PROLOGUE: Defending nature must be finally equipped with means and measures internationally that truly provide effective protection for the defenders, and the serious crime of Ecocide must immediately become enshrined in international and national legislation with severe punishments for the corporate or individual culprits.   

5 deadly countries for environmental defenders

A new report reveals a spike in the murder of global land defenders, especially in Latin America. The failure to combat climate change is forcing the most vulnerable to the frontlines, and to pay with their lives.

Brazilian indigenous leader with elaborate headdressBy Start Braun - 28. July 2020

Environmental activists are being murdered in ever-increasing numbers. According to a new report by London-based NGO, Global Witness, 212 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019 alone, a 30% rise from the 164 killed in 2018. Around 40% were indigenous people and traditional land owners.

More than two-thirds of killings took place in Latin America, with Colombia topping the list with 64 murders due to the failure to implement the 2016 peace agreement with FARC and protect farmers transitioning from coca to cocoa and coffee to reduce cocaine production. 

The overall rise in murders is part of a broader trend. Astudy published in Nature in 2019 showed that in the 15 years between 2002 and 2017, more than 1,558 environment defenders were killed, doubling from two to four per week over that time. 

An infographic showing the number of killings in 2019

Mary Menton, a research fellow in environmental justice at University of Sussex who co-authored the report, told DW that she "would not be surprised" if the real figure were double due to the failure to report and even investigate killings. Meanwhile, Menton says only 10% of perpetrators are prosecuted. 

Increasing conflict over scarce land resources in a time of rising global consumer demand is forcing indigenous and traditional community leaders to protect their territories, says Rachel Cox,  a campaigner at Global Witness. 

"Indigenous people are disproportionately vulnerable to attack," she says of minorities resisting mining, logging and the agribusiness projects encroaching on the frontiers they call home.

But the killings are only the tip of the iceberg. "Many more defenders were attacked, jailed or faced smear campaigns because of their work," said Cox.

The following five countries experienced especially high activist death rates in 2019.  

1. The Philippines

The deadliest country for environmental activists in 2018, at least 46 environmental defenders were murdered last year in the Philippines, a 53% increase and a return to the high murder rate during the first years of the Duterte regime. Twenty six murders were related to agribusiness, the highest in the world.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte

Under President Duterte, the Philippines has seen an uptick in the number of environmental defenders murdered

Environmental activists protest against mines in the Philippines

The Mindanao Indigenous Federation KALUMARAN protested against the expansion of mining

Leon Dulce, the national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, says "we are bracing for more spates of violence" due to government efforts to expand mining and logging "under the guise of a COVID-19 economic recovery." President Duterte is also using draconian anti-terror laws to suppress activists by labeling them as criminals. 

The southern island of Mindanao remains a hotspot with 19 environment-related killings in 2019 due to ongoing opposition to palm oil and agribusiness fruit plantations. 

Attacks are especially prevalent on the territory of these indigenous or Lumad people, Dulce explained, because it forms "the last forest corridors of the island." Indigenous communities "continue to stand in the way of mining, dam, and agribusiness tenements," he said. 

The Philippines' high vulnerability to climate change, especially typhoons, has further necessitated this resistance, according to the report. 

2. Brazil

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s aggressive push to expand large-scale mining and agribusiness in the Amazon has forced indigenous peoples further into the frontlines of the climate crisis, especially as deforestation on indigenous land increased by 74% from 2018 to 2019. Of the 24 murders of land defenders in Brazil, 90% occurred in the Amazon.

An aerial shot of the Amazon being burned

An increase in fires in the Amazon have been attributed in part to ranchers clearing land. Brazil saw over 30,000 fires sweep through its rain forests in 2019

Indigenous leader Cacique Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapo tribe

Indigenous leader Cacique Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapo tribe was one of several Amazon indigenous leaders that have formed an alliance against President Bolsonaro's threats to open their homelands to mining

The uptick in violence in the resource rich region that is also the planet's largest carbon sink, comes as the Bolsonaro government introduced a controversial bill in 2019 that calls for the legalization of commercial mining on indigenous land.

Read moreBrazil: Illegal loggers kill indigenous man during Amazon attack

Bolsonaro himself is also "actively encouraging violence" against indigenous defenders through hate speech, says Mary Menton.

In June last year, it was reported that dozens of miners dressed in military uniform invaded the Wajapi community in the Brazilian Amazon, stabbing and killing one of its leaders.

3. Mexico

Eighteen land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019 in Mexico, a rise of four. They included Otilia Martínez Cruz, 60, and her 20-year-old son, Gregorio Chaparro Cruz, who were found dead outside their home in the town of El Chapote in north-west Mexico on May 1, 2019. The indigenous Tarahumara defenders were allegedly killed by assassins in retaliation for their efforts to stop the illegal deforestation of their ancestral land in the Sierra Madre. 

Mexico’s endangered conservationists

Two months earlier, Samir Flores Soberanes was shot dead outside his home on February 20, 2019. An Indigenous Nahuatl farmer and environmental activist from Amilcingo, Morelos, Samir publicly spoke out against the Morelos Integral Project (MIP) to develop coal and gas energy infrastructure the day before he was killed.

4. Romania

Europe has rarely witnessed deaths by environment defenders, but two rangers fighting illegal logging were killed in 2019.

Romania has over half of Europe’s remaining old-growth and primeval forests that have been dubbed the "lungs of Europe."

Romania: Fearing the wood mafia

But according to Greenpeace, some 3 hectares (7.4 acres) of this pristine forest is degraded every hour in Romania, much of it by the "wood mafia" that the two forest rangers opposed. The Global Witness report notes that there were hundreds of threats and attacks against the rangers before they were killed.

Despite the thousands who marched in Bucharest and across Romania in late 2019 to oppose illegal logging and to demand an investigation into the attacks, no one has been charged.   

5. Honduras

Killings rose from four in 2018 to 14 last year in Honduras, making it the most dangerous country per capita for land and environmental defenders in 2019. Lethal attacks against activists were especially prevalent against women, continuing the upward trend since Honduran activist and indigenous leader Berta Caceres was brutally murdered in 2016, months after winning the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, for opposing dam construction in her region. 

Slain Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres posters are carried

The 2016 murder of Honduran Berta Caceres remains a stark reminder of the brutality environmental defenders face

"Women have an important leadership in the fight against extractive companies and criminal groups that want to take away their land," said Marusia Lopez of the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, which documented 1,233 attacks against these women defenders between 2017-18.  

Afro-indigenous Garifuna people living on the east coast were especially targeted in 2019, with 16 killed for defending their lands, mostly from palm oil and tourism development. Criminal groups have long attacked Garifuna communities with impunity.

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Australia: Aboriginal protesters defend ancient forest against logging

Having escaped Australia's devasting fires at the turn of this year, old-growth forest in New South Wales is now under threat from loggers. But the cultural custodians of the land are fighting back.

By Georgina Kenyon - 02. July 2020

Local aboriginal man protesting in Nambucca forest in Australia

It's raining, the ground underfoot has turned to mud and the air is thick with mosquitoes. But activists at the entrance to Nambucca State Forest in New South Wales aren't deterred. Sheltering under tarpaulins strung between tall blackbutt eucalyptus trees, many of them have been camping out here for weeks.

In early June, Australia's coronavirus lockdown eased. While some headed out to relax on the beach or crowd into shopping centers, the protesters here took advantage of their freedom to take a stand against the logging of a forest they say has invaluable cultural and ecological significance.

Read moreAdani's coal mine plans, and why coal is still so lucrative 

Each day, scores of protesters arrive from nearby coastal towns. But Sandy Greenwood, a woman of the Gumbaynggir Aboriginal group, whose ancestors have lived in this part of Australia for tens of thousands of years, is among those manning the camp day and night.

"We are protesting because if we don't act now, our deeply significant cultural heritage will be desecrated," Greenwood told DW. "Our beautiful old-growth trees will be logged, rare flora will become extinct and our koalas and endangered species will literally have nowhere else to go."

Anti-logging activists, Nambucca Forest, New South Wales, Australia

Protestors say they intend to stay put until their demands are met or the last tree is felled

Precious habitat for threatened species

The coastal old-growth rainforest is home to a multitude of species, including owls, koalas, bent-wing bats and an endearing, flop-eared possum called the yellow-bellied glider. It is also an important stopover for migrating birds.

That this area escaped the wildfires that ravaged5 million hectares in New South Wales, — including close to a million hectares of native forest — in late 2019 and early 2020, makes its preservation even more important to the animals that survive there and depend on the habitat.

But in April the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales announced it would harvest 140,000 hectares of New South Wales forest — including over 100 hectares of the Nambucca State Forest — mainly for housing materials, and quickly got to work.

"Logging began in April at an extremely opportunistic time, during COVID-19 while protesters have not been able to get organized and voice their concerns," Lyn Orrego of the Nambucca Valley Conservation Association told DW.

Koala killed in bushfire, Australia

Activists say after the fires that ravaged Australia six months ago, every bit of remaining forest is vital

Read more: Europe's raptors and fish hit by poaching under lockdown

Legal challenge

In mid-June, activists brought a challenge against the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales, on the basis that the Gumbaynggirr custodians of the land had not been consulted, and there had not been an adequate survey of the flora and fauna at risk.

Although, the Forestry Corporation insists it did carry out the cultural surveys and protocols for species required by law prior to logging, the protesters say these were inadequate and in mid-June, a stop-work order temporarily halted the logging, while the state's Land and Environment Court looked into the case.

Read moreIndigenous Australians fight coal and climate change

On June 26, the case brought was dropped, as the Forestry Corporation moved its logging machinery to Wild Cattle Creek, another old-growth rainforest, 80 kilometers north of Nambucca, also on Aboriginal land.   

Lawyers for the Aboriginal people stated that the company's move out of Nambucca to log elsewhere disrupted their case. It's not possible to get an injunction against something that currently isn't happening, they said. Still, say the activists, that's not the end of the story. Logging could resume in Nambucca in the future. A Forestry Corporation of NSW spokesperson said the activity has been "suspended" not stopped.

Gumbaynggirr protestor Sandy Greenwood, Nambucca Forest, New South Wales, Australia

Sandy Greenwood reminds loggers whose land they are on

The New South Wales State government told DW it is investigating concerns raised by the Aboriginal community.

According toresearchers at the University of Queensland, 7 million hectares of threatened species' habitat in Australia has been destroyed by bulldozing and logging over the last 17 years, most of it without government approval, or any attempt by the authorities to hold companies to account.

Josh Meadows from Melbourne-based NGO the Australian Conservation Foundation told DW that Australian environmental laws are weak and relatively easy to bypass, with little government scrutiny of logging sites. He fears new laws announced as part of the country's efforts to get the economy up and running again post-lockdown — which will make it quicker and easier for logging companies to get environmental approval — will make it even harder to defend forests.

Economy versus the environment

The Aboriginal people now have an even bigger and more complicated legal battle on their hands: how to stop the logging from resuming in Nambucca State Forest and how to stop the deforestation at Wild Cattle Creek Forest.  

"This is a David and Goliath battle," Orrego says, "but there are more and more Davids in the world and we have to be hopeful, despite the odds."

Read moreRights of nature: Can Indigenous traditions shape environmental law? 

For Gumbaynggirr people like Greenwood, the Nambucca forest is integral to their history and identity. But the battle to save it is also a symbol of a global struggle against ecological collapse. Forests are vital carbon sinks, storing CO2 that would otherwise warm the planet. As temperatures increase, devastating blazes like those at the turn of this year become an ever-greater threat.

Still, the activists don't have universal support from locals. Some seem indifferent: "What's the point of protesting?" one resident of Coffs Harbour, a town not far from the forest, told DW. "You won't win."

Others argue that the logging will bring jobs. But local Labor Party councillor Susan Jenvey says the economic promises that polarize her community are overplayed.

Anti-logging activists, Nambucca Forest, New South Wales, Australia

Protestors make a stand for the human and animal life of the Nambucca Forest

"We need to think past logging as acceptable, after the fires," Jenvey told DW. "There are so few old forests left in Australia. Governments always overstate how many jobs logging will create, not what the risks are."

Read moreAnti-protest laws and litigation take aim at climate activism 

In Aboriginal thinking, the pay-off between economic and ecological needs makes little sense anyway. "We need these forests for the air and water they provide, as a home for threatened species as well as for our people," Greenwood says. Her culture sees people and culture as an integral part of nature.

Holding witness to destruction

The Gumbaynggirr people are calling on the New South Wales government to establish a new cultural heritage area encompassing the Nambucca forest, to safeguard cultural sites and endangered species, protect water catchments — and boost local jobs in land management and tourism. 

Until their demands are met, or until the logging ends — by legal injunction or with the felling of the last tree — Greenwood is among those determined to stay put and "hold witness" as they consider how to keep fighting. 

"We have sent a strong message to Forestry Corporation that their relentless destruction will be met with fierce resistance," says Greenwood. "We will not give up fighting for our sacred land." 

Their feet sinking into the mud beside the camp's makeshift kitchen, a group of musicians starts to play, to lift their fellow protesters' spirits. A woman's voice rises to accompany a violin and, from deep in the forest, a pair of whipbirds seem to add their calls to the harmony.