Global Witness releases report on increased murders of activists

Tuesday, 15 April, 2014

Making headlines today in the extractive industry news pool is Global Witness’ release in the early hours of this morning that reveals a ‘dramatic’ rise in the murders of ‘environmentalists and land defenders’.

The culprit was not so much any group, state or organization, but a principle, a trend: the huge competition for land. Yet within this trend, the usual figures appear with extractive, agricultural and timber industries allegedly the main drivers.

Global Witness have uncovered 908 killings between 2002 and 2013 in a comprehensive analysis that demonstrated a worrying upward trend as land competition intensifies.

They called on companies to refuse all projects that have not been certifiably accepted by communities with free, prior and informed consent, as well as refraining from operating in militarized areas, more supply chain due diligence, and adoption of relevant human rights standards.

Some of the case studies provided by Global Witness are harrowing and do not need mentioning here. Anonymous death squads constitute the majority perpetrators, with state and security forces the remainder.

The report was released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the murder of environmental activist Chico Mendes in Brazil, whose high profile death galvanized activists worldwide.

But it also comes a year before the 20th anniversary of Nigerian activist Ken Saro Wiwa’s execution by the Nigerian state, having fought against Shell’s oil production in the notorious Delta region. The anniversary of his death next year is likely to receive a large global commemoration.

Both cases show that the problem stretches back, so far in fact, that the increase in killings suggests the planet has failed to address the issue. Although the majority of cases are overwhelmingly in South America and South East Asia – regions which have a history of death squads – Global Witness stresses that global ignorance has played a part:

“A final consideration is a lack of attention currently paid to the issue by the international community… Far too little is being done to tackle this problem at all levels – and this must change. Large land and resource deals continue to be struck behind closed doors, without the consent of those who live on the land concerned, or sufficient consideration of the human and environmental cost.”

Whilst the demand for land increases, the demand tends to be in regions with poor and badly defined land rights, and contested ownership; particularly in Africa, South East Asia and parts of South America. It is a cruel result, but perhaps predictable considering the underdevelopment that has complemented the lack of land rights.

Global Witness concludes in “calling for a more coordinated and concerted effort to monitor and tackle this crisis,” besides improving private and public sector practice. Might a global land rights initiative be feasible? A body not dissimilar to the World Health Organization or the F.A.O that focuses on establishing clearer, fairer land rights and tenancies on sub-national level? If the demand for land is set to spur conflict to the extent that some commentators are saying then surely a pre-emptive resolution council of the ICJ mould is a must.