forests.”
Although most killings of environmental activists cannot be traced to a specific cause, due to lack of investigation and reporting, 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, 27 killings were linked to mining, 13 to hydropower, five to agribusiness, four to roads and infrastructure, and four to logging. In the same year, there were a dozen mass killings of environmental defenders, with four events concentrated in Mexico and three in India. In total, Global Witness documented 200 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 or initiated 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 between January 2015 and March 2021.
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, some progress is being made. The BBC reported that in Honduras a former energy executive was sentenced to 22 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 Columbia have not.
As of early January 2023, no major US corporate news outlet has covered the Global Witness report on the extent of deadly threats to environmental activists around the world. Project Censored previously covered “Deadly Environment,” the 2014 edition of Global Witness’ report on killings of environmental activists, 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.
Matt Alderton, “NGO Reports ‘Deadly Decade’ for Environmental Defenders,” TreeHugger, October 12, 2022.
Stufi Mishra, “Over 1,700 Environmental Activists Murdered in 10 Years, Investigation Finds,” The 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.
Student Researcher: Annie Koruga (Ohlone College)
Faculty Evaluator: Robin Takahashi (Ohlone College)