Global witness: laws and policies are abused to silence environmental defenders

On average, more than three environmental defenders were killed per week in 2018 defending their land and environment from destructive industries, as shown by Global Witness’ new report. For the first time, the report highlights how laws and policies are abused to criminalize and intimidate defenders, their families and the communities they represent.

Header photo: (c) Jeoffrey Maitem Global Witness

A total of 164 environmental defenders were killed in 2018, most of them fighting against mining, logging or agribusiness. Most of the recorded murders occurred in the Philippines (30), followed by Colombia (24), India (23) and Brazil (20). The sharpest increase in killings occurred in Guatemala, where 16 defenders were killed (more than five times as many than in 2017).

Mining deadliest sector

Mining turns out to be the deadliest sector for environmental defenders. No less than 43 of the recorded murders is linked to this industry, which often has destructive effects for the environment and livelihoods of inhabitants. The report also shows a spike in killings linked to the defense of water sources globally, rising from four in 2017 to 17 in 2018.


For the first time, Global Witness sounds the alarm about the criminalization of environmental defenders and their communities. The report shows that governments and companies are using legal systems to silence activists who threaten their power and interests. This, for example, includes the misuse of existing laws designed to stop terrorists, or the creation of new rules to limit freedom of speech. This makes attacks on environmental defenders seem legitimate, increasing their likelihood.

The prosecution of environmental defenders is often linked to demand for the land and raw materials needed for products we consume every day, from food, to mobile phones, to jewelry.

Criminalization also happens in Western countries

Strikingly, environmental defenders from countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are also criminalized. In the UK, for example, three anti-fracking protesters received draconian prison sentences.

According the report, this trend of criminalization only seems to worsen. “It is a brutal irony that while judicial systems routinely allow the killers of defenders to walk free, they are also being used to brand the activists themselves as terrorists, spies or dangerous criminals,” says Alice Harrison of Global Witness. “Both tactics send a clear message to other defenders: the stakes for defending their rights are punishingly high. For them, their families and their communities.”

Read more

Liliana Jauregui
Liliana Jauregui
Senior Expert Environmental Justice