A record 227 environmental defenders were killed in 2020

The study connected that rise in violence with the worsening of the climate crisis itself.

Image Credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

A record 227 environmental and land defenders were killed in 2020 for protecting their homes and our planet, according to the annual Global Witness report released Monday.

That’s an average of more than four people a week, and more than double the number reported in 2013, the report authors wrote. Further, they connected that rise in violence with the worsening of the climate crisis itself.

“It’s the communities that are most impacted by the climate crisis who are speaking up to protect their land, their communities and our planet,” Global Witness head of U.S. communications and global partnerships Julie Anne Miranda-Brobeck told EcoWatch. “It’s those environmental and land defenders who are especially vulnerable to killings and attacks.”

‘Another climate metric’

The number of environmental or land defenders — defined as anyone who peacefully protests the exploitation of the natural world — killed has risen every year but one since Global Witness began issuing its reports in 2012.

Miranda-Brobeck said that increase was not the result of better reporting. In fact, because the yearly counts are based on publicly available data and subject to strict verification criteria, Global Witness believes it underestimates the true number of fatalities. Instead, 2020’s record death toll “can be understood as another climate metric,” the report authors wrote, along with the fact that the year tied for the hottest on record and saw the worst North Atlantic hurricane season.

“Over time as the climate crisis worsens, as corporations get more and more access to land for mining and extraction and agribusiness, killings increase,” Miranda-Brobeck said.

The report authors noted that the climate crisis and the violence against defenders share three key traits:

1. Inequality: Climate change disproportionately impacts poorer countries in the Global South that have historically contributed less to its impacts. The violence meted out against environmental defenders also predominantly occurs in Global South countries. This year, only one of the killings took place in a Global North country (Canada), and the top three deadliest countries were Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines. The deadliest region was Latin America, while killings in Africa more than doubled from 7 to 18.

2. Business: The same extractive industries that perpetuate the climate crisis are also responsible for a significant amount of the killings. This year, more than a third of the attacks were linked to logging, mining, agribusiness and large hydroelectric projects. Logging was the deadliest this year, and more than 71 percent of the defenders killed this year died defending forests. In this case there is a clear connection between the forces robbing Earth of its natural carbon sinks and the violence enacted against the people who fight to preserve them.

3. Government (In)action: As with the climate crisis, governments either actively perpetuate the violence or do not do enough to curb it. This year in particular, many governments used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to limit freedoms such as the right to protest or to a free press. In fact, 158 countries imposed new restrictions on demonstrations in 2020. This is a problem because attacks are more frequent in countries that put more restrictions on civil society.

Case Study: Guatemala

One example of how rising authoritarianism, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic interact to increase violence is in Guatemala, where a total of 13 people were killed in 2020, according to the report.

“Guatemala is counted among the countries that will be most deeply impacted by the climate crisis, and this is evident in the contradictions surrounding land disputes in the country,” general coordinator of the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) Jorge Santos told EcoWatch.

One of the main causes of violence in the country is the attempt to impose an extractivist economic model. Outside of the capital, most of the aggression against human rights defenders reported by UDEFEGUA in Guatemala occur in five departments rich in natural resources.

At the same time, the country is in the midst of an authoritarian turn, Santos said. The group recorded 1,055 aggression against human rights defenders in 2020 and a further 551 in the first six months of 2021. Beyond outright killings, nearly 50 percent of the aggression reported by UDEFEGUA this year were acts of criminalization of human rights defenders, such as illegal detentions or false accusations.

The pandemic has exacerbated this repressive trend. Santos noted that, of the 11 states of emergency declared in 2020, only one was justifiable under international standards. Further, in its 20 years of reporting, UDEFEGUA has observed that violence tends to decrease in the first few years of a new government. 2020 broke that trend.

“Last year, in the first year of [the presidency of] Alejandro Giammattei, there’s an increase in aggression and it’s the largest UDEFEGUA has ever registered,” Santos said.

Guatemala has something else in common with the broader trend of violence against defenders: Indigenous communities are disproportionately targeted. Worldwide, Indigenous people make up a fifth of the total population, but were subject to more than a third of the attacks reported by Global Witness between 2015 and 2019.

In Guatemala, Indigenous people were often targeted by the state as an internal enemy during the country’s 36 years of civil conflict. While peace accords were finally signed in 1996, the situation has begun to regress.

“Those Indigenous people who were victims of genocide are the same people who today peacefully resist the imposition of an extractivist economic model,” Santos said.

However, he said the leadership of Indigenous communities in both resisting resource extraction and promoting democracy was likely “the most hopeful phenomenon that exists in the country today.”

He argued that the repression evident in Guatemala against human rights defenders was likely a response to a more organized populace willing to defend their rights and called on the government to stop the violence.


Global Witness also issued recommendations for reversing the tide of violence against environmental defenders. These included separate action plans for the UN, governments and businesses.

The UN, Global Witness argued, should recognize the human right to a safe environment and make sure that commitments made at the next climate change conference comply with human rights obligations.

Governments should protect defenders by regulating extractive businesses and ending any attempts to criminalize protest and land defense. Further, they should hold companies located within their borders to account for anything that happens in their supply chain and fairly investigate and prosecute all acts of violence.

Businesses should enact “due diligence” procedures to prevent violence from happening anywhere in their supply chain, adopt a “zero tolerance” policy against any violence and offer reparations when it does occur.

Further, all of us can be aware of the sacrifices made by defenders and take their needs into consideration as we rebuild the global economy following the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s important that our economies and the health of our communities recovers during this pandemic,” Miranda-Brobeck said, “but I think it’s also really important that we recognize the threat to land and environmental activists on the ground, who not only are facing the health threats from the pandemic and the economic impacts of the pandemic, but are also facing the worst of the climate catastrophe and are just trying to defend our planet and their homes.”


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