For environmental activists, 2015 was the deadliest year yet

Protesters on the streets of Lago Agrio. Credit: Rainforest Action Network

With more than three people killed every week, 2015 was the deadliest year for environmental and land activists, according to a new study.

Global Witness said that at least 185 environmental activists were killed last year across 16 countries, the highest annual death toll on record.

According to the report published on Monday by the UK-based watchdog, fatal attacks increased by nearly 60 percent over the previous year.

Global Witness documented lethal attacks across 16 countries. Brazil was worst hit with 50 deaths, many of them killings of campaigners who were trying to combat illegal logging in the Amazon. The Philippines was second with 33.

Colombia had 26 fatal attacks; Peru, 12; Nicaragua, 12; and Democratic Republic of Congo had 11.

Conflicts over mining were the number one cause of killings in 2015, with agricultural businesses, hydroelectric dams and logging also key drivers of violence.

“As demand for products like minerals, timber and palm oil continues, governments, companies and criminal gangs are seizing land in defiance of the people who live on it,” said Global Witness campaign leader Billy Kyte.

“Communities that take a stand are increasingly finding themselves in the firing line of companies’ private security, state forces and a thriving market for contract killers. For every killing we document, many others go unreported. Governments must urgently intervene to stop this spiralling violence.”

In 2015, almost 40% of victims were from indigenous groups according to the report.

The number might be higher since indigenous victims are under-reported, Global Witness said.

Global Witness say that It is likely that the true death toll is far higher as many of the murders occur in remote villages or deep within rainforests – for every killing the organisation are able to document, others cannot be verified, or go unreported.

“The murders that are going unpunished in remote mining villages or deep within rainforests are fuelled by the choices consumers are making on the other side of the world,” said Kyte.

“Companies and investors must cut ties with projects that trample over communities’ rights to their land. Our warming climate and growing population mean that pressures on land and natural resources are set to increase. Without urgent intervention the numbers of deaths we’re seeing now will be dwarfed by those in the future.”

Smaller communities are completely displaced as their land is cleared for whatever developments are planned, according to the UK-based watchdog.

In one incident, activists in Peru launched a protest against a Chinese-run mining company. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing four of them and injuring 15 others.

The family of Michelle Campos were among those killed. In September 2015, her father and grandfather were executed in full view of their family and friends in an attack that drove 3,000 indigenous people from their homes. Rich in coal, nickel and gold, their region of Mindanao in the Philippines is one of the most dangerous in the world for land and environmental activists, with 25 deaths in 2015 alone.

“We get threatened, vilified and killed for standing up to the mining companies on our land and the paramilitaries that protect them,” said Michelle.

“My father, grandfather and school teacher were just three of countless victims. We know the murderers – they are still walking free in our community. We are dying and our government does nothing to help us.”

Global Witness are calling for urgent, meaningful action to end the rising tide of violence which – despite the high profile murder of Berta Caceres earlier this year – is largely escaping international attention.

Download the full version of the Global Witness report, On Dangerous Ground (pdf)