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Latin America’s land ‘defenders’ attacked most, rights group says

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Individuals trying to protect their land or the environment were killed at the rate of one every other day in 2022, led by deaths in Latin America, the human rights non-profit group Global Witness reported.

At least 177 people described as “defenders”, identified as those who were attempting to prevent their land or homes from environmental degradation, were victims of targeted violence last year, the group said.

In the decade since it started to document the deaths, the campaign group has recorded a total of almost 2,000 killings.

Although it was often difficult to establish the exact circumstances behind the attacks, about 10 per cent were linked to agriculture, mining and logging interests.

Global Witness said demand for minerals for renewable energy technology meant that parts of south-east Asia, such as northern Myanmar and neighbouring China, were now the sites of illegal mining, fuelling the violence.

“As demand outstrips supply, governments and companies move to take advantage of ‘new frontiers’ of opportunity in mining across the region — often without cleaning up problems at the root of the supply chain,” the group said. 

More than a third of victims in 2022 were indigenous, and about a fifth were small-scale farmers. However, lawyers and journalists have also become targets: Guardian contributor Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenist Bruno Pereira were found shot while reporting on environmental abuses in Brazil.

Latin America accounted for 88 per cent of killings documented. The worst toll was in Colombia where 60 deaths were recorded, twice the number of the previous year. Brazil and Mexico followed with 34 and 31 fatalities each. In Asia, the Philippines accounted for most of the 16 deaths.

Political instability in parts of Latin America and Africa provided the backdrop to the deaths, campaigners said.

Ana Maria Rodriguez, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, said that in her country the delay to the implementation of the peace agreement between the government and the National Liberation Army had led to vacuums of authority where new armed groups preyed on land defenders. 

“The dynamics of the conflict have changed,” she said. “And in the middle of the combat are communities who have been left on their own.”

In West Africa, documentation of activist welfare was “serious and challenging” as the recent “upsurge in military takeovers has blown up the civic space,” said Peter Quaqua, from Green Advocates International, a Liberian environmental and human rights group.

Global Witness also noted that non-lethal attacks on activists were increasing, suppressing their efforts through intimidation and imprisonment. 

Chad Booc, a 27-year-old Filipino computer science graduate and advocate for the Lumad indigenous peoples, was accused in 2021 of kidnapping and radicalising children and imprisoned for three months before the charges against him were eventually dropped. A year later, he was found dead.

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