Global Witness report: Defenders of the Earth: Global killings of land and environmental defenders in 2016. Photo Credit: Global Witness

Last year was the deadliest year on record for environmental activists and land protectors, according to a new report from Global Witness. During the year, 200 environmental defenders were killed across 24 countries—nearly four people every week. The death toll represents a 10% increase in murders from 2015, which was previously the deadliest year on record. Activists involved in the mining and oil sectors were the most targeted, followed by those working against logging and agribusiness.

“These reports tell a very grim story: The battle to protect the planet is rapidly intensifying and the cost can be counted in human lives. More people in more countries are being left with no option but to take a stand against the theft of their land or the trashing of their environment,” said Global Witness campaigner Ben Leather in a press release.

Figures from the first half of this year show that things aren’t getting any better for environmental defenders. The Guardian, in collaboration with Global Witness, reported that 98 environmental defenders have been killed in 2017 as of the beginning of June. On Thursday, the Guardian launched a project, in collaboration with Global Witness, to attempt to record the deaths of everyone who dies over the next year in defense of the environment.

Graphic credit: Global Witness

Not only did the overall death toll for environmental defenders increase in 2016, but the killing has also spread globally. In 2015, Global Witness documented 185 deaths across just 16 countries, eight fewer countries than in 2016. The report suggests that this increase in both scope and scale of killing is due to “widespread impunity that allows the vast majority of perpetrators to walk free.”


“We’ve always thought of these cases taking place in remote isolated areas but we are seeing attacks becoming more brazen, and that’s because so few of these cases result in successful prosecutions,” said Global Witness campaigner Billy Kyte in an interview with the BBC.

The report goes on to explain that it’s often impossible to discover the parties responsible, let alone hold them accountable for their crime; still, Global Witness found “strong evidence that the police and military were behind at least 43 killings, with private actors such as security guards and hitmen linked to 52 deaths.” Other groups involved included settlers, loggers, hired gunmen, and business representatives.


Latin America was the bloodiest region, accounting for more than 60% of the killings in 2016, with Brazil and Colombia hosting more deaths than any other country (49 and 37 respectively). In Brazil, logging was behind many of the killings, while a large portion of the murders in Colombia were driven by conflicts over land grabs. Paradoxically, the recent peace deal and demobilization of FARC seems to be behind much of this conflict.

“What we believe is that communities are going back to try and reclaim their lands in the context of the peace process and in doing so are coming into conflict with paramilitaries, with organized crime, and with those who have stolen their land during the internal violence,” Kyte told the BCC. “There’s also a power vacuum in some of these areas especially where the FARC had a lot of presence, and that vacuum is being filled by organized crime and actors who want the land to grow monocultures like palm oil.”

Death is far from the only threat facing environmental and land defenders. The report explains how across the world these actors are pressured by threats, arrests, abduction, sexual assault, and aggressive legal attacks. Activists often face persecution from their own governments as they attempt to stand up to industry groups, with environmental defenders being trumped up as criminals and facing aggressive civil and criminal charges.


“States are breaking their own laws and failing their citizens in the worst possible way. Brave activists are being murdered, attacked and criminalised by the very people who are supposed to protect them,” explained Leather.

An alarming 40% of those murdered were indigenous peoples, a statistic which lines up with killings in past years.


“Indigenous people are massively over represented in the figures and that’s because many of their lands overlap with lands rich in minerals and timber and also because they have less access to justice or communications,” Kyte.

Mistreatment, oppression, and abuse of indigenous peoples and their land happens all over the world, including the United States; the Dakota Access pipeline is just the latest in a long series of transgressions that indigenous peoples have faced at the hands of the U.S. government. Global Witness explains that industrial projects, including mining, logging and drilling, “are typically imposed on communities without their free, prior and informed consent, [and] backed up by force.”

“They threaten you so you will shut up. I can’t shut up. I can’t stay silent faced with all that is happening to my people” said Jakeline Romero, an indigenous leader who has fought against the devastating impacts of El Cerrejón, Latin America’s largest open-pit mine, to Global Witness. “We are fighting for our lands, for our water, for our lives.”