Battleground environment: 185 killings across 16 countries, a 59% increase on 2014, highest ever

killing2015 was the worst year on record for killings of land and environmental defenders – people struggling to protect their land, forests and rivers through peaceful actions, against mounting odds. India was one of the 16 countries in which these killings have taken place. Excerpts from a recent report by Global Witness, a non governmental, not for profit organisation based in Britain:

The environment is emerging as a new battleground for human rights. As demand for products like timber, minerals and palm oil continues, governments, companies and criminal gangs are exploiting land with little regard for the people who live on it. Increasingly, communities that take a stand are finding themselves in the firing line of companies’ private security, state forces and a thriving market for contract killers. The numbers are shocking. We documented 185 killings across 16 countries, a 59% increase on 2014 and the highest annual toll on record.

On average, more than three people were killed every week in 2015 – more than double the number of journalists killed in the same period. The worst hit countries were Brazil (50 killings), the Philippines (33) and Colombia (26). Mining was the industry most linked to killings of land and environmental defenders with 42 deaths in 2015. Agribusiness, hydroelectric dams and logging were also key drivers of violence. Many of the murders we know about occurred in remote villages or deep within rainforests – it’s likely the true death toll is far higher.

For every killing we are able to document, others cannot be verified, or go unreported. And for every life lost, many more are blighted by ongoing violence, threats and discrimination. This report sheds light on the acute vulnerability of indigenous people, whose weak land rights and geographic isolation make them particularly exposed to land grabbing for natural resource exploitation. In 2015, almost 40% of victims were indigenous.

For example, the father and grandfather of Filipino activist Michelle Campos were publicly executed for defending their ancestral land against mining in an attack which drove 3,000 indigenous Lumad people from their homes. Rich in natural resources, their region of Mindanao is one of the most dangerous in the world for land and environmental defenders, with 25 deaths in 2015 alone. Although the Lumad killers were identified by the many witnesses, they have never been brought to justice. Elsewhere, the Amazon states of Brazil saw unprecedented levels of violence in 2015, where communities are being encroached on by ranches and agricultural plantations or gangs of illegal loggers.

The rainforest has given way to thousands of illegal logging camps whilst the agricultural frontier is pushing further into previously untouched indigenous reserves. It’s estimated that 80 % of timber from Brazil is illegal, and accounts for 25% of illegal wood on global markets. Much of this is being sold on to buyers in the US, Europe and China.6 Across the world, collusion between state and corporate interests shield many of those responsible for the killings. In cases that are well documented we found 16 were related to paramilitary groups,  to the army,  to the police and to private security – strongly implying state or company links to the killings.

There was little evidence that the authorities either fully investigated the crimes, or took actions to bring the perpetrators to account. Our findings highlight another alarming trend: while impunity for perpetrators prevails, the criminalization of activists is becoming more commonplace, particularly in African countries. Governments and powerful business interests use their influence to marginalise defenders and turn public opinion against them, branding their actions as ‘anti-development’. We document the experiences of four defenders in Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Madagascar and Democratic Republic of Congo, who in 2015 faced legal harassment by authorities, including being arrested on trumped-up charges. There is growing international awareness of this growing crisis, with many NGOs and human rights experts calling for urgent action.

As UN expert Victoria Tauli-Corpuz commented during a visit to Brazil in March 2016, the pattern of killings in many countries is becoming an epidemic.  This report asks why – and calls for urgent, meaningful action to end the rising tide of violence. Protecting land and environmental defenders is vital – not only as a matter of justice and basic human rights, but for our collective survival. They are the custodians of the planet’s natural resources in the face of accelerated climate change and a host of environmental problems that threaten humanity. In the words of Michelle Campos: “We want to speak. Hear us.”


National governments in countries where environmental and land defenders are under threat must take immediate steps to:

▶ Ensure that law enforcement bodies and the judiciary enforce relevant laws to protect defenders from violence

▶ Support independent units with resources to protect defenders under threat, such as risk assessments, legal aid, security provision and temporary relocation where necessary

▶ Ensure prompt and impartial investigations into allegations of threats and violence against defenders, and carry out prosecutions of direct perpetrators and intellectual authors of crimes

▶ Publicly reaffirm and recognise the important work of land and environmental defenders, and take steps to respect, protect and promote their rights, as stipulated by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in 2011

▶ Implement and respect all provisions set out in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders10 and apply the guidance set out in the resolution on Human Rights Defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on 24 March 2016

▶ Support the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures, specifically those mandated to Human Rights Defenders, Indigenous Peoples, Business and Human Rights, Environment and Human Rights and Extrajudicial Killings, by accepting visits by Special Rapporteurs and addressing their recommendations

▶ Review controversial projects in areas with violence against defenders, and suspend or cancel operations where there is evidence of illegalities or lack of compliance with environmental regulations or consultation procedures

▶ Provide appropriate redress and reparation to victims and local communities to remedy and redress any direct and indirect impact of human rights abuses

▶ Prioritise actions to tackle illegalities and corruption in sectors exploiting land and resources, and publicly reaffirm the work of public officials threatened when monitoring these sectors

▶ Develop National Action Plans on business and human rights to address corporate human rights abuses against defenders in line with UN guidance

▶ Ratify ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and recognise and implement the right of affected communities to reject investment and extractive projects unless they give their free, prior and informed consent

▶ Prioritise processes to secure the collective land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, and ensure their rights to sustain their livelihoods as part of national development strategies

▶ Actively support land and environmental defenders as an integral part of civil society, allow them to operate freely, participate in decision-making and access information on land and natural resource governance

▶ Desist from denigrating the work of defenders and criminalizing their actions; rescind the use of policies and legislation that restrict the activities of defenders in contravention of international human rights law

All governments must:

▶ Ensure any future bilateral and multilateral trade agreements involving governments whose defenders are under threat include measures to address these violations and be conditioned on robust investigations of cases

▶ Introduce binding regulations to ensure that large-scale land acquisitions and investments do not violate legitimate collective land rights, and are in-line with the Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure of Land, Forests and Fisheries, in the context of National Food Security

▶ Hold investors and corporations to account to ensure that they meet their human rights and environmental obligations when either financing, operating or sourcing goods and services nationally and/or abroad

▶ Ensure that all development aid and assistance is guided by the provisions set out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights Defenders15 and that this applies to programming in all sectors and at all stages

International and regional bodies:

▶ Dissemination and implementation of the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders and support for the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council should be properly resourced by EU missions in countries where environmental and land defenders are under threat

▶ The ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) Human Rights Commission and African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should establish a mechanism based on the Inter-American Human Rights Commission’s framework to provide emergency protection (“precautionary measures”) for human rights defenders

▶ The UN Working Group to Develop a Treaty to Prevent and Address Corporate Human Rights Violations18 should address the heightened risk posed by business activities to environmental and land defenders in any text of a future treaty

▶ The UN Economic Commissions for Africa and Asia should establish robust, legally binding regional instruments on access to information, public participation and justice in environmental matters, modelled on the current process in Latin America and the Caribbean, including measures to protect land and environmental defenders

All companies and investors must:

▶ Support constructive dialogue with defenders and desist from denigrating their work and using judicial harassment to impede their actions

▶ Refuse to make any investment decision unless genuinely free, prior and informed consent is given by potentially affected communities

▶ Establish grievance mechanisms necessary to avoid, reduce, mitigate and remedy any direct and indirect impact of human rights abuses

▶ Implement due diligence checks on supply chains to ensure that their purchasing policies are not linked to operations that are associated with human rights or environmental abuses, including acts of intimidation, repression or violence against defenders

▶ Adopt and implement the Voluntary Principles on Human Rights and Security,20 the UN’s Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights and other relevant international human rights standards

▶ Implement and require compliance with the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure across their national and international supply chains

Below are some examples of the different types of land and environmental defenders killed in 2015:

▶ Rigoberto Lima Choc, a Guatemalan teacher, was shot dead on 18 September 2015 in broad daylight in the town Sayaxché, on the steps of the local court building. He had spoken out about pollution of the La Pasión River allegedly caused by the palm oil company Reforestadora de Palmas del Petén, S.A. (REPSA). The same day as his murder, three other environmental activists were temporarily kidnapped by workers from the company after a judge suspended REPSA’s activities. REPSA have rejected accusations that they caused the water pollution in the Río de la Pasión and have also categorically  rejected any link between the company and the killing of Rigoberto Lima Choc.

▶ Saw Johnny, an advocate for land rights in Karen State, Myanmar, was shot several times in the back by unidentified gunmen early in the morning on 2 July 2015. He was wellknown for supporting local victims of land grabbing and reportedly exposed the illegal sale of government plots of land.

▶ Alfredo Ernesto Vracko Neuenschwander, a Peruvian community forestry worker, was gunned down in his home in Madre de Dios on 19 November 2015. He led a movement to resist forest invasions into the biodiverse Tambopata region by illegal gold miners, who had repeatedly threatened him prior to his killing. He had denounced the threats, but little action was taken by the authorities.

▶ Maria das Dores dos Santos Salvador, a Brazilian rural community leader in Amazonas, was kidnapped and brutally killed on 12 August 2015. She had strongly denounced the illegal sale of community land and had faced threats for several years without receiving the necessary state protection.

▶ Sandeep Kothari, an Indian journalist, was found burned and beaten to death in Maharashtra state on 20 June 2015. He had written critically on sand mining by local mafia groups in Balaghat district, which the state has allowed to grow unchecked. Prior to his murder, he had faced considerable threats, including intimidation by the police and spurious legal charges in alleged retribution for his journalism.

Download full report HERE


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