Activists face deadly risks in protecting lands from global agribusiness


Global Witness report documents dangers for world’s land defenders as 164 activists murdered in 2018 with almost 20% of killings linked to commodity-driven cultivation disputes

Vigil held for the nine sugarcane plantation workers who were murdered in the Philippines in October 2018. Photo: Creative Commons

Environmental defenders and activists are paying the highest price in attempting to protect their land and communities with more than three people killed on average every week during 2018.

new report by anti-corruption NGO Global Witness has said 164 people were murdered globally last year trying to defend forests, homes, water supplies and families from destructive industries.

21 deaths were related to agribusiness disputes and accounted for almost 20% of killings where a sector was identified. It means that 67 individuals railing against agribusiness have been killed since the start of 2017, according to the last two reports. Mining was the cause of most deaths with 43 documented in 2018.

The Philippines saw the highest per country figures. 30 deaths – half of which were linked to agribusiness – were recorded last year.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s government has ramped up its campaign of “red-tagging” rights activists as communist sympathisers, terrorists or supporters of armed insurgents, the report said. One of the most shocking cases was in October 2018 when nine sugarcane plantation workers were shot dead on a farm on the island of Negros as they protested new land reform policies in the country.

Colombia, where 24 deaths were documented, was second among the 19 countries named, while there was a five-fold increase in Guatemala where 16 environmentalists were murdered. However, the report stated that as many deaths go unrecorded the global figures documented are ‘almost certainly a sizeable underestimate’.

“As demand for products like timber, palm oil and minerals continues to grow, governments, companies and criminal gangs are routinely stealing land and trashing habitats in pursuit of profit,” the Enemies of the State? report said.

“When the ordinary people who live on these lands take a stand, they come up against companies’ private security, state forces, contract killers, or in less violent confrontations, teams of aggressive lawyers.”

164 people were murdered globally last year trying to defend forests, homes, water supplies and families from destructive industries, according to the new report. Photo: Global Witness

Journalists are also being silenced. Muhammad Yusuf, an Indonesian journalist who had investigated illegalities in the country’s palm oil industry, was found dead in police custody in June after being detained for more than five weeks by authorities.

Although deaths recorded in Brazil dropped from 2017, the report stated that at least eight defenders involved in land and agricultural disputes were killed in 2018 in the state of Pará alone.

The deaths are part of a much larger wave of intimidation, threats and abuse being waged against land defenders. In Pará, for example, human rights campaigners were threatened by representatives from the soy industry during a November meeting with indigenous leaders.

Killings recorded in Africa were lower (14) given the number of land conflicts that exist and the scale of the continent, reflecting a difficulty in access and verifying cases, the report stated. The murder last month of a Congolese activist linked to a disputed palm oil project highlights the risks faced by local defenders.

“While there are hotspot countries that are particularly badly affected, the data shows that this is a definitively global problem,” the report added. “No region is unaffected by the growing pressure on natural resources and the bloody competition it brings with it.”

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