21st Sep 2021

2020 saw record number of climate activists murdered

  • The Philippines suffers one of the highest rate of environmental killings in the world. (Photo: mansunides)
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Some 227 climate activists were killed in 2020, new figures on Monday (13 September) revealed, up from a previous record of 212 the year before.

Global Witness, an environmental and human rights group, gathered data from across the world involving violent attacks on climate activists and found that on average more than four people died every week while defending the environment.

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At least a third of the attacks were linked to resource extraction: logging, mining, hydroelectric dams and big agriculture, with 99 percent of the killings documented in the Global South (Africa, South-Americas and Asia).

Countries like Colombia, the Philippines and Honduras suffered the highest murder rates among climate activists. Indigenous people represented a third of the people killed while only representing 5 percent of the population.

Beyond killings, Global Witness reports tactics like death threats, surveillance, sexual violence or criminalisation, which are even less well-documented than murders.

Europe, the US and other wealthy northern countries have barely reported any murders connected to environmental activism in their own countries. But they have contributed to the problem in the global south by financing infrastructure projects that later were linked to the targeted killing of environmental activists.

Hydrological and mining projects need large scale investments "across wide supply chains, where inadequate due diligence practices often fail", Global Witness warned.

"Poor risk assessment may not only lead to fatal attacks against indigenous communities but cost huge amounts in both bottom line and reputation."

Although at the moment no European financial institutions are directly linked to any of the 2020 murders, UK and EU financial institutions have in the past been connected to parties responsible for environmental assassinations.

Honduras and Philippines case studies

In 2016 Berta Cáceres was murdered in her sleep in Honduras after opposing the Agua Zarca hydro project - which several European institutions funded.

It turned out that the businessman who ordered the killing received funding from the Dutch Development Bank (FMO).

The bank ended its investment in the project in 2017, a year after the murder. Currently, it is being sued by the Cáceres family in a Dutch court.

Also in 2016, Gloria Capitan was killed in her family's karaoke bar in the Philippines. She was a community activist who had spoken out against a slew of coal facilities in Bataan province that several financial institutions funded. Among them are the UK bank Standard Chartered and the World Bank.

The project has polluted water sources and caused health problems, and the campaign against the coal installations is ongoing, but the UK bank has failed to pay reparation those impacted by environmental damage, and has not officially responded to the assassination.

In March 2019, Standard Chartered said it would no longer provide project finance for any new coal-fired power plants. However, it still offers other financial services and provides over €4bn in lending and underwriting for the top 120 coal-plant developer companies.

The European Commission is currently preparing to publish binding, due-diligence legislation, including an initiative on Sustainable Corporate Governance.

Although Global Witness said on Monday that this legislation could have a positive impact on the security of "environmental defenders", the NGO's CEO, Mike Davis, said he fears the proposal could still be "watered down" because it is overseen by "pro-business" director-general for internal market, Thierry Breton.

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