Sep 16, 2021 - Energy & Environment

2020 was the deadliest year for environmental defenders

Engineer Sandra Cuéllar is one of many Colombians who've gone missing or been killed for their environmental activism.
Engineer Sandra Cuéllar is one of many Colombians who've gone missing or been killed for their environmental activism. Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images

Latin America and the Caribbean is the deadliest region for environmental defenders, a violent record that has global repercussions.

Why it matters: The region has several of the most biodiverse areas of the planet, but they are constantly threatened by logging, mining or aquifer overexploitation.

  • Razing those areas has worldwide consequences, such as accelerating global warming when it is already alarmingly high.
  • In many cases, civilian activists are the only ones standing against harmful projects in their communities.
  • Latin America has been a flashpoint for several years, but attacks increased to their worst number on record in 2020.

By the numbers: Of the 227 killings tallied globally by Global Witness, 165 occurred in Latin American countries. That is 72%, or almost 3 out of 4.

  • Colombia had the highest toll, with 65 lethal attacks, followed by Mexico with 30 killings and Brazil with 20.
  • Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua had the fifth, seventh and eighth highest environmental activist death tolls in the world.
  • Global Witness also stresses that many attacks these activists face, like death threats or sexual violence, go unreported.

State of play: Most of the cases also go unpunished, begetting further violence, as “corruption in criminal justice systems too often shields governments and businesses responsible for these murders,” UN Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor tells AP.

  • A notable exception is the 2016 murder of Honduran Berta Cáceres, a member of the Lenca Indigenous community, who was shot dead because of her protests against a hydroelectric dam.
  • Her family pushed tirelessly for justice in the country with the highest levels of impunity in the Americas.
  • Cáceres' killers were sentenced in 2019 to 50 years in prison, while the U.S. trained intelligence officer who hired them was convicted this past summer.

What they’re saying: “The people killed each year defending their local places are also defending our shared planet — in particular our climate,” American environmentalist Bill McKibben writes in the Global Witness report. The work of those activists “safeguard[s] all of us from incessant temperature increases.”

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