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  • More than half of 2018's murders occurred in Latin America.

    More than half of 2018's murders occurred in Latin America. | Photo: Reuters

Published 30 July 2019
Opinion

The majority of the killings occurred in Latin America, which has consistently ranked as the worst-affected since the beginning of data publishing in 2012.

While calls to save the planet are growing every day, the people who fight to protect their lands and the environment are being silenced. In 2018, on average three environmental defenders were murdered each week, according to a study published Monday by the international human rights group Global Witness.

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More than 160 land and environment defenders were killed last year and many were threatened, detained or thrown in jail for trying to oppose governments and damaging industries like mining, logging, and agrobusiness, that want to profit from their lands, to produce goods sold across the world, including food, mobile phones, and jewelry.

"These are ordinary people trying to protect their homes and livelihoods, and standing up for the health of our planet," the human rights group wrote in its report.

More than half of 2018's murders occurred in Latin America. The region has consistently ranked as the worst-affected since Global Witness began publishing data on killings in 2012, one contributing factor being the region’s strong tradition of human rights activism, according to the study.

Guatemala for instance, where right-wing president Jimmy Morales promoted a culture of corruption and impunity, saw a rise from three killings in 2017 to 16 in 2018, making it the most dangerous country per capita.

On December 2018, the bodies of brothers Neri and Domingo Esteban Pedro were found with bullets in their head, on the banks of the Yal Witz River, near the San Andres hydroelectric project

Both men were outspoken opponents of a hydropower project in the Ixquisis region in western Guatemala. The project has been linked to one of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful families, and received generous funding from international development banks, in spite of local protests against it.

The two brothers are just a fraction of years of violence against members of the Ixquisis communities who condemned and fought against the hydropower project, which has polluted water sources and destroyed crops and fish stocks, according to locals. 

At least one other man has been killed for his resistance to the project and many more injured and threatened with arrest. 

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The fate of the two brothers is emblematic of a worsening pattern for Guatemala’s land and environmental defenders, in a country where violent land grabbing has been going on for decades.

“They say we are terrorists, delinquents, assassins and that we have armed groups here, but they’re just killing us”, Joel Raymundo, a member of the Peaceful Resistance of Ixquisis movement said.

“We are afraid of going to the police to report the threats we are receiving because we know that there are arrest warrants against us and the police can capture us if they want,” he added.

Land and environmental defenders, many of whom are indigenous peoples, are declared terrorists, thugs, or criminals for defending their rights. This criminalization of environmental activists is a usual strategy used by the state and corporations to discredit them, to justify the violent actions against them and to dissuade others from joining the fight.

"It is a brutal irony that while judicial systems routinely allow the killers of defenders to walk free, they are also being used to brand the activists themselves as terrorists, spies or dangerous criminals," said Alice Harrison, senior campaigner for Global Witness, adding that "both tactics send a clear message to other activists: the stakes for defending their rights are punishingly high for them, their families and their communities."

Global Witness said the data on the killings might be an underestimate as many murders go unreported, particularly in rural areas.

Concerning other regions of the planet, the report states that the number of killings in Africa (14) was low, which is surprising given the prevalence of conflicts over land in the continent. Signs point to a shortage of evidence originating in part, in the fact that less attention is paid by civil society and the media to this issue over others.

The Philippines is the country that suffered the largest number of deaths with 30 people killed and more than half of the killings like to agrobusiness.

The study also found that the deadliest sector was mining with 43 defenders killed protesting against the destructive effects of mineral extraction on people’s land, livelihoods and the environment.

A problem of widespread impunity makes it difficult to identify the perpetrators, but the organization was able to link state security forces to 40 of the killings. Private actors like hitmen, criminal gangs and landowners were also the suspected aggressors in those deaths.

The report concludes by saying that the system is "manifestly and tragically" failing those who speak out in defense of their land and the planet, while they are key in tackling climate change, and in helping the world better understand how to transition to sustainable development models that benefit local communities and protect the planet’s future.

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