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Deadliest Year for Environmental Activists: Report

June 20, 2016

Last week’s Global Witness report On Dangerous Ground opens with the following statement:

The environment is emerging as a new battleground for human rights.

Alarming Numbers

The report, fittingly dedicated to Berta Cáceres (2015, Honduras) covers the state of land and environmental defenders in 2015 and is not short of harrowing evidence to support this statement:

  • 185 were killed across 16 countries,
  • On average three were killed every week,
  • Almost 40 percent of the activists killed in 2015 were from indigenous groups,
  • Mining was the industry most linked to the killings (accounting for 42 deaths), followed by agribusiness (20), logging and dams (both 15).

Tragically, this is not a new state of affairs for activists, and the problem is getting worse. A similar report by Global Witness last year sounded the alarm on their plight in 2014. Since then there has been an almost 60 percent increase in the death toll among land and environmental defenders.

Indigenous Community’s Right to their Land

While documenting the very real threats faced by environmental activists in some of the world’s most dangerous countries for civic participation, the report also gives a set of recommendations for national governments, companies and investors. In no fewer than four occasions, these recommendations cite public participation and the right to free, prior and informed consent as priorities – rights that activists across the globe have been fighting for. However, this right is being ignored particularly when it comes to indigenous communities, whose valuable land is increasingly in demand:

Pressure on the ownership, control or use of land was an underlying factor behind all killings.

It’s widely acknowledged that indigenous people are those best placed to care for the environment in which they live. The report estimates that while indigenous people account for only 6 percent of the global population, their territories cover 20 percent of the land across the globe.

Prize Winners under Threat

This report raises concerns about two of our most recent Prize winners; Leng Ouch (2016, Cambodia) and Máxima Acuña (2016, Peru).

In Cambodia, illegal logging is driven by the trade in high-value rosewood and is leading to violence against environmental activists. Leng is well aware that his outspoken criticism of the government’s collusion with timber magnates is putting his life at risk, but that does not deter him.

Mr. Leng Ouch
Leng will not end his work exposing those who threaten his treasured forest. As the activist himself says, “If I don’t do this, who will?” (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

According to the report, Peru is one of the deadliest countries for activists protesting against mining. To promote more mining investment, the government is weakening regulation on environmental impact assessments, giving more power to its national police while allowing controversial projects to go ahead. Any resistance is increasingly being clamped down on.

The cellphone footage below shows Máxima and her daughter being attacked by the security forces of the world’s second-largest gold mining company:

Despite winning a landmark case brought against her, Máxima continues to receive threats and her family intimidated for standing up to the company. Tell them to stop here.

This culture of impunity between indifferent governments and unscrupulous companies must end. We need environmental activists more than ever before and in spite of this, their lives have never been more under threat.

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