As the climate crisis intensifies, violence against defenders of the earth is escalating. A Global Witness report released today reveals that 227 land and environmental activists were murdered in 2020 for defending their land and the planet. That constitutes the highest number ever recorded for a second consecutive year.

Header photo: Long En, 65, poses for a portrait inChi Kor Loeu Commune, Koh Kong Province. © Andrew Ball / Panos / Global Witness

‘The violence against people resisting eviction from their communal lands, pollution of their rivers, the disappearance of their forests, and other developments affecting their livelihoods is getting worse,’ says Liliana Jauregui, Senior Expert Environmental Justice at IUCN NL.

The data collected by Global Witness shows that on average four defenders have been killed every week since the signing of the Paris Climate agreement. But this shocking figure is almost certainly an underestimate, with growing restrictions on journalism and other civic freedoms meaning cases are likely being unreported.

Indigenous communities most affected

Indigenous communities are most affected: over a third of all fatal attacks in 2020 targeted indigenous people. Attacks against indigenous defenders were reported in Mexico, Central and South America, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

‘Indigenous communities are more vulnerable to these attacks because, often, their right to land is not recognised, making it difficult and dangerous for them to defend it,’ Jauregui explains. ‘Indigenous women are in even more danger when defending their environment, as they are often excluded from decision-making and not accepted as leaders. On top of this, gender-based violence is often used by men as a method to silence women,’ says Jauregui.

Most murders linked to logging industry

Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines are the deadliest countries for defenders. At least 30% of recorded attacks were reportedly linked to resource exploitation – across logging, hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure, mining, and large-scale agribusiness. Logging was the industry linked to the most murders with 23 cases – with attacks in Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines.

Shrinking space for activism in the Philippines

29 killings occurred in the Philippines, which is the third highest recorded for a country in the report, and the most dangerous country for environmentalists in Asia. In a statement, our partner Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM) denounces the continued impunity against environmental activists and human rights defenders in the Philippines and across world.

ATM states the shrinking space for activism in the Philippines is the direct result of the repressive laws and policies ushered in by the Duterte administration, which has used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to justify the return and expansion of extractive projects like mining, large hydro dams and reclamation projects.

Recommendations to end violence

The report also includes recommendations to end the violence against human and environmental rights defenders. It calls on the United Nations through its member states should to formally recognise the human right to a safe, healthy, and sustainable environment and to ensure that commitments and actions made at COP26 to implement the Paris Agreement integrate human rights protections.

UN Binding Treaty

IUCN NL also believes an international binding treaty for business and human rights is needed in order to better protect environmental and human rights defenders worldwide. ‘The UN binding treaty will ensure that companies can be held accountable when they cause human rights abuses and that victims have access to remedy,’ Jauregui says. ‘This will strengthen the position of environmental human rights defenders across the globe and hopefully have a limiting effect on the number of abuses.’

Environmental defenders at IUCN World Conservation Congress

The increasing violence against environmental defenders was also a central concern during the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille last week. ‘IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy launched a beautiful publication sharing the stories and voices of environmental defenders,’ says Jauregui. In the Marseille Manifesto, which sets the agenda for nature conservation for the next four years, IUCN commits to work to protect environmental defenders and urges its members and partners to do the same.

Liliana Jauregui
Liliana Jauregui
Senior Expert Environmental Justice