Why you should care
Last year was the deadliest year on record.
In July 2016, on the banks of the Madeira River in the Brazilian Amazon, the local fishing community came across a harrowing sight: the body of their friend and community leader, Nilce de Souza Magalhães, with her hands and feet tied to rocks, presumably acting as weights. Tragically, she was found in the waters of the Jirau hydroelectric dam — the project she was a leader in fighting against, along with grassroots group the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB).
According to a study published in July by the nongovernmental organization Global Witness, Brazil is the world’s most dangerous country for land defenders (environmental or land rights activists). And last year was the deadliest and most global year on record:
In 2016 there were 200 land defenders murdered in 24 countries.
That’s compared to 185 murders in 16 countries in 2015. And that’s just the reported deaths, so the number could be higher.
At the heart of most of the conflicts: the battle between local communities and companies implementing extraction operations on the land they call home. “The scramble for natural resources around the globe is intensifying,” says Benjamin Leather, a Global Witness campaigner and the co-author of the study. “Resources are depleting and demand is increasing — more companies are encroaching on previously untouched areas, and that means new communities are on the front lines of this battle.”
The dizzying number of companies, consortiums, government entities and militias that can be involved make it difficult to place blame.
Which is a familiar situation for Brazil. With the lion’s share of the Amazon rainforest and the wetlands and plains of the Pantanal, these areas are ripe for natural-resource exploration and deforestation. Forty-nine land defenders were killed in the country in 2016, according to the study. “Brazil is a hostage to commodities,” says João Dutra, the local coordinator of MAB, who used to work alongside Magalhães. In September reports surfaced of a suspected massacre of an isolated tribe in the Brazilian Amazon by illegal gold miners in the Javari Valley.
Magalhães and Dutra come from Rondônia, a small state in the Brazilian Amazon that borders Bolivia. The remote location — “the backcountry of the backcountry,” Dutra says — means there is little access to information, and legal assistance and governability tend to be weaker. Add to that: The dizzying number of companies, consortiums, government entities and militias that can be involved make it difficult to place blame. “There are instances where the triggerman may get arrested, but they don’t arrest the mastermind,” Leather says. “The high levels of impunity make it harder to know what the chain of command is.”
The highest murder rate of land defenders per capita, with 11 deaths, was in Nicaragua. The study also showed an alarming spike in deaths in Colombia, where the battle for land has intensified after the landmark peace deal with the FARC, which left swaths of land up for grabs. In Asia, the Philippines and India had the highest murder rates, mostly linked to the mining sector.
Curbing this global trend is no simple task. The authors of the study recommend a key first step: Governments need to recognize that there’s a problem and make a commitment to tackle it. It also calls for greater responsibility from the parent companies and investors, who may not be aware of what’s happening in the field.
Brazil’s federal public prosecutor’s office recognized these results in a press release, where it promised to combat violence in the countryside through open dialogue with civil society groups, and to use its resources to defend against any government actions that attempt to dismantle agrarian reform. Officials from the state of Rondônia declined to comment.
Dutra’s advice: Land defenders need to unite with others and make themselves known through protests and media appearances. “Our protection is really just ourselves,” he says.