By Matt McGrath Environment correspondent, BBC
Growing competition for land and natural resources saw a record number of environmental activists killed in 2016, says Global Witness.
The green group’s report details at least 200 murders across 24 countries, up significantly from 2015.
Disputes over mining were the cause of the greatest number of killings, followed by logging and agribusiness.
Brazil saw the most deaths overall, but there were big increases in Colombia and India.
Global Witness has been publishing annual reports on the threats to activists since 2012, although it has data going back to 2002.
The organisation compiles its analysis from media sources, information from other non-governmental organisations and from the UN. It also verifies the data with monitoring groups in priority countries, such as Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and the Philippines.
Some 60% of the killings last year took place in Latin America, with a significant number of victims from indigenous communities. According to those who compiled the report, those doing the killing have become bolder in recent years.
“We’ve always thought of these cases taking place in remote isolated areas but we are seeing attacks becoming more brazen, and that’s because so few of these cases result in successful prosecutions,” said Billy Kyte from Global Witness.
“Indigenous people are massively over represented in the figures and that’s because many of their lands overlap with lands rich in minerals and timber and also because they have less access to justice or communications.”
Disputes about mining resulted in 33 murders, while those linked to logging increased from 15 to 23 in a year. A similar number were linked to agribusiness projects.
While Brazil saw the greatest number of killings with 49, Colombia saw a record high of 37. Although a peace deal has been agreed between the government and Farc rebels after 52 years of conflict, the hangover from the violence is still impacting environmental activists.
“What we believe is that communities are going back to try and reclaim their lands in the context of the peace process and in doing so are coming into conflict with paramilitaries, with organised crime and with those who have stolen their land during the internal violence,” said Billy Kyte.
“There’s also a power vacuum in some of these areas especially where the Farc had a lot of presence and that vacuum is being filled by organised crime and actors who want the land to grow monocultures like palm oil.”
India also recorded a growth in environmental violence with a three-fold increase in deaths. The report’s authors believe that this was sparked by a general crackdown on activism. Almost half of those killed died in public protests or demonstrations.
One of the most infamous murders of a green activist in 2016 was that of Berta Caceres, a Honduran campaigner who was shot after receiving dozens of death threats. However, Global Witness believes that her death has had some positive impacts.
“Although Honduras had 14 killings last year, this year only one person has been killed,” said Billy Kyte.
“We did a lot of advocacy with the Honduran government and there has been huge international pressure after the killing of Berta. There are signs that some of that pressure is beginning to bear fruit but there are still many people being attacked.”
The authors believe that banks and investors in big mining, agribusiness or logging projects should do more to ensure that killings are not being carried out in their name.
“Although they can seem one step removed from the violence, ultimately it’s the investors money that is being invested in these projects that are causing this violence,” said Billy Kyte.
“In the case of Berta Caceres, she received 33 public death threats before she was killed and not once did the investors speak out to try and ease the tensions around the dam project they were investing in.”
The financial system killing environmental activists
A Global Witness report reveals 2016 as the deadliest year yet for environmental defenders. International investors are accused of bankrolling the projects that hundreds of people have been killed protesting.
The action many of us take in daily lives to protect the planet might involve the extra headache of sorting recycling, or foregoing the pleasures of meat or a far-flung vacation. But for most of us, environmental action doesn’t mean risking your life.
Yet for more and more people around the world, it can result in lawsuits, blackmail, death threats, kidnapping, sexual assault – and murder.
A new Global Witness report reveals that 2016 was the deadliest year ever recorded for environmental defenders, with 200 activists murdered – compared to 185 in 2015. The violence has also spread geographically. Environmentalists were killed in 24 countries, up from 16 in 2015.
Latin America remains the most dangerous part of the world for green activists, as the scene of 60 percent of these crimes. Brazil had the highest number murders, with 49 people killed for protecting habitats like the Amazon and Cerrado. Nicaragua had the highest rate of killings per capita.
If these crimes seem a long way from where you are right now, Global Witness has news for you: It’s not just unethical policies and practices over there that are to blame. They are made possible by the support of renowned international investors, in a system that links financial institutions across the globe.
Investing in murder
People are always demanding that local governments take responsibility, Ben Leather, one of the report’s authors, told DW, “but investors often escape from attention and criticism.”
Those subject to abuse and violence in the defense of their land are often fighting major, internationally funded projects.
“Most of defenders murdered are opposing big projects which could not exist without the financial backing of international investors,” Leather said.
Jaybee Garganera campaigns against abusive mining practices in the Philippines, where 28 defenders were killed in 2016 alone.
Development banks like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) provide capital to national banks, which in turn invest in coal mines or power plants, for example, that suppress opposition with violence against local people, Garganera said.
How clean are our hands?
The development banks profess to have high environmental and social standards. But they are under no obligation to ensure projects they finance indirectly meet them, Garganera adds.
DW asked the World Bank about its financial links to projects associated with environmental and human rights abuses, but received no official comment by the time this article was published.
Global Witness says financial institutions argue they cannot be held responsible for what happens on the ground, which they are unaware of. But it says ignorance is no excuse.
2016: deadliest year for environmental activists
“It is not excusable to say they do not know – they have to make sure they do know,” Leather said.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is one of the institutions dodging responsibility, the report says. It finances the Hidroituango hydroelectric project in Colombia, where UN experts have documented threats and attacks against members of the local community.
The IDB Group told DW they are closely monitoring the project according to their environmental and social standards and “will take appropriate action if the evidence points to a violation of our prohibited practices.”
Since the governments of most industrialized countries invest in development banks, activists argue their electorates also have a responsibility to be informed.
“The UK, German and US governments are shareholders in the World Bank,” Leather pointed out. That means citizens of those countries can ask of their governments, “What are you doing to make sure that our money is not associated with these attacks?” he points out.
Too little, too late
And, increasingly, they are doing just that. Particularly since the murder of Goldman Environmental Prize winner Berta Cáceres in Honduras last year.
Following Cáceres’ death, the Dutch Development Bank (FMO) and Finnish Development Bank (Finnfund) withdrew from the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, which threatens land belonging to the indigenous Lenca people.
Those who had been denouncing threats and attacks against Lenca activists for years were furious Cáceres had to die before the banks acted.
Still, Agua Zarca sounded a warning. Not only were environmental defenders killed – money was lost and banks’ reputations suffered.
“Now other institutions have to show they’ve learned the lesson and put in place policies to improve the protection of defenders,” Leather said.
Despite Berta’s murder, Honduran environmental activists are still risking their lives
The first step is to consult local communities before implementing the projects, the report recommends.
Felipe Benitez, president of the indigenous movement of Honduras MILPAH, told DW the main problem indigenous communities like his face is lack of participation in decision-making processes – even those that impact their own land.
Three MILPAH members have been killed fighting against a dam project in Honduras – including Benitez’s nephew.
Impunity fuels violence
One reason crimes against environmental defenders are on the rise is they usually go unpunished, giving the green light to perpetrators elsewhere.
Government forces were behind at least 43 killings in 2016, the report shows
And despite growing international awareness, both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are actually moving to relax their safeguards against investing in projects responsible for environmental and human rights abuses.
That’s because they are increasingly in competition with rival investors like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) led by China, Garganera says.
“We are afraid this cycle, of violence and human rights violation, will increase and expand if they loosen it up even more – it is a race to the bottom for them,” he said.
And, like the perpetrators of the crimes themselves, the two major development banks can carry on without fear of legal repercussions – because like the United Nations and other multilateral international organizations, they have immunity from legal action.
All the more reason for those of us who aren’t risking our lives to up the pressure on our governments and financial institutions to protect those who are, activists say.