At least 185 environmental activists were killed last year, the highest annual death toll on record and close to a 60% increase on the previous year, according to a UK-based watchdog.
Global Witness documented lethal attacks across 16 countries. Brazil was worst hit with 50 deaths, many of them killings of campaigners who were trying to combat illegal logging in the Amazon. The Philippines was second with 33.
Colombia had 26 fatal attacks; Peru, 12; Nicaragua, 12; and Democratic Republic of Congo had 11.
“As demand for products like minerals, timber and palm oil continues, governments, companies and criminal gangs are seizing land in defiance of the people who live on it,” said Billy Kyte, a senior campaigner for Global Witness and author of the report.
“Communities that take a stand are increasingly finding themselves in the firing line of companies’ private security, state forces and a thriving market for contract killers. For every killing we document, many others go unreported. Governments must urgently intervene to stop this spiraling violence.”
The most deadly industry to protest against was mining, with 42 deaths in 2015 related to anti-mining activities. Agribusiness, hydroelectric dams and logging were also key drivers of violence, Global Witness found, and many of the murders occurred in remote villages deep within rainforests.
In Brazil, thousands of illegal logging camps have been set up and are cutting down valuable hardwoods like mahogany, ebony and teak.
The report said criminal gangs terrorise local populations at the behest of “timber companies and the officials they have corrupted”.
It is estimated that 80% of timber from Brazil is illegal and accounts for 25% of illegal wood on global markets. Much of this is being sold on to buyers in the UK, US, Europe and China, and is contributing to one of the world’s highest rates of forest loss, the report said
The report also focused on the vulnerability of indigenous people, saying they suffer weak land rights and geographic isolation, making them particularly exposed to land grabbing for natural resource exploitation. Almost 40% of last year’s victims were indigenous people.
Global Witness cited the case of Filipino activist Michelle Campos, a member of the indigenous Lumad people from the southern Philippines. She says her father, a prominent campaigner for the protection of ancestral lands, and grandfather were publicly executed by a paramilitary group in front of the village.
The region is rich in coal, nickel and gold, and is one of the most dangerous in the world for land and environmental activists, with 25 deaths in 2015 alone, the report said.
“We know the murderers – they are still walking free in our community. We are dying and our government does nothing to help us,” the report quoted Michelle Campos as saying. Close to 3,000 Lumad villagers fled after the executions.
“We get threatened, vilified and killed for standing up to the mining companies on our land and the paramilitaries that protect them,” Campos said.
Filipino president-elect Rodrigo Duterte has spoken out in favour of rights for the Lumad population and called for the military to withdraw from the area so the indigenous people can return. He will take office on 30 June.
The report called on governments to increase protection for land and environmental activists and investigate crimes. It said authorities should also formally recognise communities’ rights to their land.
In total, Global Witness has documented 1,176 cases going back to 2002.