Environmental defenders murdered weekly

A vigil for Berta Caceres, a Honduran environmental activist murdered in 2016

A vigil for Berta Caceres, a Honduran environmental activist murdered in 2016

Flickr Creative Commons
A decade of recording intimidation, violence and murder against environmental defenders reveals war on nature.

Fuelled by the pursuit of profit and power, there is a war over nature and the frontlines are the Earth’s remaining biodiverse regions.

More than 1,700 people have been killed protecting their land and communities against environmental destruction in the past ten years, Global Witness has revealed.

Read the full Global Witness report.

Global Witness has been documenting deaths of environmental defenders since 2012. Its latest report, published today, details the latest data from 2021, and summarises all that it has learnt in the past ten years, which it dubs “the deadly decade”.

More than half of the attacks since 2012 have taken place in Brazil, Colombia, and the Philippines. For 2021 specifically, Mexico was the country with the highest recorded number of killings. More than three-quarters of the attacks recorded last year took place in Latin America.


Fifty of those killed in 2021 were small-scale farmers, which Global Witness said highlighted how land deals ignored local tenure rights, and the fact that family agriculture, on which most of the world’s rural poor depend, was at risk from large-scale plantations, export-led agriculture and the production of commodities over food. There were 12 mass killings in 2021, including three in India and four in Mexico.

Indigenous communities in particular were found to face a disproportionate level of attacks – nearly 40 percent – despite making up only five percent of the world’s population. Their deaths represent not just a loss of life, but of traditional cultures, languages and knowledge, Global Witness said.

Where a particular industry sector could be identified, just over a quarter of lethal attacks were linked to resource exploitation, such as logging, mining and large-scale agribusiness, with hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure coming second.

However, Global Witness cautioned that the figures were likely to be an underestimate, since attacks were often not reported on. In some countries, the situation facing defenders is hard to gauge due to media restrictions and a lack of independent monitoring. Land disputes and environmental damage can also be difficult to monitor in parts of the world affected by conflict, it said.

“Each and every death of a defender is a sign that our economic system is broken. Fuelled by the pursuit of profit and power, there is a war over nature and the frontlines are the Earth’s remaining biodiverse regions.

"The integrity of these systems is under attack from organised crime and corrupt governments who want to exploit timber, water, and minerals for short-term, often illegal profits,” the report states.


Examples of recent killings included that of José Santos Isaac Chávez, and indigenous leader and lawyer who was murdered in April 2021. He opposed the operations of the Peña Colorado iron ore mine. He was found dead in his car, which had been driven off a cliff, with his body showing evidence of torture.

Fuelled by the pursuit of profit and power, there is a war over nature and the frontlines are the Earth’s remaining biodiverse regions.

In India, ten people were killed and more than 100 injured during demonstrations in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu against copper smelting plant, Sterlite Copper. After four years and several inquests into the killings, neither the state nor the company has been held culpable.

However, those campaigning for justice have since faced human rights abuses, including criminalisation, surveillance, prevention of their right to assemble, threats and violence.

Few perpetrators of killings are ever brought to justice due to the failures of governments to properly investigate the crimes, Global Witness said. Many authorities ignore or actively impede investigations into these killings, which it believes is often due to collusion between corporate and state interests. This effectively gave a green light to the perpetrators, it said.


It acknowledged some progress from governments and businesses in terms of protecting defenders in the past ten years, such as the development of regulations mandating human rights due diligence for corporations and the Latin America and Caribbean Escazú Agreement bringing in protections for the human rights of environmental defenders in the region.

However, it cautioned that business progress was superficial, relying mostly on voluntary commitments on human rights that were inconsistently implemented. Collusion between corporations and governments were to blame for the lack of proper investigation into many killings, effectively giving a green light to the perpetrators, it said.

Violence, criminalisation, and harassment against defenders were also common in many countries, Global Witness said.

Speaking at a media event ahead of the report’s publication, Jon Bonafacio, national coordinator of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP), spoke of an activist he knew who last year was arrested by multiple police officers in full combat gear, dragged into the street and charged with rebellion for campaigning against a hydropower plant being proposed in her community.

“These situations are unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amount of harassment that environmental defenders face in the Philippines,” he said.

Good news

In Colombia, activist Oscar Sampayo spoke of experiencing threats and intimidation from far-right, drug trafficking and paramilitary organisations due to defending human rights and nature against oil extraction in the Magdalena Medio region. A female activist he knew was forced to flee to France this year. Three of his friends and fellow activists have been assassinated this year, he said.

Global Witness fears future land grabs due to the growth of the voluntary carbon market since much of the land targeted for carbon projects such as renewable energy and forestry overlaps with areas traditionally held by indigenous, local and Afro-descedant peoples. There have already been allegations of human rights abuses from projects linked to carbon markets, including in Honduras and Uganda.  

There was some good news in the report. In July 2021, five years after the murder of environment and indigenous defender Berta Cáceres, a Honduran court found Robert David Castillo guilty of co-conspiring in her murder when he was head of the hydroelectric dam company Desarrollos Energéticos. He was sentenced for 22 years for his role in ordering the murder by hired hitmen.

In Indonesia, farmer and land defender Franz Hemsi this year received recognition of his rights to 20 hectares of land forcibly taken from him in 2005 by PT Mamuang, a subsidiary of Astra Agro Lestari, the country’s second largest palm oil company. The victory came after he had been imprisoned three times and his family subjected to regular threats.

Ali Hines, Global Witness senior campaigner, said: “Global Witness is calling for companies and governments to be held to account for violence against land and environmental defenders. It's clear from our statistics that urgent action is needed at all levels - regional, national and international - to end the violence and injustice that they face.”

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for the Ecologist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.

Read the full Global Witness report.

More from this author