A report laments 164 murders of environmental and land rights activists worldwide. Philippines replaces Brazil as most dangerous country.
The hunt for activists is on the rise worldwide Photo: reuters
The nine sugarcane workers, including three women and two minors, did not stand a chance when unknown gunmen opened fire on Oct. 20 last year. The farm workers had been taking part in a land occupation on the central Philippine sugar island of Negros, which is more famous than any other region in the Southeast Asian country for large-scale land ownership and the denial of effective land reform. The attackers set fire to the squatters’ tent before fleeing undetected. The lawyer Benjamin Ramos, who represented victims’ families, was also killed a few days later by suspected contract killers.
The murder of the sugar cane workers and the lawyer is described by the British organization Global Witness in its annual report published Tuesday. In it, the organization, which works to protect human rights in land and resource conflicts, counts 164 murders of environmental and land rights activists worldwide in 2018. That’s more than three murders per week. For the first time, the Philippines, with 30 murders, has overtaken Brazil, which has always led, as the most dangerous country for environmental and land rights activists. Brazil still had a total of 20 activists killed in 2018, according to Global Witness, even lower than Colombia (24) and India (23).
As encouraging as the decrease in Brazil from 57 in 2017 to 20 recently is, Global Witness expects it to be temporary. This is because the new right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro wants to open up reserves for indigenous people for mining, agricultural and infrastructure projects. This is likely to lead to even more conflicts. The rights of indigenous peoples are also to be restricted.
In the Philippines, Global Witness sees a witch hunt for activists, who are labeled as communists by President Rodrigo Duterte’s government, indirectly opening them up for firing. Corruption and impunity encourage the killings, as do the security forces themselves. The latter are supposed to prevent such killings, but in practice are often stooges of powerful interests and participate in the intimidation of land rights defenders and environmentalists, according to Global Witness. One-third of all cases in the country involved the fertile and resource-rich southern island of Mindanao, where competition for exploitation of natural resources is particularly fierce.
Activists are labeled as criminals
The mining sector is responsible for the most murders (40), according to Global Witness. This is followed by the agricultural sector (21) and the water and dams sector (17) and logging (13). There was even one homicide related to wind energy.
Global Witness has been compiling its report annually since 2012 and now even records a decrease compared to the record year 2017, when 201 murder cases were registered. The organization attributes this to increased activity by indigenous communities, non-governmental organizations, the UN and increased media coverage.
However, the organization fears a renewed increase not only in Brazil, but also globally. At the same time, it has noted growing attempts to eliminate environmental and land rights activists through legal proceedings. Sharp increases have already been registered in Guatemala (from 3 to 16 murders) and in the fight over water resources (from 4 to 17). The largest massacre occurred in India in the conflict over a copper smelter in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Here, police shot dead 13 protesters in May 2018.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur.
"Environmentalists are labeled as terrorists"
Global Witness criticized investors and development banks that promoted controversial projects. They thus foment violence, but fail to protect threatened activists. Murder victims are often indigenous people defending their land. "It is a phenomenon that is observed worldwide: Land and environmental defenders, many of whom are indigenous, are called terrorists, thugs or criminals for defending their rights," said the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz of the Philippines. She herself is defamed by the government as a member of a Maoist guerrilla.