The Philippines has replaced Brazil as the most murderous country in the world for people defending their land and environment, according to research that putting the spotlight on the government of President Rodrigo Duterte. In the Philippines, 30 defenders were killed last year. A third of the deaths were on the island of Mindanao, which is at the centre of the Duterte administration’s plans to allocate 1.6m hectares of land to industrial plantations. Half of the deaths in the Philippines were related to agribusiness.
For the first time since the annual toll began in 2012, Brazil did not top the list. Campaigners fear last year’s decline in Brazil could be short-lived if a new phase of conflict erupts as a result of President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to weaken indigenous territorial rights and protections for nature reserves. Underlining these concerns last week, Emyra Waiãpi, an indigenous leader, was murdered in the Waiãpi indigenous reserve in the state of Amapá ahead of an invasion by dozens of illegal miners.
Global Witness said companies and governments were increasingly using non-lethal tactics to quash dissent, including criminalisation and threats, while killings remain at an alarmingly high level. It is also possible that land-grabbers now have more power to get what they want without resorting to violence, because the agricultural lobby has an increasingly dominant position in politics.
Globally, mining was the sector responsible for the most killings – 43. But the sharpest rise was in murders of people trying to protect water sources, which increased from four to 17. This included conflicts over hydropower in Guatemala, the country that witnessed the sharpest spike in killings, from three to 16, making it the deadliest country per capita, according to Global Witness.
“Overall, there is no sign that the underlying causes of violence are improving. In fact, they look to be worsening. Governments in some of the worst-affected countries, from Brazil to Mexico to India, are prioritising business opportunities for extractives and agricultural companies over the protection of the environment and human rights, setting the stage for more conflict over land. This is being matched with a global crackdown on protest and freedom of expression, from recognised authoritarian regimes like China and Russia to longstanding democracies like the US,” said Alice Harrison, a senior campaigner at Global Witness. “Likewise, the use of courts to criminalise defenders is another weapon of oppression that’s being used in both the global south and north against people who threaten the power and profits of government and big business.”