The stakes are rising daily in the climate change battle, so it no surprise that this past year saw the highest number of murders of environmental activists.
We saw record temperatures in 2015, a key climate summit and global protests. All the while, communities, rural workers, and indigenous people battled with big corporations to save their land, rivers, resources and environment.
All of last year’s 185 murders of environmental activists took place in third-world countries, but first-world companies and consumerism nevertheless played a role.
As for the actual number of murders, a Global Witness report pointed out that due to limited information and cover-ups, the true death figure is higher than reported. Activist deaths were barely mentioned in the international mainstream media, for instance.
Poor vs. wealthy
Interestingly, the poorest countries in the world tend to be home to resources such as beef, timber, oil, and metals, products that drive global production and profits. As the race to gain access to these resources intensifies, it is often locals who are in the line of fire over materials sold largely to developed countries or used by first-world businesses to manufacture products that often only the world’s wealthier citizens can afford to buy.
“Killing has become politically acceptable to achieve economic goals … I’ve never seen, working for the past 10 years in the Amazon, a situation so bad,” Felipe Milanez, former deputy editor of National Geographic Brazil, told The Guardian.
Brazil was the deadliest country for environmental defenders in 2015, with 50 murders. It was followed by the Philippines with 33, then Colombia with 26, Peru with 12, Nicaragua with 12 and the Democratic Republic of Congo with 11.
“As demand for products like minerals, timber and palm oil continues, governments, companies and criminal gangs are seizing land in defiance of the people who live on it,” said Billy Kyte, a Global Witness campaign leader. “Communities that take a stand are increasingly finding themselves in the firing line of companies’ private security, state forces, and a thriving market for contract killers.”
Forty percent of victims were indigenous people. Their lack of land rights coupled with geographic isolation make them frequent targets of resource and land grabs. Governments or powerful businesses use their influence to turn public opinion against these people by labeling them “anti-development.”
Defending the land
Filipino activist Michelle Campos’s father and grandfather were members of the Lumad people in Mindanao. The Lumad’s land is rich in coal, nickel, and gold. When Campos’ father and grandfather defended said land against mining, they were publicly executed.
In Brazil, thousands of illegal logging camps have sprung up around the Amazon to take the forest’s hardwoods such as mahogany, ebony and teak. It’s estimated that 80 percent of timber from Brazil is illegal.
In India, journalist Sandeep Kothari was found burned and beaten to death in June last year. He criticized sand mining carried out by local mafia groups. Prior to his murder, police had been intimidating him.
“It is necessary to defend the land, for us the poor people, because the land is our own bank. If we lose it we have lost the world. We become landless landlords,” said Sima Mattia, secretary of the Malen Land Owners and Users Association (MALOA) of Sierra Leone.
The guilty parties
Mining and extraction industries were the sector most linked to killings of environmental defenders in 2015, at 42 cases. Activists are standing up to the mining companies for polluting their water sources, land grabbing and threatening their livelihoods.
Mining companies have been increasing production in order to compensate for the loss in profits from falling commodity prices. In the process, they have caused environmental damage and affected local communities. For instance, in Minas Gerais last year in Brazil, toxic mud released by a breach of a dam owned by a mining company killed as many as 19 villagers.
While the people who pull the trigger tend to be hired killers, many of the companies involved in the environmental disputes are from the United States, Canada and Australia. In the Philippines for example, 97 percent of mining production is controlled by foreign companies who are major investors in gold, silver, coal, and oil, including from the United States, Canada, China and Japan.
Global Witness is calling on people, groups, and countries, to cut ties with those companies who murder activists or are “trampl(ing) over communities rights to their land.”
Not only that, but companies need to be held accountable, both by the local government and by the government where they are based or have headquarters.
What can each of us do in light of this sad reality? Make an effort to be aware of what resources and politics are behind the things you buy and consume and then make different choices. Changing consumer attitudes and behavior is one of the few things that really can make a difference.