Environmental work has never been more deadly.
There was a record number of environmental workers killed last year, according to a new report from Global Witness, an NGO watchdog working to tackle natural resource exploitation and human rights abuses. More than 200 environmental activists, many from indigenous tribes, were murdered in 2016, making it the deadliest year on record for people committed to tackling environmental issues. While emphasizing that the number was likely much higher, due to the difficulties presented in collecting data, the organization noted the staggering number’s implications.
“The fact that the upward curve of killings has continued…suggests that governments and business continue to prioritize short-term profit over human lives,” Global Witness campaigner Billy Kyte said.
Countries across Latin America remained by far the deadliest for activists protecting natural resources — some 60 percent of all killings reported took place in the region. Honduras, which has the highest per capita rate of activist killings over the past decade, also saw a high murder rate, with 14 activists killed. Neighboring Colombia recorded 37, an all-time high bringing the country second only to Brazil, where 49 deaths were reported. Brazil remains the most dangerous place for environmental activism, due in large part to clashes over the Amazon rainforest, where indigenous tribes are working to defend their land from developers and the government.
Global Witness noted that indigenous activists, almost 40 percent of those killed, suffer disproportionate risks, a fact that was underscored by several high-profile murders last year, predominantly in Honduras. Berta Cáceres, 44, an indigenous Honduran activist and co-founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras, or COPIHN was murdered in March 2016 after numerous death threats. Cáceres, who organized the Lenca people in a triumphant grassroots battle against the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam, was supposed to be under police protection. Security measures failed the activist, who was shot in her home.
Another member of COPIHN, Nelson García, 39, was killed outside of his home in Honduras a short time later. His death followed the police eviction of 150 families from lands in the northern village of Rio Chiquito. Lesbia Yaneth Urquía, an environmental activist in Marcala, Honduras and an opponent of hydroelectric development in the La Paz region, was murdered a few months later.
While Latin America remains a dangerous place for environmental defenders, other regions also saw violence against environmental workers. India notably saw a spike in killings, three times the number reported in 2015, which Global Witness argued was due in large part to increasing police repression and a crackdown on civic activism. Democratic Republic of the Congo, where park rangers are often at risk, also saw horrific violence.
“We’re experiencing a complete breakdown of law,” said Richin, a campaigner opposed to large-scale mining alongside the Adivasi people in Chhattisgarh, India. “The state isn’t protecting people’s land rights and is acting like an agent for mining companies.”
The state plays a key role in many of these murders. Global Witness notes that soldiers, police, and other government officials — many of whom are backed by Western companies or governments, including the United States — are frequently behind the killings. That backing can be paid back with a relaxation on other restrictions, meaning that lower-income countries are more willing to overlook Western exploitation of resources, which compromises activists, in exchange for financial assistance.
These international issues have been exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s administration. On the same that the Senate considered the nomination of now-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former Exxon CEO, the House of Representatives met to decide whether or not to require oil, natural gas, and mining companies to publicly disclose the billions of dollars they pay annually to foreign governments. A short time later, lawmakers did away with the rule.
Escalating challenges like these are among the reasons Global Witness thinks 2017 will be even worse.
“I think these attacks are getting more brazen,” said Kyte.
Although no murders were reported in the United States, the report observed that U.S. activists had also come under fire for their efforts to protect natural resources. Protests surrounding projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, led by indigenous water protectors, have placed activists in an increasingly precarious position, pitting them against the government.
While protests against projects like DAPL occurred during Barack Obama’s presidency, new anti-protest bills have been introduced in 18 states since Trump’s election, which environmentalists worry will be used to crack down on their activism.