Given the imminent threat of climate change, many individuals around the world have been tirelessly advocating for the environment, fighting for its protection, and devoting their lives to its preservation. However, many of these activists who work to defend the environment are also the targets of deadly attacks and killings. Indigenous peoples, who have for centuries been stewards over and preservers of the land, are disproportionately targeted and killed just for striving to protect their land and communities. 

One such individual was Oscar Eyraud Adams, an Indigenous Kumeyaay Mexican environmental activist who was killed on September 24, 2020, when a group of men entered his house. Unfortunately, Adams is just one of the many victims of these attacks. He was targeted after exposing how dry the land had become in his city of Tecate in Mexico. He said that companies such as Heineken were taking water away from the local communities. 

Data on Violence

Global Witness has been collecting data on the killings of environmental activists since 2012. In 2020, it found that 227 reported lethal attacks against land defenders had occurred, making it the deadliest year on record. Global Witness also reported that since the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was introduced in 2015, an average of four activists have been killed every week. 

While unfortunately, activism comes with a risk no matter where it occurs, the bulk of these attacks and killings were perpetrated against activists in Latin America. 165 of the 227 murders that occurred in 2020 were in Latin America, with Colombia reported to have the highest numbers of activists killed in 2020 at 65.

In particular, those who face violence tend to be subsistence farmers, tribal leaders, lawyers, and environmental organizers. According to data, 9 out of 10 attacks occurred towards men in 2020. However, women faced more gender-specific forms of violence, such as sexual violence. Women also face the problem of not being given as much of a platform for their activism as compared to their male counterparts. 

COVID-19 also contributed to the tremendous number of murders that occurred in 2020. Some governments weaponized the pandemic to set repressive restrictions in place for civil society so that corporations could continue their extractive projects without interference. Additionally,  lockdowns and stay-at-home orders made it easier for activists to be located, leading to many of the murders taking place in their own homes. 

Who Are the Perpetrators and Facilitators?

While the perpetrators vary across the region, most attacks against environmentalists in Latin America are committed by paramilitary groups and criminal organizations. This is largely due to environmentalists bringing attention to issues that benefit these organizations but are harmful to others. These groups often profit from the planting of illegal crops for drug production and thus terrorize or murder any activists who oppose their use of the land. Hitmen have carried out 89 murders, militia/guerrilla groups have been connected to 30 deaths, armed forces to 18 deaths, and the police to 12. 

Governments often turn a blind eye to violence against activists. Most murders do not result in legal cases, investigations, or arrests. Additionally, government inaction encourages these attacks to occur, as perpetrators know they will not have to face consequences. If arrests are made, it is usually of those who commit the crime rather than the “intellectual perpetrator” – the one who planned the murder and was behind the act. 

What Activists Protest Against 

At least 30% of attacks are committed against activists who resist resource extraction, such as logging, the construction of hydroelectric dams, mining projects, and large agricultural businesses. Indigenous activists like Eyraud Adams that protest for their local communities and for the overall protection of the planet are also targeted. Instances of planned violence against Indigenous activists account for a third of all recorded attacks. 90% of the attacks reported in Brazil were to have taken place in the Amazon, where a significant number of Indigenous peoples lives. They protest activities that harm the environment, such as fossil fuel extraction, which releases excess amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and deforestation. 

Natural resources that are extracted in excess prove to have detrimental effects on the environment, as well the local communities. Many communities depend on these resources for their own use and for their livelihood. Activists work tirelessly to ensure that their land and local communities are not exploited. 

Corporate Greed and Governmental Negligence

Corporations are the biggest exploiters of the environment. They engage in excess resource extraction, emit a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases, and overuse water supplies. It has been reported that the world’s largest companies rack up $2.2 trillion USD worth of environmental damage every year. Those who stand in the way of corporate projects are the ones who get targeted for violence. 

Most of these corporations value profit over human rights and choose to ignore the damaging effects they have on people and the environment. There aren’t any overarching powers that have significant ability to regulate the activities of corporations, which gives them overwhelming power to carry out damaging practices. Those with power, like states and international institutions, who could challenge corporations often have vested interests in those same corporations and give them preferential treatment for their own gain.

For example, the Mexican government recently stated it may use IMF funds to pay off the debts of national oil company, Pemex, which is responsible for an extreme amount of pollution. That the government would funnel millions of dollars to a company that has been increasing its carbon emissions all while ignoring the murders of environmental activists shows how deeply ingrained this problem is. 

The Case of Colombia 

Columbia has reported having the highest cases of activists facing violence, especially against Indigenous people. The country enjoys high levels of biodiversity, which unfortunately has largely been exploited. Having such an abundance of natural resources can be a curse for countries like Colombia: while it can spur economic development, it can also lead armed groups hoping to profit from these resources to target activists protecting them. Many paramilitary groups in Colombia are involved in the drug trade and use the land to grow marijuana and coca, which is then used to make cocaine. So when activists challenge their drug enterprises, they become targets. 

There are also disputes between Indigenous groups and paramilitary organisations over water sources. Indigenous peoples, like the Paez and Guambiano people, work to try and protect these water sources while the paramilitary groups use (and abuse) them as a resource in their operations.

This dynamic still occurs despite the Colombian government forming a peace agreement in 2016 with the former combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. This agreement led to there being a decrease in violence towards activists, but the violence in the past few years has started to increase. 

This is largely due to the lack of government action towards implementing the terms of that agreement. Many paramilitary groups and guerrillas take over entire rural areas and face no consequences from the state. Those that try to stand up against them are subjected to violence. For example, Carlos Andrés Santiago, general secretary of an environmental organisation called CORDATEC that opposes fracking, has been facing threats for five years, and despite reporting these incidents, no help was provided. He stated that he was told by prosecutors that those cases were closed and were not going to be opened for investigation.

President Ivan Duque and his administration have come under fire for not taking action. While they assert that they have done what is necessary. Duque’s government has tried to absolve itself of responsibility by pointing to the small decrease of homicides and kidnappings to show what action it has supposedly taken. However, many have criticized the lack of substantial work being done to ensure the safety and protection of activists. 

With the immense amount of cases of violence towards activists, governments need to work to ensure their protection and safety. They need to do this by actively working to punish perpetrators and regulate companies. 

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Tatheer Tariq

Tatheer is a Pakistani-Canadian political science student at the University of Calgary. Her main research interests include social justice, human rights, politics and diplomacy, mainly focused in the Global...