In Brazil, two Yanomami children drowned after getting sucked into a dredging machine used by illegal gold miners. A 14 year old Pataxó child was shot in the head during a conflict over land in the northeastern Bahia state. A Guarani Kaiowá person was killed by military police during a clash over a farm the Guarani had reclaimed from settlers. “There has been an increase in the amount of conflict – socio and environmental conflict – in our lands,” said Dinamam Tuxá, of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), Brazil’s largest coalition of Indigenous groups. ”It’s destroying communities and it’s destroying our forests.”
Between 2011 and 2021, at least 342 land defenders were killed in Brazil – more than any other country – and roughly a third of those murdered were Indigenous or Afro-descendant. That’s according to a new report by Global Witness, an international human rights group, that documents over 1,700 killings of land and environment defenders globally during the same time period. The report says that on average, a land defender is killed every other day, but suggests that those numbers are likely an undercount and paints a grim picture of violence directed at communities fighting resource extraction, land grabs, and climate change.
“All over the world, Indigenous peoples, environmental activists, and other land and environmental defenders risk their lives for the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss,” reads the report. “They play a crucial role as a first line of defense against ecological collapse, yet are under attack themselves facing violence, criminalisation and harassment perpetuated by repressive governments and companies prioritizing profit over human and environmental harm.”
After Brazil, the Philippines and Colombia recorded the most killings: 270 and 322, respectively. Together all three countries make up more than half of the attacks recorded in the global report.
In the Philippines, Indigenous and local environmental activists have been fighting huge infrastructure projects like the Kaliwa Dam and the Oceana Gold Mine, both of which Indigenous leaders say threaten their land and the environment. According to Global Witness, over 40% of the defenders killed in the Philippines were Indigenous peoples.
“It’s clear that the government has not taken this crisis seriously,” said Jon Bonifacio, national coordinator at Palikasan People’s Network for the Environment. “This statistic has not been recognized in any way by the Philippine government, despite the crucial role environmental defenders play in the fight against climate change.”
According to Global Witness, those statistics are uncertain due to a lack of free press and other independent monitoring systems around the world and other types of violence are also not counted in the report. “We know that beyond killings, many defenders and communities also experience attempts to silence them, with tactics like death threats, surveillance, sexual violence, or criminalization – and that these kinds of attacks are even less well reported,” Global Witness said.
An April report from the nonprofit Business and Human Rights Resource Centre documented some of those other tactics, tracking 3,800 attacks, including killings, beatings, and death threats, against land defenders since January 2015. But even those numbers aren’t the complete picture. “We know the problem is much more severe than these figures indicate,” Christen Dobson, senior program manager for the BHRRC and an author of the report said at the time.
The Global Witness report’s authors say governments should enforce laws that already protect land defenders, pass new laws if necessary, and hold companies to international human rights standards. Global Witness also says companies should respect international human rights like free, prior, and informed consent, implement zero-tolerance policies for attacks on land defenders, and adopt a rights-based approach to combating climate change. The report specifically calls on the European Union to strengthen its proposed corporate sustainability due diligence law by adding a climate framework and more accountability measures for financial institutions.
While international advocacy offers some hope for Indigenous leaders on the front lines, those leaders also know that they have to keep fighting to protect their land, lives, and environment. In Brazil, resistance to Indigenous land demarcation and advocacy for resource extraction in the Amazon pushed by President Jair Bolsonaro, has led to record deforestation in the Amazon since he took office in 2019. Dinamam Tuxá and other Indigenous leaders in Brazil are hopeful that the upcoming presidential election may lead to change, but remain skeptical. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president and current leading candidate, has promised better treatment for Indigenous peoples in Brazil but Tuxá says that Indigenous peoples cannot rest all their hopes on politicians.
“President Lula would not solve the problems of Indigenous peoples,” Tuxá said. “Regardless of who gets elected we will continue to protest, we will continue to show up.”