Agribusiness fueling the persecution of land and environmental defenders, new report shows

More than three people were killed in an average week last year defending their land and the environment from invasion by industries like mining, logging and agribusiness, new research by Global Witness reveals.

Mining was the deadliest sector, causing 43 confirmed deaths. Last year also saw a spike in killings linked to the defence of water sources globally, rising from four in 2017 to 17 in 2018.

The report, entitled Enemies of the State?: How governments and business silence land and environmental defenders, reveals that of recorded deaths, 30 environmental defenders were killed last year in the Philippines the nation with the largest number of recorded deaths. This is followed by 24 people in Columbia, 23 people in India, and 20 people in Brazil.

Global Witness also recognise that a lot of deaths go unreported. Countless more environmental defenders were silenced through other tactics designed to crush protest, such as arrests, death threats, lawsuits and smear campaigns.

Much of the persecution of land and environmental defenders is being driven by demand for the land and raw materials needed for products people consume every day, from food, to mobile phones, to jewellery.

The aggressive expansion of agribusiness – including soy, sugar, palm oil, bananas, and beef production – has a huge impact on indigenous communities and ecosystems around the world, according to Global Witness. A total of 21 deaths were due to agribusiness, the report found. Instances where the land is used for the purpose of agriculture is often acquired without the consent of the indigenous communities.

Global Witness’s report highlights the example of global food giant Dole Philippines’ banana plantations in the Bukidnon region, showing how demand for products people consume daily is driving a lawless and ruthless scramble for land in the Philippines.

Indigenous activists in the Philippines have faced death threats, been thrown in jail and had their homes demolished for opposing the use of their land to grow bananas for sale on global markets.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, herself Filipina, has highlighted how indigenous peoples have been subjected to attacks, stigmatisation, forced displacement, criminalisation, and threats. Her efforts have led her to be labelled a “terrorist” by the Philippines government.

She said: “This was in retaliation for me speaking out against indigenous rights violations in my home country. For months, I lived under threat, and could not safely return home. Although I have since been removed from the list, government officials continue to hurl false accusations at me.

“This is a phenomenon seen around the world: land and environmental defenders are declared terrorists, locked up or hit with paralysing legal attacks, for defending their rights, or simply for living on lands that are coveted by others.”

In Guatemala, a boom in private and foreign investment has seen large swathes of land handed out to plantation, mining and hydropower companies, ushering in a wave of forced and violent evictions, particularly in indigenous areas.

Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to open indigenous reserves to commercial development,
including mining, agriculture and infrastructure. This has already triggered a series of invasions of
indigenous lands this year by armed bands of land grabbers.

The failure of many governments and companies to act responsibly, ethically or even legally is a major driving force behind crimes committed against land and environment defenders.

The report recommends that companies, the consumers who buy from them, the investors who bankroll them, and the governments that regulate them “must all take steps to ensure that our growing demand for food and resources does not drive land grabbing and irrevocable environmental harm”.

It also stated that conflicts over land and resources could be avoided in the first place if communities were consulted on how land was used and could veto damaging projects.

Global Witness said: “If laws were designed to favour the rights of citizens over the interests of big business, communities and ecosystems would inevitably be safer and healthier. And numbers of attacks against those who stand up for their rights would undoubtedly fall if those responsible were brought to justice.”

The full report is available online here.

Global Witness

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyle including sustainable and green living. She also offers content services to businesses and individuals at

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