Mapped: Killings of Environmental Defenders Surged in 2015

Almost 40 percent of those killed were indigenous people like Berta Cáceres.

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In early 2015, Fabio Moreno and his friend Fernando Salazar Calvo heard that someone was going to kill them for their efforts to block gold mining on their indigenous reserve in Colombia. The rumors were true: just weeks later, Salazar Calvo was shot to death outside his home and Moreno went into hiding. Salazar Calvo was just one of the 185 people killed for environmental activism in 2015, according to a Global Witness report released Sunday.

The author of the report, Billy Kyte, told Foreign Policy that he was shocked by the 59 percent increase from 2014. He was also dismayed that so many of those killed — almost 40 percent — were indigenous people trying to protect their own ancestral lands. Due to the challenges of gathering the information, said Kyte, the real total of activists killed is probably much higher.

He said that while in the West people think of environmental activists as “left-leaning, urban dwelling” people, those who are killed “are on the frontline. Many are ordinary people who wake up to the sound of a bulldozer on their land and start asking questions.”

After seeing the report, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a statement distributed by Global Witness that “Berta Caceres’ death in Honduras made headlines around the world because of her notoriety, but there have been many like her who died in obscurity.  Governments should be defending these people, not treating them like criminals and letting their killers go free.”

Brazil and the Philippines had the highest incidents of murders of environmental activists. Colombia, where Moreno lives, came in third. In a phone interview with Foreign Policy, Moreno said that he had decided to come out of hiding and return to his community in January. Since then, he has heard rumors that a large amount of cash was available for anyone who killed him. Illegal armed groups remain active in the area.

“We can’t be afraid. After us, there are new generations coming that hope we do something for our territory,” Moreno told FP. “Despite the danger, we have to continue.”

Moreno says that the Colombian government has given 44 mining titles to multinational companies on the Cañamomo Lomaprieta indigenous reserve where he lives. Although the land belongs to the Embera Chamí people, the Colombian government claims subsurface mineral rights.

According to the Global Witness report, 2015 saw a sharp increase in murders related to mining.

Kyte said that the one hopeful piece of news he had found was the international outcry after the murder of Cáceres. “Never before have so many people come together around this issue,” Kyte said. The international outcry led the Honduran government to arrest what Kyte called the “triggermen” if not the people who actually ordered her death.

“This case could be a watershed,” Kyte said. “If the true masterminds of her killing are held responsible it could discourage future killings.” Global Witness is calling for an international investigation into Cáceres’s murder.

However, he has no illusions that it will be easy to get the governments of countries whose economies depend on the extraction and sales of commodities to protect environmental defenders.

“I fear that with Brazil and the Philippines certainly that the move to the right with recent governments and the kind of condoning of death squads in the Philippines means that this issue will probably worsen in both countries.” 

Part of the problem is driven by international companies and investors.

In the case of Cáceres, for example, the Dutch and Finnish investors in the hydroelectric project she protested have been very slow to definitively pull their investment.

“Without international pressure and outrage I think we’ll probably see violence continue in each of these countries,” said Kyte.

Below, see a map that shows the approximate location where each environmental defender that Global Witness documented was killed in 2015:  

Image credit: Global Witness/cartodb

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. Twitter: @megan_alpert