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.
Global Witness researchers rely on networks of activists on the ground in countries across the world. They acknowledge that getting precise information on the motivation for a murder or the precise perpetrator is challenging. But inclusion in the report is based on a clear link to environmental activism, Leather said.
The report found that 33 activists protesting against extraction industries—oil and mining—were murdered in 2016, and the number of logging industry protesters killed rose from 15 to 23. Twenty-three agribusiness protesters were found murdered.
Brazil remained the deadliest country, with 49 environmental and land-rights activists killed last year—16 of them for fighting expanding agribusiness and logging. Sixty percent of the people killed were from Latin America; Nicaragua was the worst location per capita, with 11 killings in 2016.
But the report also pointed out that environmental activists are increasingly threatened in developed countries, too.
"Developed countries are ramping up other methods to suppress activists, notably in the U.S., where environmental defenders are being given every reason to protest by the Trump administration," the report said. "It is increasingly clear that, globally, governments and businesses are failing in their duty to protect activists at risk."