A new report by the international watchdog group Global Witness says two-thirds of documented killings of environmentalists over the last decade occurred in Latin America and nearly half in Brazil, as environmental campaigns clash with both legal and criminal business interests, especially in the timber trade.
"Deadly Environment" (pdf) documents the killing of 908 citizens protecting land and environmental rights in 35 countries between 2002 and 2013. In the majority of cases, however, the identity of the perpetrators is unknown, and there have been only 10 convictions over that time period, the report says.
Over the course of a decade, the annual number of murders tripled, with 147 in 2012 compared to 51 in 2002. Over the last four years, there has been an average death rate of two activists per week.
Global Witness says Brazil is the most dangerous place for environmental activists, whose 448 cases accounts for just under half of the recorded killings; Honduras is second globally, with 109 cases, while Peru ranked fourth globally with 58 murders, followed by Colombia with 52.
Many of the murders of environmentalists in Latin America are not linked to criminal organizations but to legal business interests, such as victims of land rights disputes in Honduras, or anti-mining protesters murdered in Peru, the report says.
However, organized crime is heavily involved in activities such as eco-trafficking, which are often at the root of the violence. The illegal logging trade in particular is one area where criminal and environmental interests clash, and, according to Global Witness, threats and intimidation by interests linked to the sector are one of the principal causes of activist deaths.
InSight Crime Analysis
The impact of the illegal timber trade -- which is worth up to $30 billion annually and has strong links to organized crime -- is particularly apparent in Brazil, where deforestation, spurred by illegal logging, has been increasing. And Global Witness says land conflicts linked to the Amazon's deforestation accounted for 68 percent of all murders linked to land disputes in Brazil in 2012.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking
The issue rose to prominence in 2011, when Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria Do Espirito Santo da Silva -- two prominent environmentalists who denounced the encroachment of illegal loggers in the northeast Brazilian Amazon state of Para -- were murdered by masked gunmen.
Poor prosecution rates in Brazil -- just one percent of cases resulted in a conviction, according to Global Witness -- and the influence of powerful loggers in isolated rural areas, means most murders of environmental activists go unsolved.