Report Says More Than 200 Land Activists Killed Last Year

27 July, 2018

A new report says killings of land and environmental activists rose in 2017.

The environmental and human rights group Global Witness reports that Mexico and the Philippines registered sharp increases in such murders last year. And it says Brazil had the most ever registered killings of activists in a single country.

Global Witness said at least 207 people protecting land and resources from business interests were killed last year. This was up from 201 killed in 2016, it noted. That makes 2017 the deadliest year since the group began recording deaths of land and environmental activists in 2015.

Global Witness said that the numbers were probably higher because of the difficulties of identifying and confirming such killings.

Consumer demand has often pressured agricultural businesses to expand production of crops like coffee, palm oil, and sugar cane. For the first time, more activists were killed in conflicts with agribusiness instead of mining, Global Witness said.

Ben Leather prepared the report for the group. He told the Associated Press that the rising number of killings is clear evidence that governments and businesses are not serious about solving the problem.

Leather added that having more deadly conflicts tied to agriculture "should serve as a wake-up call to those businesses and to those investing in large-scale agriculture that they need to be better, too, and ensure that their money isn't funding this violence."

The struggle to control the Amazon's natural resources often leads to conflict in Brazil. It remained the deadliest country for land activists, with 57 people killed last year. This is the highest number in a single year in any country since Global Witness began counting.

But there were also surprising increases in other countries. The Philippines had 48 land activists killed. That is the most ever for any Asian country and represents a 70 percent jump from 2016 levels. In Mexico, the number rose from three to 15. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 13 people were killed. Twelve of them were park rangers protecting wildlife.

The deadliest country in Asia for activists

In the Philippines, 20 killings were linked to conflicts with agricultural businesses, and there were signs of military involvement. The Global Witness report linked the deaths to President Rodrigo Duterte's campaign to expand industrial agriculture, especially on the island of Mindanao. Eight of those killed were reported to be ethnic Taboli-manubo people. They were resisting expansion of a coffee farm.

A Philippine military commander, Benjamin Madrigal, said the armed forces does not support extrajudicial killings – attacks carried out in violation of the law. He said soldiers are needed to enforce environmental laws and ensure that companies work with rural communities.

President Duterte has said he is ready to stand up to large businesses even if the government loses money.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while addressing the crowd after leading the flag-raising rites at the 120th Philippine Independence Day celebration at the Emilio Aguinaldo Shrine at Kawit, Cavite province south of Manila, June 12, 2018.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while addressing the crowd after leading the flag-raising rites at the 120th Philippine Independence Day celebration at the Emilio Aguinaldo Shrine at Kawit, Cavite province south of Manila, June 12, 2018.

Getting away with murder

In Mexico, murders rose to their highest number since observers began keeping records in 1997. Global Witness linked the rise to organized crime and the government's failure to punish criminals.

Ben Leather said that as time passes, those responsible for the crimes feel they, "have more and more evidence that they're simply going to get away with murder."

Leather urged Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to make fighting crime a goal of his administration. The new president takes office on December 1.

Rodrigo Santiago Juarez is a member of the Mexican government's National Human Rights Commission. He says he agrees with the report's main findings. Many activists in Mexico face not only "attacks, threats, killings and disappearances," but also public discrimination for their work, he said.

Santiago said the Commission has campaigned to support the work of civil society. He said that since 2012, the government has operated what is known as "the mechanism" -- a program that provides protective measures, such as home security systems. In addition, guards were deployed to protect about 400 activists and 300 media workers.

Santiago said these services will help many people, "But we also know that the mechanism ... on its own cannot solve everything. The best way to resolve this situation is, first, punishing the attackers."

Removing protections

The Global Witness report also criticized the administration of Brazilian President Michel Temer. It accused his administration of reducing environmental protections and financial support for groups that protect rights of native people and small land owners.

Native groups say these actions have led to farmers, businesses and other outsiders seizing their land.

In a statement late Tuesday, Temer's office called the report's criticism "fake news." It also noted that some of the killings in the report were related to drug-trafficking disputes, and Temer had worked to defend the environment.

I'm Phil Dierking. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Peter Orsi and Sarah DiLorenzo reported this story for the Associated Press. Phil Dierking adapted their story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Do you think land activists should be protected by the government? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

consumer - n. a person who buys goods and services

fake - adj. not true or real

funding - n. available money

park - n. a piece of public land in or near a city that is kept free of houses and other buildings and can be used for pleasure and exercise

ranger - n. a person in charge of managing and protecting part of a public forest

resource - n. something that a country has and can use to increase its wealth

mechanism - n. a process or system that is used to produce a particular result