MEXICO CITY - Killings of land and environmental activists rose in 2017 as Mexico and the Philippines registered worrying increases in such murders and Brazil saw the most ever registered in a single country, a watchdog group said Tuesday.
At least 207 people who were protecting land and resources from business interests were slain last year, up from 201 the year before, according to Global Witness. That makes 2017 the deadliest year since the group began formally recording such deaths in 2015.
The group said that its figures were almost certainly vast underestimates because of the difficulties of identifying and confirming such killings.
In many cases, consumer demand is helping drive the pressures as agribusinesses expand production of coffee, palm oil, sugar cane and other cash crops. For the first time, more activists were killed in confrontations with agribusiness as opposed to mining interests, the report said.
"The number of killings is continuing to rise, which is stark evidence that governments and business are still not prioritizing this issue and have not showed any seriousness in tackling it," Ben Leather, the report's author, told The Associated Press.
The fact that more deadly conflicts were associated with agribusiness for the first time "should serve as a wake-up call to those businesses and to those investing in large-scale agriculture that they need to be better, too, and ensure that their money isn't funding this violence," he added.
In Brazil the scramble for control of the Amazon's resources often leads to conflict. It remained the most deadly country for land activists, with 57 people killed last year. That's the highest toll in a single year in any country since Global Witness began counting.
But there were also worrying jumps in the Philippines, which saw a 70 percent increase in such killings to 48 - the most ever for an Asian country - and in Mexico, where the toll rose from three to 15. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 13 people were killed, 12 of whom were park rangers protecting wildlife.
In the Philippines, 20 killings were linked to conflicts with agribusiness, and there are indications the military was involved in many of them. The report linked the slayings to President Rodrigo Duterte's push to expand industrial agriculture, especially on the island of Mindanao, where most of the killings have taken place and where martial law has been declared. Eight of those slayings were of indigenous Taboli-manubo people resisting expansion of a coffee plantation.
A Philippine military commander, Lt. Gen. Benjamin Madrigal, said the military does not condone extrajudicial killings and troops are needed to enforce environmental laws and ensure that companies consult rural communities which could be affected by mining or agricultural businesses.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared his readiness to confront large corporations even if the government loses much-needed revenues.
"I warn irresponsible miners, along with their patrons, to stop destroying our watersheds, recharge areas, forests, and aquatic resources. You can no longer fish in our rivers. It's all contaminated. And the color is not even brown or white, it's black," the president said in a state of the union address on Monday.
Nearly half of activists who were killed last year in the southern Philippines were opposing the operations of corporate-owned agricultural plantations, said Leon Dulce of Kalikasan, a Philippine group that monitors attacks on environmental advocates. "How can you say that you're defending bio-diversity, the environment and natural resources if their frontline defenders, like the natives and farmers, become the target of your military and police?"
In Mexico, murders in the country hit a record high since comparable statistics began to be kept in the 1997. Global Witness linked the spike in activists' killings to organized crime and a generalized climate of impunity, saying the government is failing to implement protective measures and laws on environmental governance.
Those factors are not new for Mexico, but there can be a "cumulative effect" when the vast majority of crimes go unpunished, Leather said.
"As years of impunity go by, the perpetrators feel more emboldened than ever because they have more and more evidence that they're simply going to get away with murder," he said.
Leather said his organization has documented four more land activist killings in Mexico so far this year. He urged President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who takes office Dec. 1, to make tackling the problem a priority.
Rodrigo Santiago Juarez of the government's National Human Rights Commission agreed with the report's core findings. Activists of all stripes in Mexico face not only "attacks, threats, killings and disappearances" but also public stigmatization of their work, he said.
Santiago said the Commission has campaigned to counter that and support the work of civil society. He noted that since 2012 the government has operated what's known as the "mechanism," a program that provides protective measures such as panic buttons, home security systems and in some cases bodyguards to about 400 activists and 300 journalists.
"It is a measure that can be a help for many people," Santiago said. "But we also know that the mechanism ... on its own cannot solve everything. The best way to resolve this situation is, first, punishing the attackers." He also called for improving laws on exploitation of natural resources, and for such exploitation to take place in consultation with local populations.
The Global Witness report likewise criticized Brazilian President Michel Temer's administration for rolling back environmental protections and cutting funding for institutions that promote rights of indigenous people and small landholders. Indigenous groups say government policies have led to land grabs by ranchers, farmers and loggers in incursions that often end in violence.
In a statement late Tuesday, Temer's office called into question the report's methodology and said its criticisms were "fake news." It said, for instance, that some of the killings cited in the report were related to drug-trafficking disputes.
The statement complained the report had used isolated conflicts with agribusiness to discredit the entire industry and said Temer had worked to defend the environment.
In Honduras, which for years has been cited by Global Witness as the deadliest country per capita for land activists, five activists were murdered in 2017, compared with 14 the previous year.
That improvement followed an outcry over the 2016 slaying of Berta Caceres, a winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for defending her Lenca indigenous people's lands from a hydroelectric project. Two years later, at least nine people have been arrested in the case.
"The government has felt the eyes of the world upon it for all the wrong reasons after Berta Caceres' murder, and the advances that are finally being made in investigations of that case are noteworthy and should have an impact into dissuading further killings," Leather said.
While fewer environmentalists were killed, police increasingly are abusing and criminalizing protests, he added.