At least 212 environmental campaigners worldwide were murdered in 2019, making last year the deadliest on record for frontline activists battling the destruction of Nature, watchdog group Global Witness reported Wednesday.
Colombia and the Philippines combined accounted for just over half of the confirmed deaths — 64 and 43, respectively — followed by Brazil, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.
The real number is likely higher due to unreported or misrepresented cases, especially in Africa, the NGO said in its annual review.
The threat from mining and large-scale agriculture caused the most number of deaths, with these sectors also responsible for worsening climate change impacts, Global Witness said.
“Insecure land tenure, irresponsible business practices and government policies that prioritise extractive economies at the cost of human rights are putting people, and their land, at risk,” said Rachel Cox, a campaigner at Global Witness.
“Land and environmental defenders play a vital role in protecting climate-critical forests and ecosystems. When they take a stand against the theft of their land, or the destruction of forests, they are increasingly being killed,” she said.
Latin America accounted for more than two-thirds of all victims last year, with Colombia the deadliest country of all, with 64 killings.
In Asia, the Philippines had 43 killings compared to 30 the previous year, with six in India, three in Indonesia and one in Cambodia, according to Global Witness.
Many more were attacked, arrested, threatened and sued, said Global Witness, which recorded killings in 21 countries.
In the Philippines — which was the deadliest country in 2018 — “relentless vilification” of activists by the government and impunity for attackers may be spurring an increase in killings, it said.
A spokesperson for President Rodrigo Duterte did not respond to requests for comment.
At least 119 activists and farmers have been killed since Mr. Duterte took office in 2016, according to Global Witness, while local campaign groups put the figure at about 200.
Dozens of United Nations experts last month called for an independent investigation into human rights violations in the Philippines, including killings of farmers and indigenous people.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the “downward spiral of the human rights situation”, and a new anti-terrorism bill could be used to target activists, they said.
“Days after the act was signed, the harassment of human rights defenders has visibly worsened,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Philippine human rights advocacy group Karapatan.
“While rural communities, including indigenous peoples, grapple with the impact of COVID-19, they are constantly hounded by military operations that benefit mining corporations encroaching on their ancestral land,” she said.
Two of the country’s biggest agribusiness brands — Dole Philippines and Del Monte Philippines — earlier this year said they would review their processes to better protect land rights.
But attacks against activists during coronavirus lockdowns signalled more violence worldwide, Ms. Cox said.
“Governments around the world have used the crisis to strengthen draconian measures to control citizens and roll back hard-fought environmental regulations,” Ms. Cox told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “This a more worrying time than ever.”