New report about attacks against land and environmental defenders

Environmental and land defenders are at risk in all world regions and their security situation is becoming increasingly precarious, reaching the point where many of them have been killed. Latin America has been particularly dangerous, with Mexico occupying first place and Colombia second in the rankings of defenders killed in 2021.

This September, a new Global Witness report was published, documenting for the tenth time attacks against land and environmental defenders worldwide in 2021. The figures are shocking, though unsurprising given previous Global Witness reports with similarly high numbers: 200 land and environmental defenders were killed during 2021, out of which 54 were from Mexico, 33 from Colombia and 26 from Brazil. In many cases, Global Witness was unable to identify an economic sector linked to these attacks, but when they did, resource exploitation activities, such as mining and logging, were often involved. When the sector was not identified, land conflicts were found to be critical factors causing these attacks.

Photo: Global Witness

The number of defenders killed in Mexico increased from 30 the previous year to 54. Of these, about half were indigenous and two thirds were related to land and mining conflicts. Meanwhile, the number of killings in Colombia fell from 65 the previous year to 33, but it still ranked second. Although attacks occur all over the world, including in the Philippines, India and the Democratic Republic of Congo, there seems to be a special situation in Latin America, as more than 75% of the killings took place in that region. There are several complex reasons for this, one of which is the precarious situation of indigenous peoples and the growing political and economic interest in using their territories for economic activities while failing to carry out adequate consultation. Land inequalities in Latin America have persisted since colonial times and often affect already marginalized groups. This is coupled with increasing criminalization, stigmatization and smear campaigns against those who defend land, as well as extremely high levels of impunity and violent conflicts.

Despite global and regional efforts to create mechanisms and laws to protect defenders and to require due diligence from multinational companies (e.g., through the Escazú Agreement that entered into force in 2021, and which has been ratified by Mexico and Colombia), the number of attacks remains high. This means that there is a lot of work to be done in terms of implementation and providing effective protection.

Photo: Drone shot of the Paredes marsh (ciénega), Barrancabermeja, Colombia, 21 July 2022. Negrita Films / Global Witness

“Since Global Witness started reporting on the killings of Land and environmental activists in 2012, we have seen persistent and systemic violence against defenders globally. Each year, the number of killings remains consistently high though should be viewed in context of broader oppressive tactics including death threats, smear campaigns, criminalisation tactics, and physical attacks. What has changed in the last ten years is the opportunity for change: awareness amongst state and non-state actors of the risks that Human Rights Defenders face is greater. There are more resources and funding for increased protection of defenders, and regional and national protection mechanisms, which have had some success despite lacking capacity and funding.

Significantly over the last year we’ve seen the Escazu Agreement brought into force - the first legally binding instrument in the world to include provisions on environmental defenders and the EU is due to pass legislation that will mandate companies to identify, mitigate and remedy environmental and human rights harms in their supply chain. Data has played a significant role in putting reprisals against defenders, and their right to defend human rights, their land and the environment on the radar of international institutions and businesses, with authoritative actors like the UN increasingly referring to our dataset”, says Ali Hines - Senior Campaigner, Land and Environmental Defenders Campaign, Global Witness.

Many grassroots organizations have tirelessly defended their territory and local environment and worked to improve the situation of defenders at risk, including numerous of our grantee partners around the world. Some examples are Tequio Jurídico who provides legal support in land rights cases in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, with a special focus on empowering women indigenous defenders. And in the Sierra Tarahumara, in the north, the organization Consultoría Técnica Comunitaria A.C. (CONTEC) conducts strategic litigation and seeks to open inclusive spaces for women and the youth in indigenous movements that defend collective environmental and land rights.

“We are deeply concerned about these circumstances and stand in solidarity with those who continue to fight.” Ingeborg Moa - Executive Director, The Norwegian Human Rights Fund

Cover photo: Felipe Roblada, President of the council of elders of the town of Ayotitlan, Mexico, poses for a photo in Mexico City, on 29 August 2022. Quetzalli Nicte Ha/ Global Witness