Latin America is the Most Lethal Region in the World for Land Defenders

Cover photo: More than 70% of the killings of land and environmental defenders in 2022 occurred in only three countries: Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico. Felipe Luna/Global Witness

Latin America continues being the most lethal region for land and environmental defenders, alerts the human rights organization, Global Witness. According to research carried out by the organization in 18 countries in different parts of the world, at least 177 defenders have lost their lives in 2022, 88% of the assassinations occurring in Latin America.

More than a third, 36%, of the assassinated defenders were Indigenous, and 7% Afro-descendants. More than a fifth, 22%, were small scale farmers. All of them depended on their lands and natural resources to live.

Global Witness has documented the violence and assassinations against land defenders since 2012. “The world has radically changed since we began this work in 2012. What remains immutable is the persistence of the assassinations,” explains the organization in the report.

Since 2012, Global Witness took note of 1,910 assassinations, with 70%, or 1,335 assassinations occurring in Latin America. Furthermore, the organization registered that, of the 1,910 assassinations, 1,390 took place between the approval of the Paris Climate Accords, on December 12, 2015, and December 31, 2022.

The 2022 figures are slightly lower compared to 2021, when 200 people were assassinated. However, the situation has not improved substantially, alerts the organization. “The worsening of the climate crisis and growing demand for agricultural products, fuels, and minerals, will only intensify the pressure exercised upon the environment, and on those who risk their lives to defend it. In addition, non-lethal strategies are increasingly being used to silence defenders, such as criminalization, digital harassment and attacks.”

Year after year, the majority of assassinations are concentrated in the same countries. More than 70% of the cases—125 assassinations of the total 177—occurred in three countries: Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico.

Colombia leads the world ranking with 60 assassinations. This number is almost double the killings that took place in 2021, when 33 defenders were killed. Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendent communities, who usually engage in small scale farming and defense of the environment, “have been hit hard.”

In Brazil, 34 defenders have lost their lives, compared to 26 in 2021. “The Brazilian defenders had to face unrelenting hostility from the government of the then president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose politics exposed the Amazon to exploitation and destruction, weakening environmental institutions, and inciting illegal invasions of Indigenous lands,” says the document.

Illegal mining exploitation in Indigenous Yanomami territory in Brazil. 2023. Photo: Alan Chaves

Mexico, the country with the most assassinations in 2021, registered a drop, from 54 homicides in 2021 to 31 in 2022. At least 16 of the people assassinated were Indigenous, while four of them were lawyers. “Nevertheless, the general situation in Mexico remained alarming for land and environmental defenders, and non-lethal aggressions (among them intimidation, threats, forced displacement, and criminalization) continued to greatly hinder their work,” the organization notes.

In Honduras, 14 assassinations were registered in 2022, the highest number defenders assassinated per capita in the world. “Xiomara Castro, the first female president of Honduras, has pledged to protect defenders. However, early trends in 2023 point to the persistence of generalized violence, as killings and non-fatal assaults have been reported throughout the country,” the organization explains.

Julia Francisco Martínez, widow of human rights defender, Francisco Martínez Márquez, member of the group in defense of Indigenous rights MILPAH, who was found murdered in 2015. Giles Clarke/Global Witness

The organization highlights that the numbers only count known killings, given that underreporting is a generalized problem. “Unfortunately, many more lives have been lost that are not included in our data.”

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