Environmental activists: report finds 177 killed last year - and one in five murders were in the Amazon

Global Witness says a lack of investigations into activist's deaths has created a feeling of impunity that fuels further attacks

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At least 177 environmental activists were killed last year for trying to protect the planet - one person every other day - with the lion's share of killings happening across the Amazon rainforest.

This brought the total number of green activists killed to 1,910 in the decade from 2012 to 2022, according to a new report released on Wednesday (13 September) by human rights NGO Global Witness. The organisation says indigenous people were vastly overrepresented in the death toll, and very few of the killings have resulted in prosecutions.

Colombia was found to be the deadliest country with 60 deaths last year - more than a third of all killings globally. Despite Colombia adopting a key legally binding regional agreement in October 2022 which requires the government to prevent and investigate attacks against environmental defenders, this figure was almost double the number of killings reported in 2021.

Global Witness found at least 382 defenders have been killed in Colombia since it began documenting deaths in 2012, making it the country with the highest number of reported killings globally during the last decade.

Colombia was not the only country in the region where activists were at risk, with 88% of all deadly attacks taking place across Latin America - including 34 in Brazil, 31 in Mexico, and 14 in Honduras. In Asia, 11 activists were killed in the Philippines.

Climate activists hold up portraits of slain Philippine environmental defenders in 2021 (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)Climate activists hold up portraits of slain Philippine environmental defenders in 2021 (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
Climate activists hold up portraits of slain Philippine environmental defenders in 2021 (Photo by Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)

The research also found that indigenous communities around the world faced a disproportionate level of lethal attacks. Of the environmental activists killed last year, 34% were indigenous people, despite making up only around 5% of the world’s population.

Global Witness campaigns co-director Shruti Suresh said very few perpetrators have been brought to justice over the past 11 years, due to the failure of governments around the world to properly investigate these crimes.

This results in a feeling of impunity that fuels further attacks, she said. “For too long, those responsible for lethal attacks against defenders have been getting away with murder. Violence, intimidation, and harassment are also being inflicted to silence defenders around the world.

"Despite being threatened by irresponsible corporate and government actions, this global movement of people, united by determination and a commitment to defending their homes and communities, are standing firm – and they cannot and will not be silenced."

Ms Suresh called on governments around the world to "urgently address the senseless killings of those who stand up for our planet", including for the protection of ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest which have a critical role to play in tackling the climate emergency. 

"United action is needed at regional, national, and international levels to end the violence and injustice they face. Far too many lives have already been lost. We cannot afford to lose any more.”

The Global Witness analysis revealed that the Amazon was one of the most dangerous places in the world to try and protect the environment, with 39 killings last year - around one in five of all killings worldwide - taking place in the world’s largest rainforest. Included in these figures are British Guardian journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who were shot dead while travelling through the Brazilian Amazon last June.

Indigenous communities across the rainforest face a range of threats from sometimes illegal activities like gold mining and logging, which bring them into conflict with miners and loggers when they try to stop them. Senior campaign advisor Laura Furones said: "Research has shown again and again that indigenous peoples are the best guardians of the forests and therefore play a fundamental role in mitigating the climate crisis. Yet they are under siege in countries like Brazil, Peru and Venezuela for doing precisely that."

More than 100 countries committed to halting deforestation by 2030 when they signed the Glasgow Declaration at COP26 less than two years ago, she said, but 10% more primary forests were lost in 2022 than in 2021.

"We’re heading in the wrong direction and wasting precious time we don’t have. If we are to keep the forests standing, we must recognise that this relies upon the protection of those who call the forest home," she added. "Addressing the escalating climate emergency and upholding human rights must go hand in hand.”

The report says the new data cannot fully capture the true scale of the problem, with restrictions on a free press and a lack of independent monitoring in many countries, particularly across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, leading to underreporting of killings. Furthermore, the analysis highlights that defenders are increasingly being subject to other forms of silencing through criminalisation - with laws and legal frameworks "that ought to be protecting them" instead being weaponised against them.