Killing of environmentalists dramatically rises; indigenous communities hardest hit

By: Imelda V. Abano, –

21 April 2015

The Philippines leads countries in Asia with the highest number of
people killed as they defend their land and protect the environment in
the face of increased competition over natural resources, a new report
from the London-based Global Witness group which reports on links
between environmental exploitation and human rights abuses.

Killings worldwide have risen by 20 percent in the last year on disputes
over hydropower projects, mining, agribusiness and logging — the key
drivers of deaths where a shocking 40 percent of victims were indigenous

In the Philippines alone, from 2002-2014, the report entitled, “How Many
More?” finds that 82 people were killed.

The report noted that in 2014 alone, 116 cases of killings in 17
countries were recorded in Central and South America and Southeast Asia,
with Brazil as the worst-hit with 29 people killed, followed by Colombia
with 25, the Philippines with 15 and Honduras with 12.

At least 935 people were killed in 35 countries from 2002 to 2014,
compared with 908 from last year’s figure (2002 to 2013), stated the
study released Monday (April 20) in Washington DC at the announcement of
the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winners. The prize is the world’s
largest award for grassroots environmentalists who protect the natural

“More and more people are being killed protecting rights to land and the
environment. This is happening because soaring demand for resources is
cranking up pressure on the environment, and on the people most reliant
on it,” Billy Kytes, a campaigner at Global Witness, told the “It’s going unnoticed, and largely unpunished, because
governments are failing to protect their citizens from harm.”

The Philippines was again the most dangerous place in Asia to be an
environmental activist with 15 deaths, Kytes said citing the report.
About 9 of these were indigenous peoples.

Many of the killings in the Philippines took place in the context of
opposition to mining projects. Paramilitary groups were the suspected
perpetrators in many of the deaths. The legacy of wider armed conflicts
continued to endanger the lives of land defenders and limit their
protection by the state.

As well as killings, environmental and land defenders suffer acutely
from threats and physical violence, criminalization and restrictions on
their freedoms.

The release of the report comes at a crucial time where governments will
try to reach a binding global agreement of curbing greenhouse gas
emissions at the United Nations-backed climate change conference in
Paris in December this year.

But far from the corridors of power, many people who are already taking
action to protect the environment are paying with their lives.

“These deaths occur because ordinary citizens and local communities are
increasingly finding themselves at the forefront of the battle over the
planet’s natural resources. Environmental and land defenders are being
threatened, physically attacked and criminalized because of their work.
At the same time, national governments are failing to protect their
rights from rising threats from agribusiness, mining, logging and
hydropower projects,” Kytes explained.

The report noted that among the documented cases from 2014, it found
that 10 perpetrators of killings were related to paramilitary groups, 8
to the police, 5 to private security guards, and 3 to the military.

“The true orchestrators of these crimes mostly escape investigation, but
available information suggests that large landowners, business
interests, political actors and agents of organized crime are often
behind the violence,” the report added.

Indigenous peoples bear brunt of gov’t inaction

Indigenous peoples especially are bearing the brunt for government
inaction, with 47 killed last year alone. The actual number may be even
higher as a victim’s indigenous identity is likely to be underreported
and cases related to indigenous people often occur in remote areas.

For Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples, the report is of a serious concern as many of the
remaining forests and biodiversity hotspots are in indigenous peoples’
ancestral territories.

“One factor why this is so is because indigenous peoples protect and
defend their territories from environmental destruction caused by
corporate and state programs which pose high social and environmental
risks,” Tauli-Corpuz told the “The use of paramilitary
groups by corporations and the government to quell resistance against
destructive projects should be stopped and the provisions of the
Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act in relation to the need to obtain the
free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples should be
effectively implemented.”

Tauli-Corpuz, who is also the executive director of the Tebtebba
Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and
Education, further said the government of the Philippines is a signatory
to almost all international human rights conventions and adopted the UN
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, yet extrajudicial
killings of indigenous leaders and activists persist.

“I urge the government to address these human rights violations and
uphold its obligations to International Human Rights Law. Its reputation
of being one of the most dangerous places for environmentalists and also
for indigenous activists is a source of shame not only for the country
but for its citizens. The State should seriously address many of the
unsolved killings and bring the perpetrators to justice.”

The Global Witness report cited the incident on August 10, 2014 where
the Bagani Force, a paramilitary group operating in the Philippines
mining region of Mindanao allegedly shot dead local indigenous leader
Datu Roger Alaki. According to a regional church organization, two days
previously the paramilitary group had threatened Alaki’s community of
Sitio Mintakei with dire consequences if they refused to sign a
Memorandum of Agreement with the Malampaya mining company. Hours after
Alaki was killed, his entire community fled their homes in fear.

The case of Alaki, according to the global Witness, was one of 9
activist killings in the Philippines related to mining projects in 2014,
accounting for almost a third of the 25 deaths worldwide linked to
extractive industries. This continues a pattern of Philippines defenders
being targeted for their opposition to the country’s mining industry – a
sector that operates with very little transparency and regularly fails
to consult local communities.

“That is why we are campaigning to put pressure on governments and
companies to clean up their act. There are human lives at stake as well
as the protection of the environment. It’s very important for Global
Witness that this is a wake-up call for the international community,”
Kytes explained.

Kytes said “governments need to recognize it as a problem in its own
right”, adding that a UN Human Rights Council resolution addressing the
heightened risk posed to environmental and land defenders would be a start.

“But, in the end, governments themselves have to take responsibility and
ensure impartial, exhaustive investigations into killings of these
activists. And they have to bring perpetrators to account. Many targeted
assassinations of activists are being passed off as ‘common’ murders and
are going unnoticed. Civil society has also an important role to play
here,” Kytes added.

At the release of the Global Witness report during the awarding ceremony
of the Goldman Environmental Prize, two of the recipients are indigenous
leaders from Myanmar and Honduras. Both led grassroots movements to stop
the world’s largest dam builder, China, from building projects that
would have cut off the supply of water, food and medicine for hundreds
of indigenous people living in their respective forests.

Honduras suffered 111 killings between 2002 and 2014. The case of
indigenous activist Berta Caceres, this year’s winner of the Goldman
Environmental Prize, is emblematic of the systematic targeting of
defenders in Honduras.

“They follow me. They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me, they threaten
my family. That is what we face,” said Caceres. Since 2013, Caceres said
three of her colleagues have been killed for resisting the Agua Zarca
hydro-dam on the Gualcarque River, which threatens to cut off a vital
water source for hundreds of indigenous Lenca people.