At least 177 environmental activists were murdered in 2022 across the globe. It is as if, every two days, a person linked to the defense of the environment and the collective use of natural resources had been killed because of their actions.
The survey is by Global Witness, an NGO founded in the United Kingdom that has been monitoring the environmental activism scene since 2012. According to its most recent report, published this Tuesday (12), 1,910 crimes of this type were recorded worldwide in the last decade.
In 2022, Colombia led the ranking as the most violent country for activists. There were 60 murders, double the number recorded in the previous year. The majority of victims are indigenous people, members of Afro-descendant communities and small farmers, the report points out.
Brazil appears in second place, with 34 lethal attacks. The number, on the other hand, is higher than that recorded in 2021, when 26 environmental defenders were murdered. In the country, one of the main sources of data is the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), linked to the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB), which annually publishes a report on conflicts in the countryside.
“In the last four years, we have lived under a federal government that has dismantled environmental protection agencies and indigenous peoples. Several phrases by former president Jair Bolsonaro encouraged invasion and illegal mining in Indigenous Lands” points out, in an interview with DW, Gabriella Bianchini, consultant senior at the NGO in Brazil.
In Mexico, which ranked first in 2021, the total number of deaths fell from 54 to 31. But this does not mean that violence has ceased in that country, highlights Global Witness.
“The general situation remains dire for land and environmental defenders, and non-lethal attacks — including intimidation, threats, forced displacement, harassment and criminalization — continue to seriously harm their work,” the document says.
The serious situation in Latin America was highlighted: the region was the scene of 88% of all murders. Of the 18 countries that appear in the report with documented cases, 11 are Latin American.
“The worsening climate crisis and the increasing demand for agricultural commodities, fuels and minerals intensify the pressure on the environment — and on those who risk their lives to defend it,” says the document.
According to the survey, in 2022 Colombia surpassed Brazil in the number of activists killed in the last decade, with 382 cases compared to the 376 records of Brazilians. Until then, the leadership was from Brazil, historically the country where the most activists have been murdered since 2012.
“Brazil is one of the countries that kills the most these people, defenders of the forest and the environment. It is a country with absurd numbers of deaths”, highlights Bianchini.
As in other parts of the world, many deaths recorded in Brazil remain unsolved. This is the case of the murder of an entire family in São Félix do Xingu (PA). In January 2022, environmentalist Marcia Nunes Lisboa was shot alongside her husband, rural worker José Gomes, and daughter, Joene Nunes Lisboa, aged 18. To date, the investigation into the crime has not reached an outcome.
In Boa Vista (RR), the perpetrators of the shots that killed Ana Yanomami Xexana remain unknown. The indigenous woman was in a temporary camp in the city when she was hit in the head by two men who passed by on bicycles. She left a baby.
“Impunity is a huge problem and is seriously preventing attacks on defenders from stopping. Often, if we are lucky, all we can learn is the name of the person who fired the firearm. The masterminds are rarely known , as well as their motivations”, points out Laura Furones, one of the authors of the survey.
Due to the threats she receives, Maria Leusa Munduruku often had to leave her territory in a hurry. She has been denouncing the illegal extraction of gold in the Munduruku Indigenous Land (PA) for years and has already had her house set on fire by criminals.
“We are demanding that the State protect the defenders. I am not the only person threatened in the territory. We are asking that the invaders be removed urgently, which has not happened so far”, criticized Maria Leusa during a conversation with journalists, also citing the crisis caused by mining in the Yanomami TI, in the states of Roraima and Amazonas, and Kayapó, in Pará.
Environmental protection and economic interests
For the report’s authors, it is complex to establish clear links between recorded murders and specific economic sectors. Of the 177 crimes in 2022, at least ten have their causes linked to interests in the agribusiness industry — half of these occurred in Mexico.
Mining has been linked to eight cases monitored by Global Witness. Other sectors that would be behind the deaths are logging (4), road and infrastructure construction (2), hydroelectric power (2), hunting (2).
More than a third of the people murdered were indigenous (36%). Small farmers (22%) and people of African descent (7%) are also among the biggest victims of violence. In 2022, state authorities, protesters, forest guards, lawyers and journalists — such as Dom Phillips, killed alongside indigenous worker Bruno Pereira in Vale do Javari — were also targets of lethal attacks.
“Murder is the most serious offense. But there are several other non-lethal attacks, such as attempted silencing, criminalization, threats and other types of physical and sexual violence, harassment. All of this surrounded by the land conflict”, comments Bianchini about the work.
Amazon in the center
It is the first time that the report highlights deaths recorded in the Amazon forest region: 1 in every 5 murders recorded in 2022 took place in the biome.
“Brazil will host the Climate Conference in Belém in 2025. We know about all the problems in the state of Pará and the Amazon region in Brazil. There is a need to put pressure on the new government”, points out Bianchini.
Although there has been a change in discourse and practice with the arrival of the new federal government, chaired by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, this has long been wanted, argues the researcher.
“We must protect people who protect the environment. They are not just defending their homes, their lives, their own territory. They are defending the environment, which is important for the survival of the entire planet”, he explains.