Photograph by RAPHAEL ALVES, AFP, Getty Images
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A deforested patch of land splits the Amazon Rain Forest in Brazil, the deadliest country for environmental activists.

Photograph by RAPHAEL ALVES, AFP, Getty Images

Why 2017 Was the Deadliest Year for Environmental Activists

Scores of protesters were murdered in land disputes in 2017, some at the hands of gangs and governments.

Like some environmental activists, nurse and anthropologist Isela González risks her life every day.

“Once, outside a trial, someone approached me and threatened me with death for helping indigenous communities,” recalls González, who is the executive director of the pro-indigenous nongovernmental organization Alianza Sierra Madre. “With these killings, they want to put terror not only into the indigenous communities but to [those that help] as well.”

The lives of countless peaceful protesters are jeopardized each year in land and environmental disputes, and a new study says more than 200 people were killed last year. That makes 2017 the deadliest year yet.

“It affects me morally and physically,” González says. “But at the same time, the desire for justice and reparations for the fallen defenders, for their families, and above all that this never happens again—that’s an energy that compels you to keep working.”

An Increasing Death Toll

According to the international environmental organization Global Witness, 2017 saw a total of 207 killings of environmental activists, or defenders. That’s more than 2016, making 2017 the deadliest year on record.

Agribusiness, which is any business that earns revenue from agriculture, had the most deaths associated with it, with a reported 46 activists killed in disputes over large-scale agriculture projects. Agribusiness was followed by the oil and mining industry, which has historically been the most dangerous field for activists, with 40 killings. Poaching and logging were tied for third with 23 reported deaths each.

“Our statistics only represent the tip of the iceberg,” says Ben Leather, the lead investigator on the study and senior campaigner at Global Witness. “Because of the difficulties in reporting and verifying, the numbers are most certainly higher.”

Global Witness used data sets from national and international sources, such as annual reports and other public information. The organization only included verifiable deaths in the report, fact-checking information like the names of defenders and their causes of death.

The total death toll was likely much higher, Leather says, due to underreporting. Numbers couldn’t be found for countries with especially restricted free speech, like China, Russia, and some parts of central Asia. Africa, the study says, had a deceptively low reportage that could be due to undocumented killings.

Nearly 60 percent of the murders took place in Latin America. Brazil was the deadliest country overall, with 57 killings. The Philippines saw 48 deaths—the largest number seen in an Asian country—and Mexico’s defender death rate increased fivefold, from three killings in 2016 to 15 in 2017.

According to the study, 30 killings were linked to the army and 23 to the police. Gangs, security guards, landowners, poachers, and other non-state actors allegedly carried out at least 90 killings.

“Corruption is a big issue here,” Leather says. “Those officials who ought to be defending the rights of activists are actually complicit in these attacks.”

Contrary to the rest of the study, Honduras showed the opposite trend. The Central American country had fewer environmental activist killings than previous years, but civil society there is the most repressed it’s ever been.

“There are a whole range of tactics used to silence defenders and the killings only represent the sharpest edge of that,” Leather says.

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In addition to individual killings, 2017 saw more massacres of defenders than any other year. In at least seven cases, more than four defenders were killed at a single time, which shows that perpetrators are feeling more emboldened, Leather says. In the past, killings have rarely been prosecuted.

“The report is about much more than just data,” Leather says. “It’s about a widespread culture of impunity that is allowing violence.”

Looking Forward

Despite the risks, environmental defenders continue to fight.

“I keep going because it’s my job. To abandon these communities, to abandon my work, would be like giving up in the face of terror and threats,” González Díaz says. “Yes, of course I have a lot of fear, but also—all the defenders have coping mechanisms. We’ve prepared ourselves for this. I think it’s a life decision that one takes.”

In many of these fields, buyers’ decisions can have an impact, says Global Witness. Consumers can write to companies and tell them to make sure local people are being respected throughout the supply chain. People can also ask their representatives to put pressure on countries to prosecute these crimes.

In agribusiness, one particularly controversial plant is palm oil. Forests have been felled to make room for palm oil plantations, and the edible oil is in about half of all packaged supermarket products, from chocolate, margarine, and ice cream to shampoo and lipstick.

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“If you’re consuming products with palm oil in them, you could write to the company and ask exactly what they’re doing to tackle this issue,” says Leather.

Other crops that have contributed to land disputes include coffee, sugar, and fruit, such as bananas and pineapples. Mining and logging, which are still dangerous fields for environmental defenders, contribute to products from electronics to furniture.

“A lot more needs to be done if we’re to reverse this trend,” Leather says. “People should not need to die or be threatened just to protect their land or their environment. If we can take a stand, hopefully we can persuade our governments and businesses to do likewise.”

Rachel Brown contributed reporting and translation help to this story.