It Was The Deadliest Year Ever For Land And Environmental Activists

Sep 13, 2021

The daughter of Fikile Ntshangase says that last October, three armed men entered her mother's home and shot her dead.

Ntshangase had publicly questioned a local coal mine that she thought was — quite literally — undermining the small South African town where she lived, located about 360 miles east of Johannesburg.

"She saw the cracks in the walls of people's homes and wondered if they were caused by the constant blasts from the mine," her daughter, Malungelo Xhakaza, told Global Witness, an international human rights group. "She saw the coal dust gathering in living rooms and wondered if it was also gathering in people's lungs. And she saw the tension the mine caused, the families it broke apart, the fear it spread."

Ntshangase is one of 227 activists that the group says were killed last year in connection to their grassroots environmental efforts, according to a report released Monday.

Her killing was one of two in South Africa in 2020 attributed to environmental activism. However, the group says many more occurred elsewhere, with more than half occurring in just three countries: Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines.

"As the climate crisis deepens, forest fires rampage across swathes of the planet, drought destroys farmland, and floods leave thousands dead, the situation for frontline communities and defenders of the Earth is getting worse," according to the report.

Indigenous communities, which make up only about 5% of the world's population, bore the brunt of the anti-activist violence, accounting for more than a third of those killed, it said.

The figure for 2020 was up from 212 reported by Global Witness the previous year.

In Colombia, where 65 such activists were killed, a third of the attacks "targeted indigenous and afro-descendant people, and almost half were against small-scale farmers." No attacks were recorded in North America or Europe, and only one – in Kiribati – took place in Oceania. On a per capita basis, Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala and the Philippines were the most dangerous places to be a grassroots environmental activist, according to the report.

People place small posters depicting Honduran environmental activist Berta Caceres next to a fire as they wait outside the Palace of Justice for the verdict in the activist's murder case. A little over five years after Caceres' murder, an ex-chief of the energy company Desa has been found partly guilty.
Delmer Membreno / dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images

While the highest number of killings – 23 – was linked to logging, others were linked to water and dams, mining, illegal crop substitution and agribusiness. In some places, protest has been either stigmatized or criminalized, the group has said previously.

Global Witness says its report documents the deliberate killing of "people who take a stand and carry out peaceful action against the unjust, discriminatory, corrupt or damaging exploitation of natural resources or the environment."

The group says it collects data by reviewing publicly available online reports and datasets from international and national sources and counts only killings that have "clear, proximate and documented connections to an environmental or land issue."

The number of such deaths last year was more than double the figure in 2013, but Global Witness says it believes its data represents an undercount because it relies on the level of transparency, press freedom and civil rights in the individual countries.

The group is calling for urgent action and recommends that companies and governments be "held to account for violence against land and environmental defenders, who are often standing on the frontline of the climate crisis."

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