The Hidden Epidemic Of Murder: Environmentalists Are Being Killed In Record Numbers Around The World

A woman arranges memorial candles in honor of the five people killed during anti-mining demonstrations that turned violent earlier this month. Photo: Ron Haviv

by George Black, via OnEarth

Three weeks ago, photographer Ron Haviv and I were in Cajamarca, Peru, where the Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation plans to spend $4.8 billion on a new gold mine, Conga, in an environmentally sensitive area of the high Andes. The project has provoked massive opposition, and as I described in my last column, Haviv and I were detained by security officials when we tried to visit the mine site and later tear-gassed by riot police during a demonstration protesting the killing of five opponents of the Conga project earlier that day.

But the story doesn’t end there. When we went back to our hotel later that night, we went online to find details of the newly declared state of emergency. What we found sharing the day’s headlines was a wire service story reporting that Chinese officials had halted work on a new molybdenum-copper alloy plant in Sichuan province after mass demonstrations in which 13 people were hospitalized after being attacked by riot police. A couple of minutes on Google then took us in quick succession to two people (or perhaps four — reports are contradictory) killed in protests in late May against a giant copper mine in the southern Peruvian province of Cusco. And from there to the bodies of two Brazilian environmental activists found tied up and drowned 50 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. The two men had been involved in protests against a huge new petrochemical complex, financed by the state oil company, Petrobras, which would threaten the rich fishing grounds of Guanabara Bay. (Ironically, the men disappeared on June 23, one day after dignitaries from around the world were putting their initials on the final Rio+20 declaration [pdf], with its ringing reaffirmation of the world’s commitment to people-centered sustainable development).

And so it went on, case after case, country after country, a veritable worldwide epidemic of killing. Most of it is provoked by opposition to the competitive stampede by powerful corporations making multi-billion-dollar investments to dig up, cut down, and ship out the world’s remaining natural resources, a disproportionate amount of which lie beneath the soil of developing countries and more often than not (as in Peru) in the territory of indigenous peoples. These are frequently places with feeble judicial systems, limited or non-existent environmental laws, and a culture of collusion between governments and foreign corporations who promise that at least a little of the wealth from their gold and copper mines, their logging operations, their oil and natural gas plays, or their giant soybean or palm oil plantations will trickle down to the impoverished locals.

A report [pdf] last month by a London- and Washington, D.C.-based group called Global Witness, timed to coincide with the Rio+20 conference, summarizes some of the known facts. I’ve been a fan of Global Witness since they started off in the 1990s, making their name with a campaign against the “conflict diamonds” or “blood diamonds” that were fueling ruinous wars throughout Central and West Africa. Their new report says that 106 environmental activists were killed in 2011, the highest number ever recorded, up from 96 the previous year; 711 deaths have been documented in the last decade, in 34 different countries. Many of these were targeted assassinations; others occurred in the violent suppression of protests like those we experienced in Peru.

In all, 592 of the recorded killings were in Latin America, 108 in Asia (almost half of them in the Philippines), and 11 in Africa. Brazil alone accounts for 365 deaths, more than half the world total. Peru comes in second, with 123. (The worst single incident recorded was a clash between police and indigenous protesters in the northern province of Bagua in June 2009 — on World Environment Day, if you have any further taste for irony — which left 33 people dead. The protests were sparked by two legislative decrees — later rescinded — that would have opened up a huge area of the Peruvian Amazon to mining, hydropower, and oil and gas development).

I chose the phrase known facts deliberately, because it implies more facts that are unknown. The striking regional disparity among those numbers needs some explanation. Are disputes over natural resources more widespread in Latin America than in Africa or Asia? No. Are Latin American security forces more murderous than others? Probably not. The main reason for the egregious number of killings in Brazil and Peru is that those countries have relatively more developed institutions and more sophisticated ways of tracking human rights violations — an ombudsman’s office, the Defensoria del Pueblo, in the case of Peru, and the Catholic land Commission in Brazil. There are few equivalents in Africa. And in Asia, little or no data are available from Myanmar, the Central Asian republics, or the Indonesian province of West Papua. In all of these countries, there is runaway natural resource extraction, but human rights reporting is banned or severely restricted.

Just as the phrase known facts is suggestive, so is the title of the Global Witness report: “A Hidden Crisis?” Frankly, I don’t know why they needed the question mark. With the exception of occasional celebrity cases — like Chico Mendes, shot dead in 1988 for his efforts to preserve the Amazon rainforest, or Ken Saro-Wiwa, hanged in 1995 by the Nigerian government after criticizing Shell Oil’s abuse of his native Ogoniland — the killing of environmental activists opposing large-scale extractive industries is happening out of sight and out of mind. In the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, a distinguished Ugandan magistrate named Margaret Sekaggya, suggests one reason why. In Mexico, she told the U.N. Human Rights Council last December, a journalist was killed after reporting critically on the activities of mining companies. In Central America, a number of environmental reporters were beaten, intimidated, and threatened, and one was murdered. In Iran, a reporter was charged with espionage. In Nigeria, a documentary maker covering land and environmental disputes was arbitrarily detained without access to a lawyer. And the perpetrators of abuse have literally gotten away with murder: even in Brazil, with its sophisticated monitoring system, fewer than 10 percent of cases involving the killing of activists ever make it to court, and barely 1 percent have led to a conviction.

A hidden crisis indeed. Kudos to Global Witness for raising the veil on it, and long past time for others to follow suit.

George Black is OnEarth’s Executive Editor. Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. This piece was originally published at OnEarth and was reprinted with permission.

16 Responses to The Hidden Epidemic Of Murder: Environmentalists Are Being Killed In Record Numbers Around The World

  1. Leif says:

    Do reporters fear this type of reprisal here in America? With the amount of guns available and the Tin Hat mentality of such a large percent of the population prepared to do the bidding of “profits from pollution capitalism,” no doubt. Capitalism, in turn, has shown that it has no concern for the billions of lives threatened by their singular quest of black gold and other extractive resources.

    The R-love-ution will not be televised. It is in our hands. Best wishes to all involved.

  2. fj says:

    In New York City the pittance spend on bikeshare is laughable and the fact that 80% of this city’s public space — its road system — is not safe from cars is a major tragedy since it is the threat of bodily harm that secures automotive and fossil fuel monopolies.

    Worldwide, road accidents have been declared an epidemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Mike Bloomberg has given $100 million to his Bloomberg Philanthropies to mitigate the carnage of the greatest annual killer of people under 25, greater than 1.3 Million per year for all ages, and over 50 million gravely injured per year.

    Simple mechanical collision avoidance systems for small bicycle-like vehicles existed way back in the 1880s and the capability to make vast, extremely safe, high performance net zero transit systems at minimal cost has been possible for many years.

  3. Patrick Moctezuma says:

    Don’t forget Dian Fossey- being world famous didn’t save her from gorilla poachers.

    Protest turns to civil disobedience turns to armed insurrection, in places where the government is so corrupt as to turn a blind eye to the death and destruction caused by global corporations seeking to exploit the resources of others. Are we really so different, here in the US? West Virginia might as well be the Andes for all the support that protesters (residents and miners) have gotten from the judiciary there… they are bought and paid for.

  4. Solar Jim says:

    So does this mean the globalized corporate “person” (under US law, etc.) is a mass murderer, both indirectly (socialized toxins, carbonic acid, radiological poisons, climate crisis) and directly? Does US law indemnify criminal behavior, via “elected” servants of fossil/fissile/financialized extractive oligarchy?

    It seems like intimidation, by a global investor class and subservient nation-states.

  5. Mark E says:

    Weird timing. Just yesterday under another post here I asked about the domestic security threat facing the president, should he ever tell the oil/gas/coal companies to just leave their potential profits in the ground.

  6. From Peru says:

    We must be very careful with these news, because there are strong political interests on both sides here, in Peru.

    On one side there is the government incompetence handing the “Minas Conga Crisis” since late 2011. It already brought down TWO governments in less than one year (by “government” I mean the Council of Ministers, that is nomined by the President and then approved by the Parliament). The governments has so far tried without success to find and agreement between the Yanacocha mining company and and the opponents to it in the Cajamarca region, that absolutely do not want the mining project.

    On the other side, the opponents to the project are mainly politically motivated, and are using the environmental issue (that is, I must made it clear, a valid concern) to their personal political interests.There are 3 leaders of the opposition to the project:

    -Gregorio Santos is the President of the Cajamarca Region and a member of the Communist Party of Peru – Red Motherland.

    -Wilfredo Saavedra is the head of the “defence Front of Cajamarca” and a former member of the banned armed group (now disbanded) Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA)

    -Marco Arana is a former catholic priest and leader of the Land and Freedom Party, a leftist political party.

    Those parties were just a year ago allies of the government party, the Nationalist Party -led alliance “Peru Wins”. The current president, Ollanta Humala, was a strong opponent of the former president Alan Garcia. He entered the elections with a left-oriented government plan, and together with the right-wing Fujimorist Party (the followers of former president Alberto Fujimori that is now convicted for corruption and state-led killings) entered the second round of the presidential elections.

    A great portion of the population was against both candidates at first, but then some of the center vote difted to the right and some to the left. Humala drifted to the Center and that permitted him to win the votes of both the left and the center.For 4 months it seemed that it was the “government of dialogue”, until the Minas Conga conflict erupted. The dialogue failed and the council of ministers fell.

    One reason of the deep anger in Cajamarca is that before elections the Ollanta Humala was a strong opponent of the project himself, making even a speech a few months before the election where he asked the people “Do You want gold or water?” and the crowd answered “the water!”. Many people in Cajamarca feel this change of position as treason.

    With respect to the deaths, I really have no idea of what happened. For months there was chronic violence by the Cajamarca activists in the form of blocked roads and forced closure of shops and markets. The situation was very tense in Celendin, Cajamarca, until a shooting erupted were some people were killed and wounded by gunshots on both sides(it is not clear if only the police was armed with guns or both sides were). Who fired the first shot is not clear. After that, the state of emergency was imposed in the region.

  7. From Peru says:

    Turning back to the environmental issue, the main concern was that 4 small lakes will be wiped out to access the copper-gold sulphide ore in a open pit mine and to dump rock waste. Other argument is that the top of the mountains(were the mine will be located) are the place were most of the river water comes. The feared consequence of this is water depletion.

    The government asked for 3 international experts to analyse the Environmental Assesment Plan of Minas Conga, that was approved by the former government of Alan Garcia.

    The fears mentioned were found to be actually baseless. The small lakes are over an impermeable clay layer, and do not drain to the rivers. The water there is actually naturally acid and polluted by cattle feces. The montaintops contribute just a few % of the rivers discharge, with most of it coming from rainfall further downstream. However, even if the mine will not cause problems now, it will be a problem after closure due to acidic mine drainage (an acidic metal-rich aqueous solution that comes from the reaction of sulfide ores with water and oxygen), because the treatment for the acidic waters will last for a long time, and will be very expensive. To date, almost nobody has mentioned this last problem, despite its importance (nobody has checked for example that the long terms costs of mine closure are not bigger than the short-term profits)

  8. Mike Roddy says:

    Historically, forest activists are killed at the highest rates, in Mexico, Africa, Brazil, and here in Canada and the US, too.
    Leroy Jackson was hunted down and killed, and there was a car bombing at Redwood Summer, too.

    Sometimes the police are involved in these murders.

  9. prokaryotes says:

    Obituary: Dr James Petersen

    I think we can attribute the discovery of Biochar to him.

  10. Mark Shapiro says:

    A cursory reading of Adam Smith teaches that free markets mean trade with people whose rights and security are assured.

    The extractive industries don’t qualify. They rip materials from the earth as cheaply as possible. Anything in the way must be pushed aside, including people and their rights.

    This is an incredibly sad, oft-repeated story. Sadder yet, the extractors know that they have eager buyers, and that consumers (us) accept their products no matter how bloody.

    It is a huge, systematic market failure. Economists must recognize this.

  11. catman306 says:

    Leif, a possible fix for our world wide environmentally catastrophic capitalistic system may be very simple. Deduct a surtax directly from each stock dividend of any resource extracting corporation. That will take the profit out of resource extraction and stockholders will move their money. The extraction will no longer be profitable.

  12. From Peru says:

    Marck Shapiro:

    When you say: “The extractive industries don’t qualify. They rip materials from the earth as cheaply as possible. Anything in the way must be pushed aside, including people and their rights”

    This is true for ALL economic activities, not just extractive industries. The extractive industries are not intrinsically bad, they are bad if profits are made at the expense of the people and the environment, just like any company.

    If the industry cares about the worker’s safety and health, the consumer rights and the environmental footprint, then things are fine. However, since the rich and powerful are not usually regulated by their own morality principles, they do not behave in a socially responsible way. For this, the State must regulate all economic activities to assure that them are beneficial and not harmful for the community.

    There are many examples of socially and environmentally responsible extractive industries thanks to government regulation.

    In Peru, before the 1990s, mining companies (most of them state-owned) dumped all the waste, tailings and acidic waters to the rivers, with catastrophic consecuences. Today there are cities in central Peru, like Cerro de Pasco (that now must be relocated to a safer and cleaner place) and La Oroya (covered with heavy metals dust particles accumulated for nearly a century of smoke from the biggest metallurgical complex of the Americas)completely engulfed by pollution.

    However, since the 1990s and 2000s, there are strict regulations on topics such as emissions and mine closure.However, centuries of exploitation and pollution have made people strongly fearful of any new mining project.

  13. SomeoneInAsia says:

    Once you make it your personal mission to be a champion of TRUTH, prepare to meet the eventual fate of crucifixion at the hands of fellow human beings.

    Such is the tragic flaw in the genetic make-up of Homo (ho-hum) Sapiens.

  14. Francois T says:

    Environmentalists are going to need their own counterstrike force soon.

    You can’t bring a knife to a gun fight; and multinational corporations have NO qualms whatsoever in gunning down any opponent to their sacrosanct bonuses and return on invested capital.

    That said, a rather significant part of the blame lies with the governments of the affected countries too. Developing nations have often used the straw man of the big bad corporation to hide the monstrous corruption of their own elites.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The precedent of COINTELPRO tells you just what the US authorities are capable of.