Some 200 environmental and land-rights activists were killed in 2016, making it the deadliest year on record as an intensifying battle over shrinking natural resources and climate-cooling forests leads to more clashes.
The death toll, tallied by the UK-based group Global Witness, is the highest since the group began tracking deaths in 2012. The largest number of deaths involved protesters opposing the mining and oil industries. A growing number were linked to efforts to fight off deforestation or encroachment of agricultural companies onto indigenous lands, where native forests act as important carbon sinks.
The numbers are climbing and so is the reach. Global Witness found that environmental activists were murdered in 24 countries last year, up from 16 countries in 2015. Brazil suffered the most, with 49 deaths.
Ben Leather, a campaigner with Global Witness, says he believes the violence is spreading largely because murders are going unpunished. “That sends a message to perpetrators that they can brutally silence these people and get away with it,” Leather said.
Nearly 40 percent of those killed were from indigenous tribes or communities, a number that could have significant consequences for climate-stabilizing forests. Researchers have found that old-growth forests store more carbon than replanted ones. Many of those native forests are collectively managed by indigenous people. A 2016 analysis found that indigenously managed forest accounted for a quarter of all carbon stored in tropical forests—nearly 55,000 million metric tons, about four times the carbon emissions emitted in 2014.
“These people have a role in slowing the impact of climate change,” Leather said. “Many of these activists are effectively land-rights activists. What we’re talking about is land-grabs—that’s definitely the case with agribusiness. But the impact is, once that land is grabbed, native trees and ecosystems are destroyed to plant crops.”
“Even if the priority is their land, the knock-on effect is that they’re protecting the environment,” Leather added….