Worldwide, the number of environmental activists and journalists covering the environment who have been deliberately murdered is increasing significantly, with at least one person killed per week over environmental protection or land rights.
At the Rio +20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development currently being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Global Witness, a human rights group focusing on exploitation of natural resources, is reporting a sharp increase in the numbers of environmental activists, journalists, and community members being killed over the defense of lands and forests worldwide. They report that 711 people have been killed in disputes involving land and forest rights over the past decade, and in 2011 alone, 106 people were deliberately killed—almost doubling the number over the past three years.
“This trend points to the increasingly fierce global battle for resources, and represents the sharpest of wake-up calls for delegates in Rio. Over one person a week is being murdered for defending rights to forests and land,” says Billy Kyte of Global Witness.
Although the murders of environmental activists is nothing new—from Karen Silkwood in 1974 to 14-year-old Heng Chantha of Cambodia in May—the group warns that this trend appears to be increasing due to the widespread culture of impunity that exists at both the national and international levels, with few convictions brought against perpetrators. They also point out that there is “an alarming lack of information on killings in many countries, and no monitoring at all at the international level.” Additionally, the reported numbers “are likely to be a gross underestimate of the extent of the problem.”
“It is a well-known paradox that many of the world’s poorest countries are home to the resources that drive the global economy,” says Global Witness. “Now, as the race to secure access to these resources intensifies, it is poor people and activists who increasingly find themselves in the firing line.”
Brazil, Columbia, Peru, and the Philippines have the highest numbers of murders reported. In these and other countries such as Cambodia and Indonesia, Global Witness states that there “are sustained concerns about domestic and foreign private sector involvement in the killings of defenders.” They believe these “trends are symptomatic of the increasingly fierce competition for resources, and the brutality and injustice that come with it.”
As global consumption for natural resources increases, the battle for access to land and forests will also continue to increase, often with deadly results. Contributing to this situation are expanding agriculture use, logging, mining, and urban expansion, many of which are occurring on contested land.
Most of the targeted murders are occurring in resource-rich countries where natural resource deals are “often agreed in secret between officials, political elites and companies,” according to the report. People living in these areas are left without any rights about what happens to their land, and those who speak out face violence and death. Land ownership is often “concentrated in the hands of elites with strong business and government connections.”
“Killings took a variety of forms including clashes between communities and state security forces, disappearances followed by confirmed deaths, deaths in custody, or one-off or multiple-targeted assassinations,” according to Global Witness.
In April 2012, well-known Cambodian environmental activist, Chut Vuthy (Wutty), was shot dead by Cambodian military police while conducting an investigation into illegal logging and land seizures after exposing a secret state sell-off of national parks. According to Global Witness, a government inquiry was opened on the case, but was quickly closed within three days after failing to address how or why the activist was killed. Further, the government banned any additional investigations into the sale of that country’s natural resources.
“If this problem is not addressed urgently, it is likely to get worse, particularly as we can expect more investments in countries with weak rule of law and land tenure rights,” Global Witness said. “This will mean more violent conflict over investment projects and disputes over land ownership, with potentially tragic consequences.”
Pressure must be placed on governments to ensure that citizens are allowed to speak out about how their lands and forests are managed without fear of reprisal or death. There must be transparency regarding natural resource deals, allowing input from affected citizens and communities before deals are approved. Justice and compensation for victims must be a priority, and the international community must be made aware of these atrocities.
“The international community must stop perpetuating this vicious contest for forests and land. It has never been more important to protect the environment and it has never been more deadly.”
- Billy Kyte, Global Witness.