Nearly four people were murdered each week last year while defending their homes, lands and forests from mining, dams and agricultural projects,. At least 200 people were killed in 2016, according to human rights watchdog Global Witness. It said in its annual report that the phenomenon of violence against land rights activists is not only growing but spreading, with murders recorded in 24 countries, compared to 16 nations last year.
"This tide of violence is driven by an intensifying fight for land and natural resources, as mining, logging, hydro-electric and agricultural companies trample on people and the environment in their pursuit of profit," the report said.
Brazil remains the deadliest country in terms of sheer numbers. Activists say impunity for powerful ranchers in remote regions like the Amazon, coupled with the growing power of Brazil's farm lobby in congress, is fuelling land violence. "Here, the law only belongs to the powerful," Maristela Lopes da Silva, an activist with the Rural Workers Union in Boca do Acre told the Thomson Reuters Foundation "The government only issues measures to favor big ranchers," she said.
New measures signed by Brazilian President Michel Temer allow rural property owners to regularise up to 2,500 hectares of public land if they have been farming it, up from the current 1,500 hectares. Critics say the rule will allow large farmers to claim swathes of land occupied by smallholder farmers. "The new limit of 2,500 hectares could contribute to increasing violence, impunity and a lack of justice in land claims," said Josinaldo Aleixo, a sociologist with the International Institute of Education in Brazil. "Areas that large are only claimed by big ranchers."
Nicaragua has overtaken Honduras as the most dangerous place for activists per capita. Nearly 60 percent of all killings occurred in Latin America. Brazil fared worse with 49 deaths followed by Colombia with 37 activists murdered, Honduras 14 and Nicaragua 11. In the Philippines, 28 activists died defending their lands. The report also noted a spike in killings in India which it attributed to increased police repression of peaceful protest and civic activism.
The report found 33 murders were linked to mining - the bloodiest industry - while logging and defending national parks has become riskier with a rise in deaths to 23 from 15. Global Witness highlighted the vulnerability of park rangers, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo where nine were killed last year.
While almost 40 percent of those murdered were indigenous, the report said, the wave of violence is not confined solely to developing nations.
"Developed countries are ramping up other methods to suppress activists, notably in the United States, where environmental defenders are being given every reason to protest by the Trump administration," the report said. "It is increasingly clear that globally, governments and companies are failing in their duty to protect activists at risk. They are permitting a level of impunity that allows the vast majority of perpetrators to walk free, emboldening would-be assassins."