By Ares Biescas
Americas Desk, Sep 13 (EFE).- Defending the environment has become a virtual death sentence in Colombia and Mexico.
The number of killings of land and environmental defenders in those two countries last year amounted to 65 and 30, respectively, the highest totals worldwide, according to a study published Monday by the environmental non-governmental organization Global Witness.
That London- and Washington DC-based NGO said 2020 was the deadliest year since it began keeping track, with 227 land and environmental defenders murdered worldwide, an average of more than four per week and higher than the previous year’s record of 212.
Instead of reducing these crimes, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem because these individuals were forced to shelter in place due to official lockdowns and ended up being targeted in their homes.
Latin America continued to be the world’s most dangerous region for environmental defenders in 2020: three of every four attacks last year occurred in that region, and seven of the 10 most affected countries were Latin American.
That region’s numbers, however, stand out in part because cases there are more easily documented.
“On other continents, access to information is more limited,” Laura Furones, a human rights activist for Global Witness, told Efe. “It’s not that there are fewer cases, but rather that many of them” are not publicly reported.
The strength of civil society and indigenous movements in Latin America enables a “strong defense of resources,” but that peaceful opposition also leads to “confrontations and killings,” she said.
Philippines (29) last year registered the third-highest number of killings of land and environmental defenders after Colombia and Mexico, followed by Brazil (20), Honduras (17), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (15), Guatemala (13) and Nicaragua (12).
The scourge of impunity accompanies the high levels of violence, since it is often unclear who is behind the killings and what the motives are.
“The classic case of the killing of a (land and environmental defender) is one in which a person peacefully opposes a business or development project, whether forestry, mining or agro-industry; they’re killed doing that work of peaceful opposition,” Furones said.
Global Witness’s figures support that thesis: 30 percent of the killings occurred in areas with timber projects, hydroelectric dams, infrastructure, mining or large-scale agro-industry. Even so, no clear link could be established in 112 of the cases.
Logging and deforestation were the sectors with the most attacks, with 23 deaths spread among Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines last year. Mexico saw nine logging- and deforestation-related killings, a significant increase.
Indigenous people in Latin America and the Philippines accounted for more than a third of all the deaths.
A third of the victims of fatal attacks in Colombia were indigenous or afro-descendant people and almost half were small-scale farmers. There has been a steady rise in violence since 2017 in that Andean nation, which accounted for 29 percent of all lethal attacks documented in the Global Witness report.
That increase is due in part to “the threat that coca crop substitution programs represent for paramilitaries and criminal organizations,” the report said, noting that those programs were one of the key aspects of the peace agreement Colombia’s government signed with the FARC guerrilla group in 2016.
“Coca crop substitution programs to support farmers to move to legal crops were linked to 17 lethal attacks in 2020,” the report said.
Despite the violence and impunity, Furones said land and environmental defenders are fighting “crucial” struggles and that it is incumbent upon everyone in society to help protect them. EFE