More than 1,700 environmental activists killed in the last ten years

The fight for environmental and human rights is a matter of life and death. Last year, 200 environmental defenders were killed, according to a recent Global Witness report.

Protecting the rainforest and the environment is more dangerous than ever - here from a protest against the murder of Edwin Chota, the leader of Tamaya-Saweto Indigenous group, and three other land defenders in Peru. Photo: Rainforest Foundation USA

Murder. Violence. Corruption. Violation of law and human rights. This takes place in many countries, but the most dangerous places to be a land and environmental defender are Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines, and Mexico.

Territorial conflicts and economic interests are the main cause, and many of these murders are neither officially registered nor investigated.

This cannot be ignored by international society.

1733 killed in ten years

The annual Global Witness report confirms that fighting for the environment is a life-threatening battle.

Since 2012, Global Witness has been working on collecting data and mapping murders of activists who fight for the environment and their territories. During these past ten years, the organization has uncovered a total of 1,733 murders of land and environmental defenders.

This year's report, just like previous years, is a sad state of affairs, but also a testimony to the courage of people for whom the climate and environmental fight is more important than their own lives and safety.

The figures worry and upset Rainforest Foundation Norway.

– Nature has been reduced to commodities. Environmentalists are killed for standing in the way of the economic exploitation of land and natural resources. But if we are to have a viable planet for ourselves and future generations, the protection of land and environmental defenders must be at the forefront - both for states and businesses says Susan Fay Kelly, senior advisor at Rainforest Foundation Norway. She explains:

Indigenous people make up a disproportionate part of the number of killed defenders in the statistics and almost 80% (78%) of the murders of environmental defenders in Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela occurred in the Amazon. If we are to have a habitable planet, indigenous people must be a part of the solution. The areas where indigenous people have land rights provide richer biodiversity, with less deforestation.

– Large and powerful stakeholders are willing to sacrifice the lives of indigenous people in the pursuit of profit. This cannot continue.

Susan Fay Kelly, senior adviser at the Rainforest Foundation Norway

Protecting the safekeepers of the rainforest also leads to protection of the rainforest. Photo: Tatiana de Nevó/Rainforest Foundation Norway

Tragic destinies behind the numbers

The list of 200 names hides 200 lives and 200 unique stories of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters who are no longer alive. Because they fought for the environment and the land they lived on and of.

Environmental defenders have strong and powerful opponents in mining and industrial agriculture who do everything to exploit indigenous people's land and natural resources. Land and environmental defenders live dangerously because they stand in the way of financial gain and are a nuisance to these companies.

But indigenous people refuse to move. They guard their culture, their lands, and their homes tooth and nail. They know it can be fatal. The rest of the world also knows it, and this year's report from Global Witness sheds light on the dangers of environmental activism.

– This is an ecological and humanitarian disaster, says Vandava Shiva, activist, writer and philosopher in the foreword of the report.

The goal of Global Witness's mapping is to be an eye-opener to the rest of the world. Urgent actions are needed to prevent the attacks on the environmental defenders and for those behind them to be held accountable.

Murders and disappearances

Mexico is at the top of the list of homicides in 2021, where environmental and human rights defenders are killed every month. In 2021 alone, 54 defenders were killed, 30 more than the previous year. In Mexico, in addition to murders, Global Witness reported on suspicious disappearances carried out on behalf of government representatives and organized criminal groups. Most people who disappear are never found and probably belong to the homicide statistics.

Over a third of the murders uncovered over the last ten years have occurred in Latin America. In addition to Mexico, the situation is particularly bad in Colombia, and in Brazil. The Philippines is also ranking high up in this list.

The situation was further exasperated by the great tension of the presidential election between incumbent President Bolsonaro and challenger and former president Lula. The outcome will be decided after a second round of voting on 30 October and many fear an escalation of violence in the run-up to the last and final round.

Deforestation increased by 73% under President Bolsonaro’s governance as a result of his anti-environmental policies and the dismantling of institutions that protect the rainforest and indigenous peoples.

In comparison, deforestation was reduced by 68% during Lula's previous time in office.

– It is disturbing to witness the increased violence in Brazil and criminals who use a de-facto amnesty for illegalities to destroy the rainforest. International leaders, companies and investors must keep an eye on the situation and make trade relations and investments conditional on clear results on the ground in Brazil.

Toerris Jaeger, general secretary of Rainforest Foundation Norway

Brazil has the greatest economic inequality in South America, exemplified by the distribution of land. A small part of the population owns large parts of the land, and there are therefore several million landless agricultural workers and conflict over land is widespread.

Children are not spared

A report from last year, carried out by the religious organization Cimi (Indigenous Missionary Council) showed that both the violence against indigenous peoples and the invasion of their lands have increased sharply over the last six years. In 2021 alone, 335 cases of violence against indigenous people were recorded. This figure includes children - the report shows that children and young people have been killed in extremely violent ways.

The fight for indigenous people's rights is absolutely the most dangerous of human rights struggles. This is shown by both the Global Witness report and investigations carried out by the organization Human Rights Defenders Memorial (HRD Memorial).

Breiner David Cucuñame belonged to the Nasa people in Cauca, Colombia. He and two other members were killed in an ambush on 14 January 2022. Photo: Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia

An example of the brutalities is the murder of the Colombian indigenous leader María Bernanda Juajibioy, who in 2021 was executed together with her grandson aged just 17 months.

Equally shocking is the story of the 14-year-old environmental defender Breiner David Cucuñam, who was killed during an ambush along with two other unarmed indigenous guards in Cauca in January this year.

Must lead to action

It can be hard to grasp the dangers faced by an environmental defender, for those of us who live in another part of the world, in a democracy where working with the environment and climate is politically well rooted. Where children can safely stand in front of the parliament to protest and demand political action for a sustainable planet, and where a child, like Greta Thunberg, can become an important political voice, without having to fear for her life. The contrast to a country like Colombia could not be greater.

The perpetrators are rarely caught or punished, and large international and national companies continue to exploit natural resources and violate human rights.

The authors of the Global Witness report come with a clear challenge:

– The 200 lives that were lost last year are people with names. Read them, urges activist and philosopher Vandana Shiva in the foreword of the report.

– Honor them by giving them your attention, get angry on their behalf, and then; act!


Susan Fay Kelly

Senior Adviser, Policy
(+47) 906 77 036