resource portal for environmental human rights defenders


2016 was the worst year on record for killings of land and environmental defenders – people and communities struggling to protect their land, forests and rivers through peaceful actions, often against a nexus of powerful vested interests. On average, more than three activists were killed every week, whilst many more have been threatened, attacked, disappeared or jailed for taking a stand.


The environment is a new battleground for human rights. As demand for products like timber, minerals and palm oil continues, governments, companies and criminals are exploiting land with little regard for the people who live on it. Those who take a stand are finding themselves in the firing line of State forces, private security companies and a thriving market for contract killers.


Murders – the human cost of environmental defence


The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders has highlighted defenders working on land and environmental issues as amongst the most at risk, with his counterpart the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples saying that ‘the pattern of killings in many countries is becoming an epidemic’.


The high profile murder of Berta Caceres in Honduras in March 2016, exemplified what Global Witness has shown to be a widespread phenomenon, and which States are failing to respond to with adequate protection measures.


  • Global Witness documented 185 killings in 2015, a 59% increase on 2014.

  • The worst hit countries were Brazil (50 killings), the Philippines (33) and Colombia (26).

  • Almost 40% of the victims were indigenous defenders.

  • Mining and extractives industries were linked to the most killings, with 42 defenders murdered.

  • Agribusiness (20 killings), water projects (15) and logging (15) were also major drivers of killings.


Many registered murders occurred in remote villages or isolated rainforests. Given the absence of reliable official statistics in many countries, it is likely the true death toll is far higher. For every killing Global Witness are able to document, others cannot be verified, or go unreported. And for every life lost, many more are blighted by on-going violence, threats and discrimination.


Impunity and responsibility


Across the world, collusion between States and corporate interests shield many of those responsible for killings. In cases that are well documented, Global Witness has found 16 such killings were related to paramilitary groups, 13 to the army, 11 to the police and 11 to private security – strongly implying State or corporate links.


There was little evidence that the authorities either fully investigated the crimes, or took actions to bring those responsible to account. With no apparent consequences for the majority of perpetrators, the impunity surrounding attacks on land and environmental defenders places them at an even greater level of risk.


Criminalisation and other heightened risks


Global Witness’s 2015 survey found that the criminalisation of defenders is becoming increasingly commonplace, particularly in Africa, where governments and companies are using legal measures to attack activists and obstruct their work. In 2015, a coalition of 39 organisations revealed this to also be a major threat facing land and environmental defenders in the Americas, with activists subject to the arbitrary application of vague, ambiguous and poorly defined laws.


Across the world, land and environmental defenders are stigmatised by media, businesses and government smear campaigns as being ‘anti-development’, criminals or even terrorists, leaving them vulnerable to attack.


A 5-point plan for environmental defenders


Urgent, meaningful action to end the rising tide of violence against land and environmental defenders is vital – not only as a matter of justice and basic human rights, but also as a matter of collective survival. These individuals are the custodians of the planet’s natural resources - resources that are under increasing threat from accelerated climate change and other environmental crises.


Governments, companies and the international community must do more to address attacks and intimidation against these custodians. Consistent, coordinated and legally binding measures are necessary around the world in order to:


  • Protect land and environmental activists at risk of violence, intimidation or threats.

  • Investigate crimes, including their corporate and political masterminds as well as triggermen, and bring perpetrators to justice.

  • Support activists’ right to say no to projects on their land, and ensure that companies proactively seek their consent.

  • Secure remedy and justice for victims and their communities, by holding those responsible to account, providing compensation and assistance, and reviewing controversial projects.

  • Resolve the underlying causes of violence against defenders, by formally recognising communities’ rights to their land, and by tackling the corrupt practices that blight the natural resource sectors.