Editor’s note: Land defenders, especially indigenous land defenders, are at risk across the world, more so in some places than others. In their fight to protect their communities and their land, they directly confront structures of power, challenging the powerful’s sense of entitlement. In order to maintain the status quo, the powerful employ any means necessary to silence the resistors. In some places, this may take the form of political and legal attack, in others, this may lead to murder. Either way, the objective of such repression is not merely to silence one voice, but to set an example, to shut down those hundreds of voices which may have been raised in resistance. This strategy has been used through history.
Even so, resistance lives on. Where the repression becomes strong, defenders find new ways to adapt to their political situation and to continue fighting the powerful. Statistics say that one land defender is killed every two days. While it is necessary to hold the states accountable for these unlawful killings, it is also important for defenders to take measures to protect themselves. This may include being familiar with the laws of one’s region, or to learn self-defense, or whatever is appropriate for one’s situation. Following rules of security culture may help in increasing security for defenders.
“I could tell you that, around the world, three people are killed every week while trying to protect their land, their environment, from extractive forces. I could tell you that this has been going on for decades, with the numbers killed in recent years hitting over 200 each year. And I could tell you, as this report does, that a further 200 defenders were murdered in the last year alone. But these numbers are not made real until you hear some of the names of those who died.” – Dr. Vandana Shiva
In Brazil, two Yanomami children drowned after getting sucked into a dredging machine used by illegal gold miners. A 14 year old Pataxó child was shot in the head during a conflict over land in the northeastern Bahia state. A Guarani Kaiowá person was killed by military police during a clash over a farm the Guarani had reclaimed from settlers. “There has been an increase in the amount of conflict – socio and environmental conflict – in our lands,” said Dinamam Tuxá, of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), Brazil’s largest coalition of Indigenous groups. ”It’s destroying communities and it’s destroying our forests.”
Between 2011 and 2021, at least 342 land defenders were killed in Brazil – more than any other country – and roughly a third of those murdered were Indigenous or Afro-descendant. That’s according to a new report by Global Witness, an international human rights group, that documents over 1,700 killings of land and environment defenders globally during the same time period. The report says that on average, a land defender is killed every other day, but suggests that those numbers are likely an undercount and paints a grim picture of violence directed at communities fighting resource extraction, land grabs, and climate change.
“We will continue to protest, we will continue to show up.” -Dinamam Tuxá, APIB
“All over the world, Indigenous peoples, environmental activists, and other land and environmental defenders risk their lives for the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss,” reads the report. “They play a crucial role as a first line of defense against ecological collapse, yet are under attack themselves facing violence, criminalisation and harassment perpetuated by repressive governments and companies prioritizing profit over human and environmental harm.”
After Brazil, the Philippines and Colombia recorded the most killings: 270 and 322, respectively. Together all three countries make up more than half of the attacks recorded in the global report.
In the Philippines, Indigenous and local environmental activists have been fighting huge infrastructure projects like the Kaliwa Dam and the Oceana Gold Mine, both of which Indigenous leaders say threaten their land and the environment. According to Global Witness, over 40% of the defenders killed in the Philippines were Indigenous peoples.
“It’s clear that the government has not taken this crisis seriously,” said Jon Bonifacio, national coordinator at Palikasan People’s Network for the Environment. “This statistic has not been recognized in any way by the Philippine government, despite the crucial role environmental defenders play in the fight against climate change.”
According to Global Witness, those statistics are uncertain due to a lack of free press and other independent monitoring systems around the world and other types of violence are also not counted in the report. “We know that beyond killings, many defenders and communities also experience attempts to silence them, with tactics like death threats, surveillance, sexual violence, or criminalization – and that these kinds of attacks are even less well reported,” Global Witness said.
An April report from the nonprofit Business and Human Rights Resource Centre documented some of those other tactics, tracking 3,800 attacks, including killings, beatings, and death threats, against land defenders since January 2015. But even those numbers aren’t the complete picture. “We know the problem is much more severe than these figures indicate,” Christen Dobson, senior program manager for the BHRRC and an author of the report said at the time.
The Global Witness report’s authors say governments should enforce laws that already protect land defenders, pass new laws if necessary, and hold companies to international human rights standards. Global Witness also says companies should respect international human rights like free, prior, and informed consent, implement zero-tolerance policies for attacks on land defenders, and adopt a rights-based approach to combating climate change. The report specifically calls on the European Union to strengthen its proposed corporate sustainability due diligence law by adding a climate framework and more accountability measures for financial institutions.
While international advocacy offers some hope for Indigenous leaders on the front lines, those leaders also know that they have to keep fighting to protect their land, lives, and environment. In Brazil, resistance to Indigenous land demarcation and advocacy for resource extraction in the Amazon pushed by President Jair Bolsonaro, has led to record deforestation in the Amazon since he took office in 2019. Dinamam Tuxá and other Indigenous leaders in Brazil are hopeful that the upcoming presidential election may lead to change, but remain skeptical. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president and current leading candidate, has promised better treatment for Indigenous peoples in Brazil but Tuxá says that Indigenous peoples cannot rest all their hopes on politicians.
“President Lula would not solve the problems of Indigenous peoples,” Tuxá said. “Regardless of who gets elected we will continue to protest, we will continue to show up.”
“Joannah Stutchbury loved trees, practiced permaculture, was an environmentalist, and bravely advocated for the environment, with a fiery and unwavering passion.” And she was wonderfully crazy and full of life and joy to be alive. She was shot dead on her way home in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, in July 2021. “
Editor’s note: This article is a call for courage in the face of adversity, apathy, and violence. Two hundred and seven environmentalists were murdered last year—at least. Each fallen land defender is a hero. To save the planet, we must be willing to take risks and make sacrifices.
States, corporations, and vigilantes use violence because it is brutally effective. Our best defense against murder and other intimidation techniques including detention, torture, surveillance, harassment, and infiltration is solidarity, organization, and strategy.
Deep Green Resistance activists are active in many of the most dangerous parts of the world, where environmentalists are murdered regularly. This is why we advocate for security culture and teach techniques regarding privacy, anonymity, personal safety, and self-defense. As land defenders, we must be prepared. This work is dangerous, and by being prepared, we enable action.
An analysis by Front Line Defenders and the Human Rights Defenders Memorial recorded at least 358 murders of human rights activists globally in 2021.
Of that total, nearly 60% were land, environment or Indigenous rights defenders.
The countries with the highest death tolls were Colombia, Mexico and Brazil.
Advocates say the figure is likely far higher, as attacks on land and environment defenders in Africa often go unreported.
At least 358 human rights defenders were killed in 2021, according to an analysis by Front Line Defenders (FLD) and the international consortium Human Rights Defenders Memorial. Of the total, nearly 60% were land, environment or Indigenous rights defenders, and more than a quarter were themselves Indigenous. Researchers who worked to compile the data said the high proportion of activists killed while fighting against threats to community land and natural resources represented a continuation of a years-long trend.
“Unfortunately, in most if not all of the places where this is happening, there’s just flat-out impunity for these attacks,” said Andrew Anderson, the director of FLD.
As was the case in 2020, the deadliest country for human rights defenders was Colombia, with 138 verified killings — more than a third of the global total. Mexico recorded 42 deaths, the second-highest number, and Brazil came in third with 27 killings, 19 of them land rights defenders.
Anderson told Mongabay that many of the murdered activists were targeted due to their opposition to dams, illegal logging, mining operations, and other extractive projects linked to powerful interests in their countries.
“Activists who are working to document what’s happening and challenge government-driven narratives are at extreme risk,” he said.
Murders of land, environment and Indigenous rights defenders were recorded in 15 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines and Thailand.
Colombia has topped the list of deadliest countries for human rights defenders for years, partly due to violent conflicts over control of remote smuggling routes and land that was previously controlled by the guerrilla group FARC, which disbanded following a peace deal with the government in 2016. Since then, paramilitary groups vying to fill the vacuum left by the FARC have targeted Indigenous groups resisting encroachment by warring factions onto their traditional territories.
In Mexico, five Indigenous land and water defenders from Paso de la Reyna in Oaxaca state were killed in the first three months of 2021 alone, including Fidel Heras Cruz, who had worked to expose threats to the Verde River from a hydroelectric dam and illicit rock quarrying. FLD said in recent years the Mexican government has given the military a greater role in the implementation of development projects, in part to intimidate Indigenous and other communities who object to those projects.
Many of those who were killed spent years facing threats and harassment as a result of their work, suggesting that if their governments had acted more forcefully on their behalf, their deaths could have been avoided. In the Mexican state of Sonora, for example, José de Jesús Robledo Cruz and María de Jesús Gómez were killed in April 2021 after organizing a campaign against Mexico’s largest gold-mining company. It wasn’t the first time the married couple had been targeted: In 2017, they were kidnapped and tortured by unknown assailants dressed in army fatigues. When their bodies were discovered last year, a note with the names of 13 other activists was attached to one of them.
Nearly three-quarters of the human rights defenders killed in Mexico were protecting land, the environment or Indigenous rights.
As staggering as the death toll is on its own, the true figure is likely much higher. Front Line Defenders relies on local partners to report on killings, and generally looks for at least two sources to verify each victim’s identity, background, and the cause of death. In countries where there are significant constraints on the ability of local human rights groups to gather and publicize data, deaths and other forms of retribution against defenders can simply go unrecorded.
Across the entire continent of Africa, for example, only 20 deaths were noted — less than half the total for Mexico alone. Advocates from the continent say that’s almost certainly an undercount.
“Because of the remote nature and way in which these people live and where they exist, you can hardly find any information,” said Alfred Brownell, a Liberian activist who won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2019, two years after he was forced to flee his country.
Anderson said that in Central and South America, human rights reporting networks are more robust than in Africa, where media coverage in rural areas where extractive projects take place is often limited.
“In pretty much every country in Latin America you have an umbrella organization that’s a network of human rights defenders. Sometimes you have multiple networks, whereas in West Africa, with a couple of exceptions those entities don’t yet exist,” he said.
The report highlighted the death of Joannah Stutchburry, a 67-year-old environmental advocate who was shot to death in Kenya last year after campaigning against development in the Kiambu forest national park. And in northern Uganda, police and military forces shot and wounded 16 members of the Paten clan who were protesting against an irrigation project that they say is threatening their farmland.
“These are our first responders who are responding in a very effective way to the climate crisis,” Brownell said. “These are our democracy heroes who aim for transparency and accountability, and are blowing the whistle on these violations. We have to secure this firewall and protect them.”
Banner image: A mural in Palma, Majorca (Chixoy via Wikimedia Commons). Berta Cáceres was a Honduran (Lenca) environmentalist and indigenous leader fighting dams in Central America. She was assassinated in 2016 by armed men, several of whom were trained at the U.S. military’s infamous “School of the Americas” (now known as WHINSEC) at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“For years, land and environmental defenders have been the first line of defence against climate breakdown. Yet despite clearer evidence than ever of the crucial role they play, far too many businesses, financiers and governments fail to safeguard their vital and peaceful work.” Globalwitness.org
Colombia, is a country with amazingly diverse ecosystems.
There are also a huge diversity of cultures. In 2019, Colombia was the worst country to be an environmental activist. There was hope this would improve in 2020 but sadly this was not the case. Worse still, Colombia started on new year’s day in 2021 with the murder of young people who were who fought with the guerrilla organization The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and had demobilized to return with their family after the peace agreement was signed in June 2016. FARC signed a ceasefire accord with the President of Colombia. A year later, FARC handed over its weapons to the United Nations. At this point it ceased to be an active, armed group.
The first day of this year started with the execution of a former member of the FARC, Yolanda Mazo aged only 22 and Reina her 17 year old sister. They were murdered in the early morning Friday, January 1st 2021. Yolanda is one of hundreds of activists who have been killed since the signing of the Accords between the Colombian state and the FARC. In addition to the deaths of two young women two union leaders have also been murdered.
Environmental activist found dead.
Most recently, Gonzalo Cardona, the first environmental activist and forest ranger who worked in the protection of the paramo ecosystem was murdered. These ecosystems are regions considered to be “evolutionary hot spots“. The ranger worked to protect this area and several endangered species of birds. He stood for the conservation of the habitat of the yellow eared parrot “loro orejiamarillo” and for the preservation of the natural world from the mining the deforestation and the industrial agriculture.
The systemic and systematic violence on the land and towards the Colombian people is brutal. It is the consequence of the capitalist system, of greed and profit over the health of the natural world and the humans and non-humans that inhabit it. The dominant, violent system depends upon inequality, poverty and repression of social movements to remain in power and when the profit or the power is threatened, they remove the threat.
Who is responsible?
The Colombian government, the military forces, the paramilitary groups and other armed groups are responsible for these deaths, for these murders. All this violence has its roots in land control, exploitation of natural resources and silencing of social movements. The Colombian government, in collusion with national and multinational corporate interests, continue to profit from the destruction of the natural world. They gain political benefits through mining contracts, fracking developments and widespread industrial agriculture. Those in power ensure the elites own the land, reducing the power of the poeple to defend land.
The Colombian government and those who benefits on the land exploitation, continue to attack and discredit social and environmental movements and when they feel threatened people die.
Paulo Paulino Guajajara, known as Kwahu, has been murdered by loggers in a part of the Amazon currently occupied by the Brazilian government. Equipped with only rudimentary weapons and body armour, and lacking medical assistance, Rainforest Guardians like Guajajara regularly face death at the hands of both government officials and natural resource exploiters. Their only advantages are their intimate knowledge of the rainforest and their deep commitment to protecting those living systems. Guajajara was protecting both his own ancestral land and also the lands of their uncontacted neighbours, the Awá tribe, when he was shot and killed by assassins. Guajajara is not the first ecological activist to be murdered; in April, 3 Rainforest Guardians were similarly slain.
It’s difficult to write this article from the relative luxury and comfort of a Western European country, especially having experienced a small modicum of the difficulties of even living for a few days in jungles like the Amazon — let alone inhabiting those claustrophobic settings with the knowledge that well armed groups of men are hunting for you. I cannot even begin to imagine the courage Guajajara must have embodied in order to take on this critical work; ultimately these words are cheap compared to the very real actions of Rainforest Guardians. We must extend our support beyond words if we’re to meaningfully help them achieve their mission of protecting the world’s dwindling rainforests.
These courageous groups need funding for better defensive weaponry, body armour, combat medicine, training, and basic survival equipment. If we are unable or unwilling to put our own bodies on the front lines to protect nature, then we should share what resources we do have to protect the bodies of people who are willing to put their own lives at risk for the rest of us. Groups like Survival Interntional have a good reputation, or reach out to a Deep Green Resistance representative for additional recommendations.
Forest ranger Bienvinido “Toto” Veguilla, Jr. was murdered last week while attempting to stop illegal loggers from ransacking a section of forest in the Philippines. Veguilla was on a routine patrol in the Sitio Kinawagan, Barangay Pasadeña region when he and fellow rangers discovered a group of illegal loggers using a chainsaw and other equipment to destroy the ecosystem for profit. After confiscating their equipment Veguilla and his team departed for their station, but were followed by the illegal loggers and eventually attacked. Unfortunately, Veguilla was unable to escape and was hacked to death by approximately six men.
Veguilla’s murder is a great loss to conservation efforts in the Philippines; he was known as one of the most diligent, hardworking, and courageous members of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). He is not the first ranger to be murdered — in 2017, captain Ruben Arzaga was also murdered by illegal loggers in retaliation for his conservation efforts.
These brave individuals and their colleagues risk their lives on a daily basis to protect Earth’s dwindling ecosystems against destruction, often facing death threats and severe retaliation. Sometimes it is easy for environmental activists in priveleged countries to lose sight of the brutal realities facing their comrades in other parts of the world. Next time you hear someone moralizing about the virtues or necessity of pacifism, remember that those notions are an extreme luxury and that the individuals who preach those sermons are generally far removed from risking life or limb.