Global Witness’ most recent report has shown that 227 climate activists were killed during 2020, the deadliest year on record. The previous high was set in 2019 and a report in 2009 showed that 1100 activists had been killed in the previous 20 years. Now is the most dangerous time in history to be a climate activist.

A dangerous time to care about the environment

Global Witness (GW) has seen an increase in attacks on environment activists since the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, amounting to 4 attacks per week since its signing in 2015. This is likely to be an underestimate due to underreporting in states where restrictions on free press are increasing.

Whilst 227 is the largest annual death toll on record it has not come as a surprise to many. In 2009, a report was published stating 1100 activist had gone missing since 1999. And 150 activists had been killed or declared missing in Brazil between 2012 and 2016.

GW warned about the increase of attacks in central and south America, as rainforest continues to be cut at a rate of more than 200,000 acres per day. The September report revealed of 227 deaths, 65 occurred in Columbia, the most of any country, a record it held in 2019 also. Almost 75% of all attacks occurred in Central and South America with 7 of the 10 most dangerous countries also being in the region.

However, the rest of the world isn’t safe for activists. Papa New Guinea has recently seen 18 fishing observers go missing, and 18 killings were documented in Africa, a rise from 7 in 2019.

This increased in attacks in Columbia are in the context of government promises to increase protection of activists in rural regions. Since those promises were made, it is now likely President Duque could end his term with activist killings having more than doubled.

The disproportionate attacks on native and indigenous people

The report highlighted that 1 out of 3 fatal attacks in 2020 were directed at native or indigenous people, despite native and indigenous people making up 1 in 20 of the world’s population.

One of the more high-profile murders, that of Óscar Eyraud Adams who was working for the Kumiai community, involved fighting for access to clean water. Clean water that the Kumiai had always had access to but were now being denied due to the needs of big industry.

GW made several recommendations to legislators. It was clear that protecting native and indigenous people was an extremely high priority, as one of the largest recommendations was the proposal of a Due Diligence Regulation on Forest-risk. This proposal requires companies and investors in the EU to only source from operations that have obtained proper consent of indigenous peoples.

Who is responsible for the attacks?

Currently, 80 hired gun men for ranchers and loggers have been convicted for environmental activists’ killings. 15 people have been found guilty of hiring at least one of the 80 men, however none of those 15 ever served a sentence.

The GW report itself stated, ‘At least 30% of recorded attacks were reportedly linked to logging, hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure, mining, and large-scale agribusiness’. Logging was the industry linked to most murders, at 23. Much of the high-profile cases also involve large industry, including Fikile Ntshangase in South Africa. Ntshangase was murdered while opposing a mine, her daughter has said that in the light of no arrests or formal investigations, it seems political forces were moving to ensure the mine opened.

Of the 15 men previously mentioned, the majority were loggers or ranchers according to federal prosecutors. Big industry failing to comply with environment regulation is not uncommon, and they are only punished when exposed by activists.

A South American whistle blower, Araujo, was responsible for the logging company Esperança IV receiving a $16m fine for illegally cutting trees and polluting rivers, Belo Monte hydroelectric dam receiving a $11m fine for the death of 16.2 tons of fish during the filling process of its reservoir, and in the busting of a deforestation operation that had used modern slaves.

Araujo was a government employee, which exemplifies the worrying suggestion by some commentators that governments are complicit, or at least negligent in preventing attacks on climate activists. GW’s Laura Furones presents the best case scenario – the increase in attacks was due to ‘the lack of state action’.

In the worst case, there are those within governments hostile to environmentalists. Marcelo Salazar, a state colleague of Araujo, stated in an interview, ‘Without doubt he was afraid… anyone who works with the environment in Amazon towns will have a little bit of fear…You have to be very careful with this work and who you denounce’.

Many of the killings have been attributed to armed groups. However, the Columbian Government demonstrated its ability to protect environment activists. A 2016  peace deal between the government and guerrilla group FARC led to a 2 year dip in the number of attacks. Whilst there is little evidence that states are directly responsible for the attacks, there is evidence to suggest states can curtail the violence.

Whilst industry seems to have a heavy hand in attacks, and state involvement is unclear, the role of paramilitary and drug groups has also been widely reported. Activists in Ecuador fled after threats from armed groups that wanted locals to tear down forest to plant coca, the main ingredient of cocaine. Coca crop programs were linked to 17 of Columbia’s activist killings in 2020. Former paramilitary member, and now climate campaigner, Jorge Santofimio said, ‘They’ll kill you for trying to build peace’.

227 people died in 2020 fighting for a better planet, it is very likely industry and gangs were responsible. Governments were either complicit or negligent in protecting the very people that are fighting to protect everyone who calls earth home. Rest in Power.

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