Latin America is, by an overwhelming margin, the deadliest part of the world for environmental activists, with countries in the region accounting for seven of the top 10 in a grim new ranking.
A new report by Global Witness found that at least 1,733 land and environmental protectors had been slain around the world in the past decade. Over two-thirds of the murders took place in Latin America, and Indigenous peoples were the victims 39 percent of the time.
Between 2012 and 2021, Latin American nations accounted for seven of the top 10 deadliest countries for environmental activism. Brazil recorded the most homicides and Colombia came second, while Mexico (4), Honduras (5), Guatemala (6), Nicaragua (9), and Peru (10) also featured. Venezuela placed 11th.
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While Colombia had topped the ranking in 2020, Mexico was the worst country for environmental defenders in 2021, responsible for 54 of the 200 killings of activists registered globally last year. This was an increase from 30 killings in 2020 and the third year in a row that violence against environmental activists in the country has risen.
At the same time, Latin America contains “around 60 percent of global terrestrial life,” according to the United Nations Environment Program. Criminal actors eager for economic gain exploit the region’s extraordinary natural wealth and come into conflict with environmental protectors. The outcome is often violent.
InSight Crime Analysis
Despite years of dominating these rankings, those seeking to harm environmental activists do so with near-total impunity.
Global Witness focused on the suffering of Indigenous communities in the country, particularly the plight of the Yaqui Indigenous group in the northern state of Sonora. In July, 10 Yaqui men disappeared, with the remains of six of them being found in September. This was but one of the repeated attacks the Yaqui have faced from drug traffickers and those seeking to drive them from their lands.
The report found that even activists who had faced repeated and targeted threats for years were unable to find protection. In November 2021, Irma Galindo Barrios, an activist from the Mixtec Indigenous community, went missing after years of threats and harassment. She has never been found.
Not all these murders are caused by organized crime. The report noted a lack of consultation between Indigenous communities and leaders of large-scale extractive projects, and the threats to land protectors that commonly occur in relation to them. Canadian mining companies, for example, have come under fire for their alleged involvement in the deaths of several activists.
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Colombia remains near the top of the list despite the end of the 50-year armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) six years ago.
In territory once controlled by the FARC, the guerrilla group often protected the environment, preventing illegal deforestation and mining. Since then, the fragmented ex-FARC mafia, the loosely connected network of groups that refused to demobilize, do not share the same interest in caring for the rainforest. Cultivation of coca crops has soared in Colombia's protected natural parks, the profits to be drawn from illegal mining have attracted plenty of criminal interests, and deforestation is at near-record highs. This has caused plenty of deaths of environmental defenders, including park rangers, Indigenous peoples, members of Afro-Colombian communities, and demobilized former FARC fighters.
Brazil, the most biodiverse country in the world, also saw the greatest levels of violence against land and environment protectors of the last ten years. Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is driven by illegal logging, illegal mining, and drug trafficking that works hand-in-hand with cattle ranching -- “the main motor for illegal land grabs in the Amazon,” InSight Crime reported.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has attempted to walk back environmental safeguards during his time in power, has criticized natural preserves, and supported the clearing of forest land for the cattle industry. Under his watch, the line between criminality and the state has been blurred as instances of state-sanctioned land grabs have grown.
Again, Indigenous groups are directly in the firing line. Incursions by illegal miners onto Yanomami lands in the northern state of Roraima have led to regular shootouts with victims on both sides. And the entry of Brazil's largest criminal group, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC), into illegal mining threatens to make this worse.
For Global Witness, corporations are as much of a risk to the lives of Indigenous and environmental activists as organized crime. "The blurring of Brazilian agribusiness and state-sponsored terror on Indigenous lands ... has significantly worsened under the Bolsonaro regime," it found. This only drives home just how crucial the current Brazilian presidential election is for the Amazon itself as well as for all those who live in it.
But Latin America's problems run deeper than Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil. Nicaragua saw 15 members of its Miskitu and Mayangna Indigenous peoples killed in 2021. These communities have seen their lands systematically encroached upon and opposition is brutally repressed. The impunity which these invaders feel was encapsulated by a sign left on an illegal land claim in August.
"No Mayangna should come here because they will be killed," the message read on KiwaKumbaih Hill, an area where 12 Indigenous members were murdered last year. KiwaKumbaih Hill is a holy site for the Mayangna and a traditional hunting and fishing site for the community.