LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Killings of people who try to defend land rights and the environment have risen sharply in the past 12 years amid fierce competition for natural resources, and governments must do more to stop these deaths, campaign group Global Witness said on Tuesday.
At least 908 people are known to have died in 35 countries between 2002 and 2013, Global Witness said in a report released 25 years after the assassination of Brazilian rubber tapper and environmental activist Chico Mendes.
The lack of attention to crimes against environmental and land defenders is feeding impunity, and little more than 1 percent of the perpetrators are known to have been convicted in the period studied, it added.
"There can be few starker or more obvious symptoms of the global environmental crisis than a dramatic upturn in killings of ordinary people defending rights to their land or environment. Yet this rapidly worsening problem is going largely unnoticed, and those responsible almost always get away with it," Oliver Courtney of Global Witness said in a statement.
The group aims to expose the economic networks behind conflict, corruption and environmental destruction.
Its report identifies disputes over industrial logging, mining and land rights as the main causes of the deadly attacks, with Latin America and Southeast Asia the worst-affected regions.
Brazil is the most dangerous place to defend rights to land and the environment, with 448 killings in 2002-2013, followed by Honduras with 109 and the Philippines with 67, according to the report.
2012 was the worst year so far to be an environmental defender, with 147 killings - nearly three times more than in 2002. The death rate has risen in the last four years to an average of two activists a week, the report added.
SECRETIVE DEALS, POLITICAL INDIFFERENCE
As companies and governments routinely strike secretive deals for large chunks of land and forests to grow cash crops like rubber, oil palm and soya, defenders face threats from the very people supposed to protect them, the report said. A number of cases involve state security forces, often in collaboration with corporations and private landowners, it noted.
Often, the land rights of indigenous people and other local communities are not recognised by law or in practice, leaving them open to exploitation by powerful economic interests. They are branded as 'anti-development' for struggling to keep access to the natural resources they depend on for their livelihoods.
"The lack of political will to ensure large resource deals are done fairly and openly appears matched by the lack of political will to deliver justice for those killed in resulting conflicts," the report said.
Global Witness called for a more coordinated international effort to monitor and tackle the problem, starting with a resolution by the U.N. Human Rights Council that addresses the specific threat to environmental and land defenders.
Regional human rights bodies and national governments should also monitor abuses and killings of activists, and ensure those responsible are brought to justice. Companies must carry out checks on their operations and supply chains to make sure they do no harm, the report said.
Global Witness fears a severe shortage of information means that the death toll is likely to be higher than documented in the report. Rising fatalities are the most acute and measurable end of a range of threats including intimidation and other forms of violence, it says.
The group urged negotiators at U.N. climate talks, working towards a new deal to curb global warming in 2015, to recognise that protection of the environment has become a "key battleground for human rights".
“At the very least, to start making good on official promises to stop climate change, governments should protect and support those personally taking a stand,” said Global Witness's Andrew Simms.
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