The Environment: A Battleground for Human Rights

Land and environmental defenders worldwide are being killed in record numbers. That is the conclusion of “On Dangerous Ground,” a new report released by Global Witness. Land and environmental defenders lead the struggle to protect their land, forests, and rivers through peaceful actions, like Berta Cáceres, the Goldman Prize winning indigenous women who was murdered last March because of her activism against the Agua Zarca dam in Honduras.

The data compiled in the report shows a deadly increase in the number of murders every year. It documented 185 killings in 16 countries in 2015, a 59% increase compared to 2014. It was the deadliest year since Global Witness started tracking these kinds of murders. Among the countries with the highest rates of killing were Brazil (50), the Philippines (33), and Colombia (26).

Most of the killings arise out of conflicts over environmentally destructive activities like large-scale agribusiness, hydroelectric dams, mining, and logging. The mining industry, which was linked to 42 deaths in 2015 alone, was the worst offender. In Peru, one of the countries with the highest death toll related to mining conflicts, nine land and environmental defenders were murdered by the police as they were protesting.

Often lacking legal title to their ancestral lands and living in relative isolation, indigenous people faced a disproportionate amount of the violence (67 of the 185 deaths in 2015). These factors also make it more difficult to verify information about the killings, resulting in an even greater underestimation of the bloodshed than is normally the case.

The report attributes the responsibility for this increase in violence to the governments of the countries where the murders happen. They have the obligation to protect their citizens, and thus carry the blame for inaction. Even worse, the report argues that State and corporate actors are often directly linked to the murders, as well as protecting the perpetrators of these killings.

On Dangerous Ground is an important rallying call to stop these murders. The situation for land and environmental defenders is getting worse every day. This information needs to be disseminated as widely as possible. Only with awareness will we be able to collectively exert enough pressure on governments, companies, investors, and other actors to stop the killing. Ending the violence isn’t just in the interests of land and environmental defenders, it’s essential for protecting everybody’s human rights, as well as the very planet we all depend on.