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Environmental Activists Are Being Murdered at an Alarming Rate

A new study from Global Witness reveals that more than 1,700 environmental activists have been murdered in the past decade, by corporations or their own governments.

More than 1,700 environmental activists have been murdered in the past decade, according to a new study by Global Witness.

The report shows that Latin American countries are the most hostile towards environmental campaigns, with 68 percent of the killings occurring on the continent. Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Honduras report the highest amounts.

Global Witness began tracking the murders of activists in 2012, revealing a total of 1,733 people killed by hitmen or organized crime groups that were hired by corporations or governments. Despite the pandemic, 2020 marked the most killings in a single year with 227 deaths. The report warned that the "figures are almost certainly an underestimate."

Indian environmental activist, Dr. Vandana Shiva, wrote in the study's foreword: “We are not just in a climate emergency. We are in the foothills of the sixth mass extinction, and these defenders are some of the few people standing in the way. They don’t just deserve protection for basic moral reasons. The future of our species, and our planet, depends on it."

In cases where motive was available, mining and logging companies were the most common perpetrators. Indigenous populations were the most common victim with 39 percent of the casualties, often from low-income communities directly affected by industry pollution.

One of the report's authors, Ali Hines, noted that corruption is one of the fundamental reasons why these murders often go unpunished, as industry executives will easily bribe government officials to overlook extrajudicial action.

“This is a global problem but it is almost exclusively happening in the global south. Corruption and inequality are two kinds of key enabling factors for the killings," she wrote. "There can be investment deals between companies and corrupt officials. Defenders who try to seek justice are sometimes up against judges paid off with bribes. That leads on to the third factor, which is the high rates of impunity. Cases are very rarely credibly investigated, never mind perpetrators brought to justice.”

The study called on the European Union to enforce legal and financial corporate accountability, and to recognize Indigenous activists as "vital actors with whom companies need to engage continuously." Dr. Shiva also noted that the West must hold itself accountable for its role in the violence.

She wrote: "Nearly all of the murdered environmental and land defenders are from the Global South, and yet it is not the Global South that reaps the supposed economic ‘rewards’ of all this violence."

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