JOHANNESBURG - 2015 was a deadliest year on record for environmental activists, says watchdog Global Witness in a disturbing new report that documents what appears to be a worldwide increase in targeted killings of environmental campaigners.
“The numbers are shocking,” Global Witness campaign leader Billy Kyte told VOA. “We documented 185 killings across 16 countries. That’s almost a 60 percent increase from the previous year and the highest annual turnout that we have on record. On average, more than three people were killed every week in 2015 defending the environment and their land rights; more than double the number of journalists killed in the same period.”
Kyte said the report’s authors do not think this is simply a case of better reporting of killings — and that they believe that fear and intimidation may mean the true numbers have been underreported.
Most of the killings were from the mining sector, with 42 deaths.
The highest death tolls came from Brazil — with 50 killings — and the Philippines, with 33. Other leaders were Colombia, with 26 killings, and Peru and Nicaragua, with 12 each. In Africa, the chaotic, resource-rich Democratic Republic of Congo reported 11 killings.
Kyte noted what appears to be collusion between big business and government -- especially in Africa.
“So, in Africa it’s been more difficult to get information,” he said. “This may be because there are more oppressive regimes, which means it’s harder to get data on how many people are being killed or threatened. And also we’re seeing less of a civil society presence, so less monitoring by local NGO's or journalists on this issue. Having said that, we have seen an increase last year on the criminalization of activists. So many high-profile activists who are fighting or land rights against agribusiness companies have been criminalized, been taken to court and charged under false pretenses.”
For example, Cameroon’s Nasako Besingi and Sierra Leone’s Sima Mattia were threatened with cripplingly expensive fines and imprisonment for their opposition to palm oil companies in their countries. In both cases, the report says, the charges were trumped up.
Calling for protection
The organization is calling for governments to increase their protection for environmental activists and to ramp up their efforts to prosecute crimes against them.
Global Witness is not the only watchdog or advocacy group to have documented this deadly trend. According to advocacy group Survival International, it shows no signs of slowing. Last week, the group reported that gunmen in southern Brazil attacked a tribal community, killing one man and wounding five other people, including one child. They say this is but the latest in a string of assaults on a tribe that is challenging its right to land in the face of agribusiness interests.
Kyte paused when asked why the killings appear to be increasing. Could the falling global oil price be putting pressure on other industries to make profits? Maybe, he said, but added the true reason is probably simple. In many of the deadliest nations, instability, internal conflict and corruption allow the culprits to literally get away with murder.
VOA contacted three organizations that Kyte named as having connections to violence against activists, seeking their responses to these allegations. After 48 hours, not one of the organizations had replied.