Record 227 land and environmental defenders murdered in 2020

‘The lockdown was essentially a crackdown,’ environmental defender in the Philippines tells The Independent

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A record 227 people were murdered for defending their land and environment in 2020, according to a new report.

Four environmental defenders were killed every week from 2015 to 2020, according to an annual report from the human rights organisation Global Witness.

Indigenous groups continue to bear the brunt of the escalating violence and attacks, says the report. More than a third of all fatal attacks in 2020 targeted indigenous people.

The year 2020 was the second in a row where environmental defender murders reached record levels.

The worst country for environmental defender murders was Colombia, where 65 defenders were killed in 2020. The second and third worst offenders were Mexico and the Philippines, where 30 and 29 defenders were killed, respectively.

Leon Dulce, an environmental defender and national coordinator for Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment in the Philippines, said the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic had fuelled violence against indigenous groups.

“In the Philippines, the lockdown was essentially a crackdown,” he told The Independent.

“When the pandemic started here, the government enforced a militaristic lockdown. It focused more on restricting the movement and curtailing the freedoms of Filipino citizens and that also affected the work of environmental defenders.

“The lockdown was used to justify the dispersal of indigenous people blockading a mining project. It’s been used to justify the dispersal of protests in the capital and provinces as well.”

The report found that at least 30 per cent of recorded attacks were linked to exploitative industries such as logging, mining and large-scale agriculture. Logging was associated with 23 murders, the most out of any industry.

Almost three in four environmental defender attacks took place in the Americas in 2020

Almost three in four attacks took place in the Americas. In Brazil and Peru, nearly three-quarters of attacks took place in the Amazon – a region which is home to 40 per cent of the world’s tropical forests, carbon-rich ecosystems crucial to battling the climate crisis.

“This dataset is another stark reminder that fighting the climate crisis carries an unbearably heavy burden for some, who risk their lives to save the forests, rivers and biospheres that are essential to counteract unsustainable global warming. This must stop,” said Chris Madden, a senior campaigner at Global Witness.

US environmentalist Bill McKibben, who wrote the foreword to Global Witness’s annual update on defender murders, added: “Corporations need to be more accountable and they need to take action.

“Meanwhile, the rest of us need to realise that the people killed each year defending their local places are also defending our shared planet – in particular our climate. The activities that flood our atmosphere with carbon – fossil fuel extraction and deforestation – are at the heart of so many of these killings.”

Mr Dulce added he hoped to see greater action from world leaders ahead of Cop26, the global climate summit taking place in Glasgow in just a few weeks’ time.

“We’re the first and last line of defence in the planetary crisis we’re facing, whether it’s the pandemic, being a zoonotic [animal-borne] disease, or the runaway climate crisis,” he said.

“In the run up to Cop26, not enough global south or environmental defender voices are being given space and our crucial concerns, especially for the forests as carbon sinks, not being addressed.”

The findings also show that 18 environmental defenders were killed in Africa in 2020, compared to seven the year before.

It comes shortly after The Independent reported that a group of young activists, spearheaded by Kenyan environmentalist Elizabeth Wathuti, are also calling for world leaders to take urgent action on the murders of environmental defenders.

“Nobody deserves to be murdered for standing up for nature,” said Ms Wathuti. “If anything, we need to be protected.”

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