At least 640 land and environmental defenders have been killed for their activism in the past six years since the 2009 world climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Global Witness reported Monday as the COP21 climate summit kicked off in Paris.
Some of these victims were killed during protests at the hands of security forces, while others were explicitly targeted and shot dead by hitmen.
In light of the troubling statistic, Global Witness called on world leaders to take decisive action to protect those on the front lines struggling against resource extraction and other industries wreaking havoc on the environment, who are among some of the most vulnerable in the face of climate change.
“As delegates in Paris discuss solutions to our climate crisis, far from the corridors of power ordinary people defending their rights to a healthy environment are being killed in record numbers,” said Global Witness campaigner Billy Kyte. “If governments are serious about stopping climate change, the very least they can do is to protect the people who are personally taking a stand.”
For example, Indonesian activist Indra Pelani was forcibly disappeared by security forces and found dead in a swamp earlier this year after vocally opposing land and resource grabs that displaced small farmers in the region. In Latin America, Guatemalan activist Rigoberto Lima Choc was shot dead after exposing massive contamination in the Pasion Rio and launching a fight against the palm oil production company held responsible for the environmental catastrophe.
But these are just two cases of hundreds killed for their environmental activism in two of the countries among the top 10 most dangerous places to be an environment defender.
“As delegates in Paris discuss solutions to our climate crisis, far from the corridors of power ordinary people defending their rights to a healthy environment are being killed in record numbers.”
According to Global Witness, on average more than two land and environmental defenders were killed every week in 2014 as they fought against mining, agribusiness, and other environmentally destructive projects.
The findings from Global Witness echo a recent report by the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Humans Rights Defenders, which found that women defending land, territory, and natural resources in Mexico and Central America were most targeted with attacks between 2012 and 2014 out of all women rights defenders in the region.
In Honduras, for example, deemed the most dangerous place in the world for environmental activists, Lenca indigenous leader Berta Caceres received death threats and other harassment during her community’s fight to defend indigenous territory and natural resources in the face of a hydroelectric dam project that did not have local consent. While Caceres has received honors for her struggle, which was successful, her fellow leader Tomas Garcia was one of the hundreds of environmental defenders shot dead for his activism.
The more than 640 victims are a testament to the fact that “the battle over land, forest, and water is becoming even more deadly,” according to Global Witness, and that environmental activists must be guaranteed protection and safety.
“These people are dying defending our planet,” wrote Global Witness, “and they need to be protected.”