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Date of publication: 
January 2012

Global Witness just published an important briefing note on the sharp rise in killings over land and forests over the last years. The briefing note is worth-reading. Few years ago, the Special Rapporteur of the UN Secretary General on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Hina Jilani, affirmed that defenders working on land rights and natural resources are "the second most vulnerable group when it comes to danger of being killed because of their acvities in the defence of human rights" (A/HRC/4/37). Few months ago, the current SR, Margaret Sekaggya, devoted almost an entire report to these defenders (A/HRC/19/55), affirming that States should protect them and combat impunity and violations they suffer from. Finally, the recently approved Voluntary Guidelines contain a strong provision (4.8) affirming that States should respect and protect the civil and political rights of defenders of human rights, including individuals and associations acting in defence of land, fisheries and forests. Still, situation on the ground is drammatically different.     

[From Global Witness] New figures collected by Global Witness on the killings of activists, journalists and community members who were defending rights to land and forests show the true, shocking extent of  competition for access to natural resources. The briefing, A Hidden Crisis?, finds that over 711 people appear to have been killed in the last decade – more than one a week. In 2011 the toll was 106 people, almost doubling over the past three years.

On the eve of the Rio +20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, the briefing warns of a hidden crisis in environmental protection, highlighting a pervasive culture of impunity around such violence, a lack of information, reporting or monitoring of the problem at national and international levels, and the involvement of governments and the domestic and foreign private sector in many killings.

Billy Kyte, campaigner at Global Witness said, “This trend points to the increasingly fierce global battle for resources, and represents the sharpest of wake-up calls for delegates in Rio. Over one person a week is being murdered for defending rights to forests and land.” The research, drawn from consultations with communities, organisations and academics, and collation of online databases, reveals:

  • An alarming lack of information on killings in many countries, and no monitoring at all at the international level. These figures are likely to be a gross underestimate of the extent of the problem;

  • Killings have increased over the past decade, more than doubling over the past three years;

  • A culture of impunity pervades in this area, with few convictions brought against perpetrators;

  • The highest numbers of killings were found in Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines and Peru. In these and other countries (Cambodia, DRC, Indonesia), there are sustained concerns about domestic and foreign private sector involvement in the killings of defenders.

As global consumption increases, the battle for access to land, forests and other natural resources is intensifying with deadly results. Contributory factors include;

  • Increasing agribusiness, logging, mining, hydropower initiatives on contested land and forests;

  • Land ownership concentrated in the hands of elites with strong business and government connections;

  • Large populations of relatively poor and disenfranchised citizens, who are dependent on land or forests for their livelihoods.

Governments must ensure that citizens with concerns over how land and forest are managed can speak out without fear of persecution and that investment projects and land and forest deals are open and fair. This means seeking free, prior and informed consent from affected communities before deals are approved.

Justice and redress must also be delivered for those killed. “The international community must stop perpetuating this vicious contest for forests and land. It has never been more important to protect the environment and it has never been more deadly”, said Kyte.

You can access the brief on the Global Witness' website.

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