Nearly four land and environmental activists were killed each week in 2017, making it the deadliest year on record, according to a new report by Global Witness.
In the report, published on Tuesday, the UK-based watchdog said 207 people lost their lives last year in their fight against companies and governments that seize land and harm the environment.
Latin America was once again the most dangerous region for environmental activism, accounting for nearly 60 percent of the total killings.
Brazil remained the country with most registered deaths, the report said.
At least 57 people were killed in 2017, marking the most deaths of land and environmental defenders ever registered in one year in any country.
President Michel Temer and his predecessor Dilma Rousseff weakened laws and institutions designed to protect environmental defenders and made it easier for industries to proceed with projects without consent from affected communities.
Despite the country’s constitution recognising the rights of indigenous people to their ancestral land, there has been a drastic decrease in demarcations. Under Rousseff, the average number shrank from 13 to three per year. There have been none since she was removed from office in August 2016, the report found.
John Knox, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said Latin America’s population and endemic corruption make it a particularly dangerous area for environmental activists.
“You see indigenous peoples who are still directly dependent on natural resources in forests or sometimes fisheries who are already discriminated against or marginalised,” he said.
“When conflicts between the companies and governments that want to profit from natural resources and the people who depend upon them occur in countries or regions that have a weak rule of law, then they are much more likely to result in violence and killing,” he told Al Jazeera.
In Colombia, at least 24 environmental activists were killed in 2017, according to the report.
The 2016 peace agreement between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has led to a worsening situation for environmental activists as rival actors vie to fill the power vacuum in the countryside, competing for land and natural resources once controlled by the FARC, the report said.
According to the country’s ombudsman’s office, more than 300 rights defenders – including environmental, land and human rights activists – have been killed since the beginning of 2016.
Mexico saw the largest year on year increase in deaths, surging from three in 2016 to 15 in 2017. The attacks took place in a context of impunity, with increased violence against activists in areas where drug cartels operate, according to the report.
Situation ‘clearly worsening’ in the Philippines
The Philippines recorded the highest number of killings ever seen in an Asian country, Global Witness said.
The combination of bountiful natural resources, a large indigenous population and high levels of corruption, as well as the residue of colonial-era land disputes, provide fertile ground for violence against activists in the island nation, the report said.
“The Philippines has traditionally been the worst-hit country in Asia but there’s a clear worsening of the situation under President [Rodrigo] Duterte,” said Ben Leather, a senior campaigner at Global Witness and the author of the report.
“His aggressively anti-human rights discourse and his use of martial law, which has put the army into areas which are resource-rich, have meant that a bad situation in the Philippines has got drastically worse under his rule,” Leather told Al Jazeera.
In December 2017, more than 200 people were forced to flee a village near the southern town of Lake Sebu, after the military killed eight people and wounded five others in a dispute over the expansion of a coffee plantation, according to an investigation by human rights groups.
In his annual State of the Nation address on Monday, Rodrigo Duterte, who has come under heavy criticism over his human rights record and deadly anti-drug crackdown, hit back at critics, claiming his tactics were justified as they were saving lives.
“Your concern is human rights, mine is human lives,” he said.
Culture of impunity
According to Global Witness, violence against activists is made possible due to impunity and corruption.
The report states that 92 percent of those responsible for these killings are never brought to justice.
Global Witness also found that that seven “massacres” – which it defines as any incident in which more than four people were killed at the same time – took place in 2017, more than ever before.
“The fact that very few of the cases of past killings of defenders have ever been prosecuted gives would-be perpetrators the green light to attack without consequence, leading to increasingly flagrant attacks and massacres,” Leather said.
“In many cases, governments and corrupt officials within them are colluding with big business to impose development projects and other business ventures onto communities without their consent.
“So, when those communities take a stand, both the interests of the business and the corrupt officials are threatened, which means there’s less of an incentive for those governments to bring the killers to justice,” he told Al Jazeera.
The report linked government security forces to around a quarter of the killings, with 30 linked to the army and 23 to the police.
A further 90 were linked to non-state actors, such as gangs, security guards and poachers.
While legislation designed to protect activists, such as the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, does exist, it has proven difficult to enforce.
“The law is quite clear that, for example, governments have obligations to protect the rights of freedom of expression and association, including in the environmental context,” Knox told Al Jazeera.
“The law is clear that indigenous peoples have a right to land title over the territories that they have occupied for generations,” he said.
“The problem is not a lack of law, it’s the lack of the political will to enforce it both at the domestic level, as well as the regional and international level.”
‘Tip of the iceberg’
According to Leather, the 207 recorded deaths represent only “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of the threats that land and environmental defenders face.
“There are probably other killings out there that we aren’t able to verify,” he said. “In some parts of the world, it’s very difficult for local people to document these kinds of things because of limitations on free speech and the fear of reprisals,” he added.
“The 22 countries in the report are the ones where we recorded killings last year, but that doesn’t mean that activists in countries like Russia and China, where it’s harder for information to get out, aren’t also facing risks.”
Murder is just one of the threats that environmental and land activists face. Kidnapping, sexual assault and judicial harassment are among the other tactics used to silence activists.
“People now realise this is a global problem, it’s not simply a matter of individual crimes committed here and there, it’s part of a broader pattern,” said Knox.
In March, the Escazu Agreement was approved by 24 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The treaty includes a clause that guarantees the defence of environmentalists and promotes public access to environmental information, meaning that affected communities will be better informed about and able to engage with potential development.
“It’s not a silver bullet, there is no silver bullet,” said Knox, “but it does help to raise awareness of these issues and puts pressure on governments to effectively implement their laws”.
Experts agree that the implementation of such agreements is essential in addressing the issue of violence against environmental and land activists, however, the 2017 figures suggest there is still a lot of progress to be made in this.
“The fact is that more and more killings are happening every year is emblematic of the fact that states and businesses have not prioritised this issue and are still allowing the killings to happen,” Leather said.
“Today states and businesses have all the tools they need to be able to tackle this problem. The question really is whether they have the will to tackle it and the will to solve it”.