Killing of environmentalists dramatically rises; indigenous communities hardest hit

By: Imelda V. Abano, -
Date of publication: 
22 April, 2015

The Philippines leads countries in Asia with the highest number of people killed as they defend their land and protect the environment in the face of increased competition over natural resources, a new report from the London-based Global Witness group which reports on links between environmental exploitation and human rights abuses.

Killings worldwide have risen by 20 percent in the last year on disputes over hydropower projects, mining, agribusiness and logging — the key drivers of deaths where a shocking 40 percent of victims were indigenous peoples.

In the Philippines alone, from 2002-2014, the report entitled, “How Many More?” finds that 82 people were killed.

The report noted that in 2014 alone, 116 cases of killings in 17 countries were recorded in Central and South America and Southeast Asia, with Brazil as the worst-hit with 29 people killed, followed by Colombia with 25, the Philippines with 15 and Honduras with 12.

At least 935 people were killed in 35 countries from 2002 to 2014, compared with 908 from last year’s figure (2002 to 2013), stated the study released Monday (April 20) in Washington DC at the announcement of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winners. The prize is the world’s largest award for grassroots environmentalists who protect the natural environment.

“More and more people are being killed protecting rights to land and the environment. This is happening because soaring demand for resources is cranking up pressure on the environment, and on the people most reliant on it,” Billy Kytes, a campaigner at Global Witness, told the “It’s going unnoticed, and largely unpunished, because governments are failing to protect their citizens from harm.”

The Philippines was again the most dangerous place in Asia to be an environmental activist with 15 deaths, Kytes said citing the report. About 9 of these were indigenous peoples.

Many of the killings in the Philippines took place in the context of opposition to mining projects. Paramilitary groups were the suspected perpetrators in many of the deaths. The legacy of wider armed conflicts continued to endanger the lives of land defenders and limit their protection by the state.

As well as killings, environmental and land defenders suffer acutely from threats and physical violence, criminalization and restrictions on their freedoms.

The release of the report comes at a crucial time where governments will try to reach a binding global agreement of curbing greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations-backed climate change conference in Paris in December this year.

But far from the corridors of power, many people who are already taking action to protect the environment are paying with their lives.

“These deaths occur because ordinary citizens and local communities are increasingly finding themselves at the forefront of the battle over the planet’s natural resources. Environmental and land defenders are being threatened, physically attacked and criminalized because of their work. At the same time, national governments are failing to protect their rights from rising threats from agribusiness, mining, logging and hydropower projects,” Kytes explained.

The report noted that among the documented cases from 2014, it found that 10 perpetrators of killings were related to paramilitary groups, 8 to the police, 5 to private security guards, and 3 to the military.

“The true orchestrators of these crimes mostly escape investigation, but available information suggests that large landowners, business interests, political actors and agents of organized crime are often behind the violence,” the report added.

Indigenous peoples bear brunt of gov’t inaction

Indigenous peoples especially are bearing the brunt for government inaction, with 47 killed last year alone. The actual number may be even higher as a victim’s indigenous identity is likely to be underreported and cases related to indigenous people often occur in remote areas.

For Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the report is of a serious concern as many of the remaining forests and biodiversity hotspots are in indigenous peoples’ ancestral territories.

“One factor why this is so is because indigenous peoples protect and defend their territories from environmental destruction caused by corporate and state programs which pose high social and environmental risks,” Tauli-Corpuz told the “The use of paramilitary groups by corporations and the government to quell resistance against destructive projects should be stopped and the provisions of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act in relation to the need to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples should be effectively implemented.”

Tauli-Corpuz, who is also the executive director of the Tebtebba Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education, further said the government of the Philippines is a signatory to almost all international human rights conventions and adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, yet extrajudicial killings of indigenous leaders and activists persist.

“I urge the government to address these human rights violations and uphold its obligations to International Human Rights Law. Its reputation of being one of the most dangerous places for environmentalists and also for indigenous activists is a source of shame not only for the country but for its citizens. The State should seriously address many of the unsolved killings and bring the perpetrators to justice.”

The Global Witness report cited the incident on August 10, 2014 where the Bagani Force, a paramilitary group operating in the Philippines mining region of Mindanao allegedly shot dead local indigenous leader Datu Roger Alaki. According to a regional church organization, two days previously the paramilitary group had threatened Alaki’s community of Sitio Mintakei with dire consequences if they refused to sign a Memorandum of Agreement with the Malampaya mining company. Hours after Alaki was killed, his entire community fled their homes in fear.

The case of Alaki, according to the global Witness, was one of 9 activist killings in the Philippines related to mining projects in 2014, accounting for almost a third of the 25 deaths worldwide linked to extractive industries. This continues a pattern of Philippines defenders being targeted for their opposition to the country’s mining industry – a sector that operates with very little transparency and regularly fails to consult local communities.

“That is why we are campaigning to put pressure on governments and companies to clean up their act. There are human lives at stake as well as the protection of the environment. It’s very important for Global Witness that this is a wake-up call for the international community,” Kytes explained.

Kytes said “governments need to recognize it as a problem in its own right”, adding that a UN Human Rights Council resolution addressing the heightened risk posed to environmental and land defenders would be a start.

“But, in the end, governments themselves have to take responsibility and ensure impartial, exhaustive investigations into killings of these activists. And they have to bring perpetrators to account. Many targeted assassinations of activists are being passed off as ‘common’ murders and are going unnoticed. Civil society has also an important role to play here,” Kytes added.

At the release of the Global Witness report during the awarding ceremony of the Goldman Environmental Prize, two of the recipients are indigenous leaders from Myanmar and Honduras. Both led grassroots movements to stop the world’s largest dam builder, China, from building projects that would have cut off the supply of water, food and medicine for hundreds of indigenous people living in their respective forests.

Honduras suffered 111 killings between 2002 and 2014. The case of indigenous activist Berta Caceres, this year’s winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, is emblematic of the systematic targeting of defenders in Honduras.

“They follow me. They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me, they threaten my family. That is what we face,” said Caceres. Since 2013, Caceres said three of her colleagues have been killed for resisting the Agua Zarca hydro-dam on the Gualcarque River, which threatens to cut off a vital water source for hundreds of indigenous Lenca people.