Threats and killings of land and environmental defenders continued in Latin America last year despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Led by Colombia and Mexico, the region again tallied the highest number of murders of any in the world, according to UK-based NGO Global Witness' annual report.
Globally, 227 frontline activists were killed, a year-on-year increase. Three out of four murders in 2020 were committed in Latin America and the region accounted for seven of the top ten countries with most recorded attacks.
"The quarantine led to defenders being attacked in their homes, as the killers knew where they were," said Chris Madden, one of the authors of the report. "Defenders had their rights curtailed. They were unable to carry out protests during the pandemic while extractive activities continued as normal."
For the second consecutive year, Colombia had the highest number of recorded attacks, with 65 activists killed in 2020. Indigenous leaders and Afro-descendant community members were targeted in a third of cases. Almost half were perpetrated against smallholder farmers, the report said.
The "woeful" implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement is largely responsible for Colombia's high figures, the report said. Paramilitary and criminal groups have seized control of remote rural areas where there is a lack of a state presence through violence against communities.
Nicaragua witnessed 12 killings, up from five in 2019, making it the most dangerous country on a per-capita basis. The number of reported attacks in Brazil remains high, with 20 murders recorded last year.
At least 30% of recorded attacks were directly related to resource exploitation. Some 23 killings were linked to logging, with large-scale mining and agriculture, and hydroelectric plants, also generating conflict.
"Communities have more pressure on their territories and want to defend it, and that ends in violence against leaders. This is a trend that will continue as pressures for natural resources increase,” said Natalia Gómez Peña of Earth Rights International.
“If we continue with this model of development there is no other outcome.”
Latin America’s frontline land and environmental defenders
Global Witness’ report is called The Last Line of Defence to underscore the importance of environmental defenders in the fight against the climate and biodiversity crises, said Madden. Although extractive companies often portray environmental defenders as ‘anti-development’, they are a first line of defence for natural resource preservation, he added.
"Many countries have developed mechanisms to protect them but resources are limited. This was further exacerbated during the pandemic, with budget cuts and delays in prosecutions. We need governments to publicly highlight the importance of defenders."
After Colombia (65), the countries with the most killings in 2020 were; Mexico (30), Philippines (29), Brazil (20), Honduras (17), Congo (15), Guatemala (13), Nicaragua (12) and Peru (6). Last year was also the most deadly on record. More than 2,000 activists have now been killed in 64 countries around the world between 2002 and 2020.
At 697, Brazil has the most victims, followed by Colombia with 317. Global Witness said extractive industries are complicit in the violence since their economic models "prioritise profits over human rights and the environment''.
A third of the leaders killed in 2020 belonged to indigenous communities, particularly in South and Central America, an increase on 2019 figures. Indigenous peoples were the target of five of the seven mass killings recorded in 2020.
As in recent years, nearly 9 out of 10 victims were men. Women, however, face gender-specific forms of violence and a twofold challenge in participating in the public struggle to protect land as well as the less visible struggle to defend their right to speak out within their communities and families, the report said.
"Nature is not an endless reservoir from which foreign companies can take all the resources they want. Latin American governments have to change the way they relate to nature," said Juan Lopez of the Guanipol community in Honduras, who has been attacked for opposing a mine.
In the Escazú Agreement, Latin America already has a key tool for providing greater protection for environmental defenders, the report said. It is the first regional environmental accord in Latin America and entered into force in April after 12 countries ratified it.
The agreement aims to guarantee the "full and effective" implementation of the rights of access to environmental information, public participation and access to justice. It also seeks to strengthen cooperation and citizens’ capacity to uphold the right to live in a healthy environment.
By giving legitimacy to environmental defenders, Escazú should play an important role in ending environmental conflicts in Latin America. However, its long-term success will depend on the political will of the signatory countries to implement it, according to activists.
"Escazú has helped a lot in building a better narrative around the role of environmental defenders. There is greater public awareness of their importance," said Gómez Peña.
Peru, Guatemala, Brazil and Colombia have not ratified the agreement, citing concerns about sovereignty, legal insecurity and commercial interests. Chile, El Salvador and Honduras, meanwhile, have refused to even sign it.
In Colombia, mass protests against President Iván Duque in 2019 included demand for the country to sign Escazú, prompting the conservative leader to heed protestors’ calls late that year. It made Colombia the most recent signatory but both houses of congress must now approve the signing before it faces a constitutional court review.
Madden said that implementation of national laws is very important now Escazú has entered into force but it still faces other hurdles: "We hope Escazú will make a difference. It is an historic agreement that covers the whole region and the challenge now is to bring the remaining countries on board."