According to figures from the NGO Global Witness, 66 environmental defenders have been killed so far in 2018.
Environmental defenders are people who take peaceful action, either voluntarily or professionally, to protect the environment or land rights. They can be indigenous or peasant leaders, lawyers, journalists or NGO staff working to expose environmental abuses, land-grabbing, and other violations. They are often ordinary people who may not define themselves as “defenders”.
Global Witness uses an extensive network of local contacts and other techniques to gather evidence every time a defender is reported as killed. Because killings often happen in remote areas and go unreported, very few make the official list. Current rates amounts to four environmental defenders being killed a week, however Global Witness believes the real figure is much higher.
According to Global Witness, Brazil, the Philippines and Honduras are the most dangerous countries for environmental defenders. It says the main driver behind killings is industry, notably agribusiness and mining but also poaching, hydroelectric dams and logging.
Extractive industries have always required what the social and environmental activist and author Naomi Klein and others have described as “sacrifice-zones” places in which local people and their environment can be exploited to facilitate industry; a practice that can be traced back to colonialism. People within sacrifice zones disproportionately tend to be marginalised groups of colour with little political or economic agency, a theory that corresponds with Global Witness findings which reveal indigenous communities are hardest hit.
In an attempt to better protect environmental defenders, the UN has recently taken steps to recognise the right to a healthy environment. Nonetheless, the death toll has risen in recent years, and researchers warn the upward trend is likely to continue if governments and businesses fail to act.
Global Witness says the responsibility for stopping these killings falls on both states and industries which are often either directly or indirectly complicit. How can we better protect environmental defenders? Will the sheer number of defenders who are being killed prompt international action? Are these killings a natural outcome of the extractive industries our economies depends upon or can better systems be designed to ensure local people benefit from these industries?