From Counterview/Global Witness: A just-released global report has revealed that the number of land and environment defenders killed in India has almost trebled, from 6 in 2015 to 16 in 2016, blaming it on “a disturbing trend” of increasing police brutality, indicating the Modi government’s determination “to stifle opposition to ‘development’ by any means necessary.”
A just-released UK report has revealed that the number of people killed while fighting for land rights and environmental protection in India has trebled in India, from just 6 in 2015 to 16 in 2016, blaming it on “a disturbing trend” of increasing police brutality in India, wherein the Modi administration shows its determination “to stifle opposition to ‘development’ policies by any means necessary.”
Pointing out that nearly half of those who were killed became victim “heavy-handed” repression by the police when they were engaged in “public protests and demonstrations” during “civil activism”, the 60-page report, prepared by advocacy group Global Witness, which has offices in UK and US, says, “Police were the suspected perpetrators in 10 cases, while logging and mining were the main industries linked to murders.”
In all, 200 people died in violence across the globe, says the report titled “Defenders of the Earth: Global killing of land and environmental defenders 2016”, adding, only three countries witnessed a higher number of persons murdered while fighting for land and environment – Brazil (49), Columbia (37), and the Philippines (16).
Calling 2016 as “the worst year on record” with 16 killed in India, the report notes, among the neighbours, the killings soared in “Bangladesh, where seven activists were murdered compared to none in 2015”, though in Pakistan and China just one person was killed each in 2016.
Insisting that the “spike” in the killings in India should be seen against the backdrop of “criminalised civic action and heavy-handed policing”, the report says, in India, “State repression is on the rise with civil society and human rights defenders subjected to increased criminalization.”
Providing the example of “state repression” against Odisha’s Dongria Kondh tribesmen, fighting to defend their forest against MNC seeking to mine the region, and of the “Save Chhattisgarh” movement against a top industrial house seeking to acquire land and displace tribals, the report says, “National legislation giving communities the right to be consulted is often ignored.”
Criticizing the Modi government for seeking to manipulate the law “to clamp down on NGOs that support indigenous tribes in defending their rights in the context of large-scale mining and dams”, the report refers to how in April 2015, the government “revoked Greenpeace India’s registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), preventing it from receiving overseas financial backing in an effort to halt its operations.”
This was followed in November 2016, when “a further 25 NGOs, most of them human rights organisations, also had their licenses revoked under the Act”, the report says, adding, “Media reports quoted unnamed officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs as saying that the NGOs were denied licenses because their activities were ‘not conducive to the national interest’.”
The report emphasizes, “The Modi administration’s shrinking of civil society space is particularly disturbing when viewed in parallel to the government’s aggressive pursuing of foreign investment for large-scale infrastructure, power and mining projects, and apparent disregard of local, particularly indigenous, voices”, even as noting, “Under Indian law, these communities must be consulted before any development project takes place. In practice, these rights are often cast aside.”
Environmental defenders being killed in record numbers globally
It has never been deadlier to take a stand against companies that steal land and destroy the environment. Our new report Defenders of the Earth found that nearly four people were murdered every week in 2016 protecting their land and the natural world from industries like mining, logging and agribusiness.
Murder is just one of a range of tactics used to silence land and environmental defenders, including death threats, arrests, sexual assault and aggressive legal attacks.
Jakeline Romero from Colombia has faced years of threats and intimidation for speaking out against the devastating impacts of El Cerrejón, Latin America’s largest open-pit mine. Owned by London-listed companies Glencore, BHP Billiton and Anglo-American and run by a domestic operator, the project has been blamed for water shortages and mass displacement. (1)
This report tells the stories of countless people like Jakeline as they stand up to the might of multinationals, paramilitaries and even their own governments in the most dangerous countries on earth to be a defender. It also analyses why they are facing increased threats, and explores what can be done to keep activists safe.
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. We are fighting for our lands, for our water, for our lives – Jakeline Romero, Colombian land defender
Killings of defenders are not only growing, they’re spreading too. In 2016 we documented 200 killings across 24 countries, compared to 185 across 16 in 2015. Almost 40% of those murdered were indigenous. A lack of prosecutions also makes it hard to identify those responsible, but we 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.
Deadliest countries for activists
The ruthless scramble for the Amazon’s natural wealth makes Brazil, once again, the world’s deadliest country in terms of sheer numbers killed, though Honduras remains the most dangerous country per capita over the past decade.
Nicaragua is beginning to rival that dubious record. An inter-oceanic canal is set to slice the country in two, threatening mass displacement, social unrest and the violent suppression of those who stand against it. A voracious mining industry makes the Philippines stand out for killings in Asia.
In Colombia, killings hit an all-time high, despite – or perhaps because – of the recently signed peace deal between the government and the guerrilla group, the FARC. Areas previously under guerrilla control are now eyed enviously by extractive companies and paramilitaries, while returning communities are attacked for reclaiming land stolen from them during half a century of conflict.
India has seen killings spike against a backdrop of heavy-handed policing and the repression of peaceful protests and civic activism.
Defending national parks is now riskier than ever, particularly in Africa where large numbers of rangers are being killed, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And this isn’t a problem confined to any one corner of the planet. Developed countries are ramping up other methods to suppress activists, notably in the US, where environmental defenders are being given every reason to protest by the Trump administration.
It is increasingly clear that, globally, governments and business are failing in their duty to protect activists at risk. They are permitting a level of impunity that allows the vast majority of perpetrators to walk free, emboldening would-be assassins. Investors, including development banks, are fueling the violence by backing projects that harm the environment and trample human rights.
Ironically, it is the activists themselves who are painted as criminals, facing trumped-up criminal charges and aggressive civil cases brought by governments and companies seeking to silence them. This criminalisation is used to intimidate defenders, tarnish their reputations and lock them into costly legal battles.
Protect those on the frontline
In Defenders of the Earth, we urge governments, companies and investors to take steps to:
- Tackle the root causes of risk – guaranteeing communities can make free and informed choices about whether and how their land and resources are used
- Support and protect defenders – through specific laws, policies and practices
- Ensure accountability for abuses – going beyond prosecuting those responsible for ordering or carrying out an attack, by ensuring that those actors, like international investors, who failed to support threatened defenders face consequences for their inaction
(1) The local operator Cerrejón has denied causing water shortages and condemned threats suffered by activists.
Details of the 98 environmental defenders who have been killed so far in 2017
This year, in collaboration with Global Witness, the Guardian will attempt to record the deaths of all these people, whether they be wildlife rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or indigenous land rights activists in Brazil. At this current rate, chances are that four environmental defenders will be killed this week somewhere on the planet.
Tribute: Berta Cáceres, an outspoken voice for nature that was silenced
Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360
Honduran indigenous and environmental organizer and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Berta Cáceres was assassinated in her home. She and her associates had faced death threats for standing up to mining and dam projects that threatened to destroy their community. A tribute to her fighting spirit on her first death anniversary.
Tribute: Bill Kayong, Malaysian activist who fought to protect native forests
Yale Environment 360
Bill Kayong, an up-and-coming political activist in Miri, a coastal oil town in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, was shot dead. At the time, Kayong was leading a campaign to protect native forest lands and stop incursions on traditional lands by logging and palm oil companies.