On 20th October 2018, gunmen shot dead nine sugarcane farmers and burned down their tents on the Philippine island of Negros. The victims, who included three women, and two teenagers, were members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers and were occupying a plot of land at the centre of a longstanding regional land dispute.
This incident, often referred to as the Sagay massacre, is no anomaly- The Philippines has consistently ranked as one of the deadliest countries in the world for people protecting their land or the environment. A study released last week in Nature Sustainability revealed that killings of environmental defenders have doubled over the last 15 years- to reach levels usually associated with war zones. At least 1,558 people in 50 states were killed between 2002 and 2017 while trying to protect their land, water, or local wildlife, says the analysis, which calculates that the death toll is almost half that of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. In 2018, the Philippines was the worst affected country in sheer numbers, with 30 deaths.
The authors attributed this shocking total to rising environmental stress as the global demand for resources pushes mining, farming and other extractive industries into ever more remote regions, bringing them into contact and, inevitably, conflict, with indigenous groups. The strongest correlation was with the rule of law- almost all the killings occurred in the countries that scored lowest for corruption, fundamental rights, government powers, transparency and legal oversight; most of these were in tropical and subtropical countries, particularly in Central and South America, where only 10% of activist murders resulted in a conviction, compared with an average of 43% for all global homicides.
'The toll is unbelievable', says Nathalie Butt, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Queensland, arguing that companies and consumers in wealthy countries in the Northern hemisphere should take more responsibility for products sourced in the south: ‘we need to ensure there is no blood on our hands’ .
But blood on our hands there seems to be; unfortunately, it seems like the global trend is one of increasing antagonism towards environmental protestors. Frances Lambrick, director of NGO Not1More, predicts that ‘attacks on indigenous people are likely to increase, particularly in Brazil where Jair Bolsonaro has taken power, and subsequently mandated that 'minorities have to bend down to the majority … The minorities [should] either adapt or simply vanish.”
Indeed, the premiership of Bolsonaro has been marked with both environmental, and human-rights controversy; he has rolled back enforcement of crucial policies protecting the Amazon rainforest- more than 1,330 square miles of the Amazon rainforest have been lost since he took office in January. He has additionally stripped the indigenous affairs agency FUNAI of the responsibility to identify and demarcate indigenous lands- allowing extractive industries more license to implement deforestation and mining in formerly protected areas.
Such concerns were vindicated last month with the killing of the indigenous leader Emrya Waiapi in an area rife with illegal gold mining. The UN commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a ringing condemnation to Bolsonaro’s administration: ‘I call on the government of Brazil to reconsider its policies towards indigenous peoples and their lands, so Emrya Waiãpi’s murder does not herald a new wave of violence aimed at scaring people off their ancestral lands and enabling further destruction of the rainforest, with all the scientifically established ramifications that has for the exacerbation of climate change.’
NGO Global Witness reported that deaths of environmental activists have actually dropped in 2019, the yearly toll of 164 is a drop from a four to three weekly average. Yet Alice Harrison, from Global Witness, has stated that ‘the drop-in killings masks another gruesome reality…our partners in Brazil and many other countries have noted a spike in other forms of non-lethal attacks…attacks so brutal they’re just shy of murder’ This has again been linked to Bolsanaro’s antagonism, the extreme rhetoric of which is creating an increasingly unsafe environment for climate activists; last year he referred to the actions of the activist group MST, which campaigns on behalf of rural workers and families for land use reform, as terrorism and in December, two MST members were shot dead.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind?
But this is not just any far-removed problem being exacerbated by the so-called 'Trump of the Tropics' . Global Witness has called attention to issues much closer to home, namely the ‘draconian’ jail sentences issued in September against anti-fracking protestors in the UK, which was later overturned by an appeals court for being ‘manifestly excessive’, whilst Frontier recently reported on the characterisation of Extinction Rebellion as dangerous extremism.
“These are ordinary people trying to protect their homes and livelihoods, and standing up for the health of our planet,” Global Witness said in a release. Will you stand with them?