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Amazon rainforest activists José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo, who were murdered last year. (Photograph: Reuters)

Earth's Defenders Being Murdered at Increasingly Alarming Rate

Environmentalists across the world being killed at rate of one per week, and growing

Common Dreams staff

According to a new survey released today by Global Witness, the international group that looks at the intersection of the environment and human rights, over 711 environmental activists, journalists and community members trying protect their local rivers and forests have been killed in the last decade – more than one a week.

What's worse? The trend is getting worse, not better. According to the report, A Hidden Crisis? (pdf), in 2011 the toll was 106 people, almost doubling over the past three years.

On the eve of the Rio +20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, the briefing warns of a hidden crisis in environmental protection, highlighting a pervasive culture of impunity around such violence, a lack of information, reporting or monitoring of the problem at national and international levels, and the involvement of governments and the domestic and foreign private sector in many killings.

Billy Kyte, campaigner at Global Witness said, “This trend points to the increasingly fierce global battle for resources, and represents the sharpest of wake-up calls for delegates in Rio. Over one person a week is being murdered for defending rights to forests and land.”

“The international community must stop perpetuating this vicious contest for forests and land. It has never been more important to protect the environment and it has never been more deadly.” --Billy Kyte, Global Witness

“The international community must stop perpetuating this vicious contest for forests and land. It has never been more important to protect the environment and it has never been more deadly”, said Kyte.

*  *  *

Global Witness: Survey Finds Sharp Rise in Killings Over Land and Forests as Rio Talks Open

The research, drawn from consultations with communities, organisations and academics, and collation of online databases, reveals:

  • An alarming lack of information on killings in many countries, and no monitoring at all at the international level. These figures are likely to be a gross underestimate of the extent of the problem;
  • Killings have increased over the past decade, more than doubling over the past three years;
  • A culture of impunity pervades in this area, with few convictions brought against perpetrators;
  • The highest numbers of killings were found in Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines and Peru. In these and other countries (Cambodia, DRC, Indonesia), there are sustained concerns about domestic and foreign private sector involvement in the killings of defenders.

As global consumption increases, the battle for access to land, forests and other natural resources is intensifying with deadly results. Contributory factors include;

  • Increasing agribusiness, logging, mining, hydropower initiatives on contested land and forests;
  • Land ownership concentrated in the hands of elites with strong business and government connections;
  • Large populations of relatively poor and disenfranchised citizens, who are dependent on land or forests for their livelihoods.

Governments must ensure that citizens with concerns over how land and forest are managed can speak out without fear of persecution and that investment projects and land and forest deals are open and fair. This means seeking free, prior and informed consent from affected communities before deals are approved.

*  *  *

The Guardian reports: Environmental activists 'being killed at rate of one a week'

The group acknowledges that their results are incomplete and skewed towards certain countries because information is fragmented and often missing. This means the toll is likely to be higher than their findings, which did not include deaths related to cross-border conflicts prompted by competition for natural resources, and fighting over gas and oil.

Brazil recorded almost half of the killings worldwide, the majority of which were connected to illegal forest clearance by loggers and farmers in the Amazon and other remote areas, often described as the "wild west".

Among the recent high-profile cases were the murders last year of two high-profile Amazon activists, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo. Such are the risks that dozens of other activists and informers are now under state protection.

Unlike most countries on the list, however, the number of killings in Brazil declined slightly last year, perhaps because the government is making a greater effort to intervene in deforestation cases.

The reverse trend is apparent in the Philippines, where four activists were killed last month, prompting the Kalikasan People's Network for Environment to talk of "bloody May".

Though Brazil, Peru and Colombia have reported high rates of killing in the past 10 years, this is partly because they are relatively transparent about the problem thanks to strong civil society groups, media organisations and church groups – notably the Catholic Land Commission in Brazil – which can monitor such crimes. Under-reporting is thought likely in China and Central Asia, which have more closed systems, said the report. The full picture has still to emerge.

Last December, the UN special rapporteur on human rights noted: "Defenders working on land and environmental issues in connection with extractive industries and construction and development projects in the Americas … face the highest risk of death as result of their human rights activities."

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