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Murder of Environmental Activists Reaches All-Time High

At least 185 environmental activists were murdered in 2015, according to a new report

Police detain activists who are trying to protect forests from the construction of a Moscow-St. Petersburg highway in April 2011. (Daniel Beilinson /Flickr )
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In 2015, at least 185 environmentalists and indigenous activists were murdered in 16 countries around the world, according to a new report from Global Witness, a British environmental and corruption watchdog. This number represents a 60 percent increase in murders from 2014 and is the highest number since the non-profit organization began tracking the statistic in 2002. The actual number of environmentalist and activist deaths in 2015 is likely even higher since some killings go unreported, according to the report.

“Across the world industry is pushing ever deeper into new territory, driven by consumer demand for products like timber, minerals and palm oil,” the authors write. “Increasingly communities that take a stand are finding themselves in the firing line of companies’ private security, state forces and a thriving market for contract killers. Governments must urgently intervene to stop this spiraling violence.”

Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua and the Democratic Republic of Congo are hot spots for violence, while Brazil and the Philippines account for half of last years' murders, according to Agence France-Presse. Large-scale agribusiness was responsible for 20 murders, conflicts over logging spawned 15 deaths and hydroelectric dams and irrigation projects led to another 15 killings.

In fact, Mindanao, the southernmost island in the Philippines, alone saw the murder of 25 of the 33 activists killed in that country, including a paramilitary group's public executions of the teacher Emerito Samarca, as well as Dionel Campos and Aurelio Sinzo, leaders of the indigenous Lumad people. The activists opposed large-scale mining projects in the region that aim to capitalize on the country’s massive gold, copper, nickel and coal reserves.

Brazil, however, tops Global Witness' 2015 list with 50 murders. The violence comes from ranchers, plantation owners and illegal loggers coming into conflict with environmental activists and indigenous people when they encroach on their territory.

Indigenous people and environmental activsts are often one and the same. On the one hand, the indigenous people are fighting for their home territories, while on the other, environmentalists are fighting for nature, and in the process the sides merge into a single force in the fight.

In such remote areas, paying off the police or military or using hit men or private security forces to intimidate activists is becoming common. Felipe Milanez, political ecologist and former deputy editor of National Geographic Brazil recently told David Hill at The Guardian that the situation in the Amazon is dire. “Violence has been legitimized as a normal part of politics. It has become informally ‘acceptable,’” he says. “I’ve never seen, working for the past 10 years in the Amazon, a situation so bad.”

The common thread across the globe between these murders is a fight by communities to stop government-approved development of resources in remote, often untouched lands. “Slain environmentalists frequently have attempted to halt such projects as dams and logging involving hundreds of millions of dollars, which stand to enrich local providers of labor and materials,” he writes.

So far, the death toll in 2016 hasn’t slowed. In March, Berta Cáceres Flores, an activist against dam development and winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, was murdered in her home in Honduras. Two weeks later, her colleague Nelson Garcia was gunned down.

The report lists several actions for curbing the violence, including government monitoring of projects that could lead to conflict, ratification and enforcement of UN agreements on human rights and holding investors and corporations to account when their businesses engage in illegal activities or killings.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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