Record number of environmental activists murdered

By Claire Marshall
BBC Environment & Rural Affairs Correspondent

Published
Related Topics
image source, Rob Symons, All Rise
image captionSouth African environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase was shot dead in her own home

A record number of activists working to protect the environment and land rights were murdered last year, according to a report by a campaign group.

227 people were killed around the world in 2020, the highest number recorded for a second consecutive year, the report from Global Witness said.

Almost a third of the murders were reportedly linked to resource exploitation - logging, mining, large-scale agribusiness, hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure.

The report called the victims "environmental defenders" killed for protecting natural resources that need to be preserved, including forests, water supplies and oceans.

Since the Paris Agreement on climate change was signed in 2015, the organisation says on average four activists have been killed each week.

It said this "shocking figure" was likely to be an underestimate because of growing restrictions on journalists and other civic freedoms.

image source, Instituto Socioambiental Handout
image captionMining is one of the industries linked to violence against people trying to protect their land

Logging was the industry linked to the most murders with 23 cases - with attacks in Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines.

Indigenous peoples, most often on the frontline of climate change, accounted for a further one third of cases. Colombia had the highest recorded attacks, with 65 people killed last year.

'Unbearably heavy burden'

A senior campaigner for Global Witness, Chris Madden, called on governments to "get serious about protecting defenders." He said companies must start "putting people and planet before profit' or he warned that "both climate breakdown and the killings" would continue.

"This dataset is another stark reminder that fighting the climate crisis carries an unbearably heavy burden for some, who risk their lives to save the forests, rivers and biospheres that are essential to counteract unsustainable global warming. This must stop''.

image source, Reuters

The organisation called on governments to formally recognise the human right to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment, and ensure commitments made at November's UN climate change conference, COP26, integrate human rights protections.

In response, COP26 president Alok Sharma told the BBC he had "prioritised meeting people on the front line of climate change," to ensure the voices of all are heard."

'Shot dead in her living room'

Those murdered included South African Fikile Ntshangase, 65, who was involved in a legal dispute over the extension of an opencast mine operated by Tendele Coal near Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal province. She was shot dead in her own living room.

image source, THOM PIERCE
image captionMalungelo Xhakaza, daughter of murdered human rights activist Fikile Ntshangase who was "a leading force in the campaign against the Tendele coal mine"

Her daughter, Malungelo Xhakaza, 31, said her "mother's struggle lives on." She said: "To this day no arrests have been made in the investigation into my mother's murder. There has been no accountability. It seems to me that someone wants this mine expansion and the extraction to go ahead, no matter the cost."

Petmin Limited, which owns the Somkhele mine through its subsidiary Tendele Coal Mining, told Global Witness that it "acknowledges community tensions may have been a factor in Fikile's death." The company said it "strongly condemns any form of violence or intimidation" and has offered full co-operation with the police.

image source, Mexicali Resiste
image captionÓscar Eyraud was killed in his home in Mexico in 2020

The killings also included Óscar Eyraud Adams, who was murdered in Mexico in September 2020. He was working to help the indigenous Kumiai community in Baja California have better access to water.

Global Witness said activists still under threat included communities in Guapinol in Honduras, where dozens of people have been protesting against an iron oxide mining concession that was granted by the central government in a protected area. Campaigners believe the Guapinol river, a vital water source, is threatened. The organisation says "many community members remain incarcerated."

Follow Claire on Twitter

More on this story