The number of murders of activists linked to environmental causes hit a new record in 2020. Worldwide, 227 people were killed for defending their territories, land rights, livelihoods, and the environment. The data is part of the report The Last Line of Defense, by NGO Global Witness, released on Monday (09/13).
In the global ranking, Brazil is in fourth position, with 20 murders, behind Colombia (65 deaths), Mexico (30) and the Philippines (29).
The numbers, however, do not accurately portray the growing hostility, Global Witness points out. “In some countries, the situation for defenders is difficult to measure — restrictions on press freedom, or where independent monitoring of attacks is not occurring, can lead to underreporting,” the report warns.
Latin America was the most lethal region in the world for environmentalists. Of the 227 deaths, 165 were in Latin American countries, 72.7% of the total. In Brazil, most of the crimes (75%) occurred in the Amazon and victimized indigenous people.
In addition to murders, death threats, sexual violence, and attempts at criminalization have also increased, Global Witness reports. This type of attack, however, is even more difficult to capture in the report, says the NGO, drawing attention to possible underreporting.
More land conflicts in Brazil
In 2019, Brazil appeared in the same report as the third most dangerous country for environmentalists, with 24 deaths. The slight drop in murders recorded last year, however, does not mean that the country is less violent.
“It was a different year. Our documentation center had a hard time deciding how to register the cases. With the pandemic, there were fewer displacements during some months, which may have influenced the numbers,” Jeane Bellini, coordinator of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), told DW Brazil in an interview.
The Catholic Church-linked organization, which has been monitoring violence in the Brazilian countryside for 35 years, is the main source of data for the global report. In its latest survey, the CPT documented 1,576 incidents of land conflict, the highest number since 1985.
Among the murders listed in the global report is that of Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau. He was part of a group in Rondônia that registered and denounced invasions and timber theft in indigenous territory. More than a year after the crime, no one has been held responsible or arrested.
“The people stopped coming and going because of the danger of contagion from COVID-19, but the landowners, gunmen, and loggers did not stop,” comments Bellini about the violence and the increase of invasions in indigenous lands.
According to the analysis of the CPT coordinator, the focus of attacks in Brazil has been on conservation areas and territories inhabited by indigenous people, quilombolas, and other traditional communities. “We deduce that this is because of the continuous discourse of [President Jair] Bolsonaro, who practically invites the invaders and says that he will guarantee the land for them,” she analyzes.
Apparently, says Bellini, the president is not likely to back down on this rhetoric. “And of course, it’s worth remembering that it’s not just the president. We have a Congress that is relaxing all the environmental protection laws,” he adds.
What the killings tell the world
According to Global Witness, a consecutive increase in the number of killings has been documented since 2018, with more than 200 people killed in 2019 and 2020 — more than double the number recorded in the inaugural 2013 report.
Last year, the main economic activities linked to the recorded crimes were logging, conflicts over water and dam construction, mining, and agribusiness. These cases show that the unbridled exploitation of natural resources and greed are having an increasingly violent impact on the lives of communities – and on the climate crisis, the report notes.
If governments and companies in the sector do not act quickly, the situation is likely to get worse. “As more land is taken and more forests are cut down for short-term profits, both the climate crisis and attacks on environmental defenders will continue,” the document concludes.
A partial survey shows that by the end of August 2021, the CPT has counted in Brazil the murder of 11 people for defending their territories, access to land, water and the environment.
This article was originally published on Deutsche Welle and translated by The Brazil Daily News.