Our insatiable demand for food, tech economy minerals and other resources is wreaking havoc on the planet, but it is also directly related to the deaths of world citizens, dozens of them, who are killed because they tried to protect their lands and communities or protect the planet.
At least 164 people died in 2018 because they stood up to governments and companies whose business interests were opposed to these environmental defenders, according to an annual report published by the UK-based organization Global Witness and released on Tuesday. Global Witness has for years followed the connection between natural resources, the environment, and the conflicts and corruption that are often attributed to their exploitation.
That mission has become even more critical as the world faces a deepening climate crisis.
"The calls to protect the planet are getting louder, but around the world, those who defend their land and our environment are being silenced," said Global Witness when it released its report "Enemies of the State". That's especially true of mining operations and water rights.
On average, more than three people were killed each week in 2018, although researchers believe the number is higher because not all deaths are reported or are unequivocally linked to environmental advocacy activities. Losses were greatest in the Philippines, where 30 people were killed after clashing with multinational companies and the forces that align with them.
Among them were nine sugar cane farmers on the island of Negros who were shot dead in their tents over a dispute over the land. "Often times, these crimes are aided by individuals and institutions aimed at preventing them," the report's authors said, noting that the Philippine military, as is the case in other nations, protects powerful companies and influential investors against those who they seek to interfere with profits.
"Meanwhile, the country's legal system is used to criminalize and intimidate defenders of the land and the environment, while officials who are complicit in these crimes go unpunished," the authors added.
While the Philippines recorded the highest number of deaths, it was Guatemala that had the fastest growing murder rate. The increase in 2018 was five times greater, making the impoverished Central American nation the world leader in per capita environmental defender deaths.
“They say that we are terrorists, criminals, murderers and that we have armed groups here, but in reality they are killing us,” said Joel Raymundo, a member of the Ixquisis Peaceful Resistance movement in Guatemala.
The group of indigenous peoples has opposed the development of hydroelectric plants on ancestral lands, including lucrative projects that are linked to a powerful and wealthy Guatemalan family but that pollute water resources and threaten crops and fish populations.
Raymundo's comment reflects a growing trend to criminalize environmental defense as another means of silencing activists. "Private security groups, state forces and hit men, sometimes working together, are suspected of being responsible for carrying out murders," warns Global Witness. "But deadly violence is only the most visible of the countless threats defenders face."
Those threats exist from Iran, where nine environmentalists were charged as terrorists and imprisoned, to the United Kingdom or the United States, where authorities crack down on protesters or promote laws that make their activities illegal. Among them was Kavous Seyed Emami, lead photo, an Iranian-Canadian environmentalist who died in prison after being accused of using wildlife research as a pretext to spy.
In Guatemala, Raymundo is afraid to inform the police of threats against him because they are likely to arrest him, and that is a growing concern under the authoritarian rulers of Cambodia, where three people died in 2018, to Brazil, which lost at least 20 the year. past.
"Criminalizing defenders in this way makes attacks against them appear legitimate, which makes them more likely," the organization said. "These trends continue around the world, aided by populist politicians who are removing vital environmental protections when we need them most."
Ultimately, environmental defenders are human rights defenders, and Global Witness calls on governments, corporations and consumers alike to end the corruption they support and the cultures of impunity in which they are likely to more deaths occur.