Climate crisis: 227 activists murdered as firms ignore impact of their activities, says new report

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Fikile Ntshangase, who was fatally shot five times on October 22 2020. Photo: Rob Symons/All Rise
Fikile Ntshangase, who was fatally shot five times on October 22 2020. Photo: Rob Symons/All Rise


Worldwide campaigns against the climate crisis are becoming so risky for activists that 227 campaigners were executed in various countries last year, according to a new Global Witness report.

These land and environment defenders lost their lives protesting the encroachment of big companies on their land to establish businesses that disturb ecosystems vital for biodiversity such as logging, mines, agribusinesses, hydro electric plants and other infrastructure.

The report notes that last year was the worst and most dangerous in five years for activists. The killings averaged four deaths per week.

In South Africa, only two environmental activism-related cases were reported. These include the high profile case of Fikile Ntshangase, who was fatally shot five times on October 22 2020. Ntshangase was among community members opposing the expansion of a large coal mine owned by Tendele Coal Mining (Pty) Ltd in Somkhele near Mtubatuba in KwaZulu-Natal.

Matome Kapa, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, said the report revealed a phenomenon already prevalent in South Africa.

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“Activists, especially those in mining-affected communities, face threats, intimidation and violence as a result of them trying to speak up and protect their rights. They face threats from a variety of sources including the police and there’s often no consequences for perpetrators,” Kapa said.

Countries, especially in South America, reported killings in double digits. Colombia leads the pack with 65 activists murdered, followed by Mexico (30), Philippines (29), Brazil (20), Honduras (17), Guatemala (13) and Nicaragua (12). In Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 15 activists were killed, had the most murders. Uganda only reported one death.

The unaccountable exploitation and greed driving the climate crisis is also having an increasingly violent impact on people
Global Witness report

“We tend to associate the climate crisis with its environmental impacts – unbearable heat, air pollution, rising seas, burning forests or super-storms. Yet the data on attacks against land and environmental defenders, which Global Witness has been recording since 2012, show that the unaccountable exploitation and greed driving the climate crisis is also having an increasingly violent impact on people,” the report reads.

“This is a crisis against humanity. We all depend on the natural world, and when we set about its systematic destruction, people get killed. It may sound simplistic, but it’s a fact worth considering – the process of climate breakdown is violent, and it manifests not just in violence against the natural world, but against people as well.”

The Global Witness found that the profit-seeking corporate companies were central to the problem and recommended urgent and strong legal accountability for corporate actors.

“What is absolutely clear is that businesses have profited from human rights abuses and environmental damage with relative impunity for far too long. At the same time, global businesses are overwhelmingly responsible for runaway the climate challenge – with research showing that just 100 companies have produced 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.”

What is absolutely clear is that businesses have profited from human rights abuses and environmental damage with relative impunity for far too long
Global Witness report

The report found that more than one in 10 of the activists killed last year were women. It adds that while the recorded killings against women appeared lower, those who acted and spoke out might also face gender-specific threats, including sexual violence.

Women’s problems were also compounded by the fact that in many parts of the world, they were still excluded from land ownership and discussions about the use of natural resources.

Each killing, says the report, is a complex and deeply personal tragedy, rooted in a predatory economic model driven by greed.

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“It might feel morbid to record and analyse each death of a land and environmental defender. But it’s important to understand what connects these seemingly disparate cases – the water defenders murdered in northern Mexico, to the South African grandmother shot dead outside her home seemingly for rejecting the expansion of a nearby coal mine.

“Analysing the whole data set helps us understand the overlap between the causes of these attacks, what they represent, what’s at stake and the actions that governments and companies must take to prevent them.”

The Global Witness expects more killings and attacks on activists in the coming years as more land is grabbed, more forests felled in the interest of short-term profits. The climate crisis too will continue to worsen. The report says that the truth about the violence against land and environmental activists mirrored what is known about the climate crisis itself:

Its impacts are unequal

Even though the Global North has extracted natural resources in far greater quantity, it is the far more populous Global South that is suffering the most immediate consequences of global warming on all fronts.

Also, the violence against activists was more prevalent in the Global South where last year, all but one of the 227 killings took place.

The Global North is responsible for 92% of greenhouse emissions responsible for the climate crisis while, the Global South is responsible for just 8%.

Business is responsible

Business, which is often enabled or encouraged by negligent governments, is commonly responsible for the toxic waste, air pollution and mass deforestation destroying the planet and hurting communities across the world.

This devastation is wrought in pursuit of one thing – profit, soaked up almost entirely by the richest 1%, who are today twice as wealthy as 6.9 billion people.

“Because the balance of power is stacked in the favour of corporations, and against communities and individuals, these companies are seldom held to account for the consequences of their commercial activities. It’s rare that anyone is arrested or brought to court for killing defenders. When they are, it’s usually the ones holding the guns, not those who might be otherwise implicated, directly or indirectly, in the crime,” the report found.

Governments are both causing and failing to prevent it

Governments have been all too willing to turn a blind eye and fail in providing their core mandate of upholding and protecting human rights. They are failing to protect defenders – in many cases directly perpetrating violence against them, and in others arguably complicit with business, says the report

Deaths per country
  • 65 – Colombia
  • 30 – Mexico
  • 29 – Philippines
  • 20 – Brazil
  • 17 – Honduras
  • 15 – Democratic Republic of Congo
  • 13 – Guatemala
  • 12 – Nicaragua
  • 4 – India
  • 3 – Indonesia
  • 2 – South Africa and Thailand
  • 1 – Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Kiribati, Iraq, Canada, Costa Rica, Uganda and Sri Lanka.


Sizwe sama Yende 


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