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Global Witness Report

Nonhle Mbuthuma leads the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which opposes the excavation of dunes and plains along South Africa’s Wild Coast by mining developments. Communities’ fears of forced evictions and damage to the region’s ecology is exacerbated by increased violence, threats and the suspicious murder of the group’s former leader Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe. Nonhle has been warned she is next on the hit list. Nonetheless, she is pushing ahead with a legal challenge that aims to assert the right to free, prior and informed consent for local indigenous groups.

At What Cost?

Irresponsible business and the murder of land and environmental defenders in 2017

Below are excerpts from the Global Witness report. To download the full report click here.


The food on our plates, the rings on our fingers and the wooden furniture in our homes: all too often there is a violent reality behind household items we use everyday. As agribusiness booms, tropical forests are logged and mining continues
to deliver huge revenue to major global corporations, there are increasingly brutal attacks on land and environmental defenders.

We’re calling on governments and business to take responsibility, prioritise defenders, and:

> Tackle the root causes of violence against defenders, especially the lack of free, prior and informed consent from communities for the use of their land and natural resources.

> Support and protect defenders at risk so they can carry out their advocacy in safety.

> Ensure accountability so that those responsible for attacks on defenders are brought to justice; and so that there are consequences for those who fail to protect activists and for companies who don’t do proper due diligence of their supply chains.

Consumers can play their part too, demanding guarantees that the products they buy are not associated with land-grabbing, forcible evictions or attacks on defenders.

Despite the odds they face, the global community of environmental and land defenders is not going away – it’s only getting stronger. We will campaign alongside them, taking their struggle to the corridors of power and the boardrooms of corporations. We will not tire in our fight to ensure that their voices are heard.


1. At least 207 defenders were murdered in 2017 – the deadliest year on record.

2. Agribusiness was the most dangerous sector, overtaking mining for the first time ever, with 46 defenders killed protesting against the way goods we consume are being produced.

3. More massacres occurred in 2017 than ever before: Global Witness documented seven cases in which more than four defenders were killed at the same time.

4. Almost 60% of the murders registered in 2017 were fromLatin America.

5. Brazil saw the most deaths ever registered in one year in any country (57), while the Philippines saw more killings in 2017 than ever seen in an Asian country (48).

6. Mexico got a lot worse in 2017, with an increase from three to 15 killings compared to 2016.

7. There was a large decrease in killings of land and environmental defenders in Honduras, although repression of civil society in general is worse than ever.

8. Some increased recognition and action was taken by governments and business, but much more must be done.

9. Widespread impunity makes it difficult to identify perpetrators, but Global Witness was able to link government security forces to 53 of the killings, and non-state actors to 90.

10. Documenting and verifyingcases, particularly in Africa, continues to prove difficult.

Why our figures on Africa might not add up

Compared with Latin America and south-east Asia, [in Africa] there are fewer civil society organisations and journalists documenting attacks against land and environmental defenders specifically, and they may feel less free to speak out without fear of reprisals. There may also be less information and reporting from isolated rural areas where killings may take place, compared to other regions.

It is therefore difficult to obtain evidence from many African countries. Less local documentation means we do not have as strong a network of contacts in Africa as we do elsewhere, and much of our information comes from the International Ranger Federation182 and its charitable arm, the Thin Green Line Foundation,183 which support one subgroup of land and environmental defenders: park rangers. Seventeen out of the 19 killings we documented in 2017 were of people struggling against poaching and for the protection of wildlife – usually in protected areas – so our sources may well influence our statistics.

It can be difficult to disentangle the different reasons why someone was killed: we may know that a defender was murdered, but not have sufficient evidence to show it was because of their work as a defender. To include cases

Defending land, life and equality

 A formidable Brazilian defender, Maria do Socorro Costa da Silva is the target of death threats, intrusions into her home, and has felt the barrel of a pistol against her face. Despite these threats, she leads Cainquiama, a coalition of tens of thousands of the Amazon’s most persecuted indigenous and other communities. Working together in Pará, the deadliest state in Brazil for environmental defenders, they demand recognition of their land rights and the right to a clean environment in the face of large-scale ‘development’ projects and pollution of water-sources.

Women are often at the forefront of struggles to protect their ancestral lands and the environment. This frequently puts them on a collision course with industries that devastate natural resources in the name of ‘development’. The critical leadership role they play comes at a high price that is often invisible.

Many women are at a distinct disadvantage at the outset of their land or environmental activism. They are frequently excluded from land ownership,194 as well as community negotiations about the future of their lands and natural resources. When they dedicate time to activism, they are sometimes criticised for neglecting their children and domestic duties. On the other hand, the combined impact of domestic and community care, together with activism, can create a huge physical and emotional burden.

“There are those who continue to believe that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Community affairs are discussed in circles that are exclusively the domain of men, and women have no access. This is used as a reason to exclude women from talks regarding resources.” Angeline Leguuto, Kenya 195

Women defenders often have to fight a battle on two fronts: the public struggle to protect natural resources, and the hidden struggle to defend their right to speak out within their own organisations and families. Women defenders rarely receive the same level of support as their male colleagues because their communities are often dominated by patriarchal, macho culture. This means that the role that women defenders play is often not recognised, and their communities, organisations and families sometimes even actively hide the violence which women can face.

What needs to be done?

Land and environmental defenders will only be able to carry out their activism safely when a range of actors take action to prevent attacks against them, protect those defenders who are at risk, and react when threats do occur.

With this in mind, we have grouped our recommendations along the following lines:

> Tackle Root Causes: The only effective
prevention in the long-term. This means combatting corruption and impunity, securing and respecting land titles, and guaranteeing the right of affected communities to give or with hold their free, prior and informed consent regarding the use of their land and natural resources.

> Support and Protect: A range of measures can
be taken by business and governments to recognise publically the important role of defenders, advocate for their protection, provide them with the tools they need to carry out their activism effectively, and guarantee their safety when they are at risk.

> Ensure accountability: In order to prevent future threats and dissuade would-be aggressors, those responsible for attacks on defenders must be brought to justice, while those who fail to support and protect them should face political, financial and judicial consequences.


States (through their governments) have the primary duty, under international law, to guarantee that human rights defenders can carry out their activism safely. However, land and environmental defenders face specific and heightened risks because they are challenging business interests.

There are a range of actors who can influence business projects. Therefore there are a range of actors who can – and must – act to keep defenders safe.

Companies, investors and bilateral aid and trade partners, have a responsibility – as well as a business incentive – to take action alongside national and local governments to protect defenders and respect their rights.

Explore the full report here.

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