Killings of Environmental Advocates Around the World Hit a Record High in 2020

A record number of environmental activists were killed in 2020, according to the latest accounting by a U.K.-based advocacy group that puts the blame squarely on extractive industries, including agribusiness and logging.

The number of documented killings—227—occurred across the world, but in especially high numbers throughout Latin America and the Amazon. According to the report, published late Sunday by Global Witness, the real number is likely to be higher.

“On average, our data shows that four defenders have been killed every week since the signing of the Paris climate agreement,” the group said, “but this shocking figure is almost certainly an underestimate, with growing restrictions on journalism and other civic freedoms meaning cases are likely being unreported.”

Most of those killed were small-scale farmers or Indigenous people, and most were defending forests from extractive industries, including logging, agribusiness and mining. Logging was the industry linked to the most killings, 23, in Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines. 

In 2019, also a record-breaking year, 212 environmental defenders were killed, the Global Witness report said.

This year’s report comes as world leaders are preparing to convene the next global climate talks, the Conference of the Parties, or COP26, in Glasgow, where countries plan to update their plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet the goals they set at the Paris conference in 2015. The report’s authors stress that countries need to recognize the role that people who protect land, including small-scale farmers, Indigenous groups and environmental activists, have in reducing emissions and that any future commitments should integrate human rights protections.

A number of recent studies have found that Indigenous peoples and small-scale landowners are especially good at protecting forests and ecosystems that are critical for storing carbon emissions from development or exploitation. 

Bill McKibben, founder of the climate advocacy group 350.org, wrote in his forward to the report, “The rest of us need to realize that the people killed each year defending their local places are also defending our shared planet—in particular our climate.”

The report heavily stressed the role that corporations play in creating dangerous conditions for people who protect the land. The authors urge governments to require that companies and financial institutions do “mandatory due diligence,” holding them accountable for violence. Governments also need to ensure that perpetrators, including corporations, are prosecuted.

“What they’re doing is wrong. They have no defense,” said Mary Lawlor, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, in a press conference Monday. “We need to tackle the investors. The investors need to know what they’re investing in and what the impact is on local communities and the environment.”

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The European Union is pursuing two pieces of legislation. One would require companies doing business in the EU to take steps to account for environmental damage and human rights violations that take place when they procure the commodities needed to make their products. Another would require companies that rely on forest commodities to only source from or fund businesses that have obtained the clear consent of the local communities.

“Some companies are very sensitive. They’re building sustainable supply chains, but many don’t. Many are just following an economic rationale,” said Nils Behrndt, acting Deputy Director-General in the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers at the European Commission. “In the EU, we have to use our diplomacy, but also our financial tools. This is the kind of two-pronged approach we’re taking.”  

Behrndt said the EU would push other countries to adopt similar regulations.

So far, laws aimed at protecting land defenders have largely failed.

Lawlor called the pending EU regulations “the first glimmer of hope.”

“The risks are not new. The killings, sadly, are not new,” she said. “The measures put in place so far just haven’t worked.”

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