World Rainforest Movement

Killings worldwide – the toll of land grabbing

Land grabbing is characterized by the acquisition of vast areas of land in countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia for a variety of different uses, including large-scale monoculture plantations, mining, tourism, hydroelectric power plants and food production for export, among others, by companies, investment funds and financial markets in general (see WRM Bulletin Nº 177). This has wide implications on communities and their forests, livelihoods, traditional knowledge and indeed, on their present and their future.

One of the direct impacts of the corporate assault on life and nature is the death toll of people that are resisting it.

A new report from Global Witness highlights the intensification of violence against land, forest and mining activists around the world.

Global Witness has recently published a valuable report, “A Hidden Crisis? Increase in killings as tensions rise over land and forests”, which highlights the rising violence and human rights violations that come with the growing competition for land and forests.

What follows is an edited excerpt from the briefing, which is available at

Global Witness counted the numbers of people killed over the past decade (years 2002-2011 inclusive) defending their human rights or the human rights of others related to the environment, specifically land and forests. These rights include enjoyment of a healthy environment as well as the rights of indigenous peoples to their land and its resources, including forests; the right to life, livelihood and freedom of expression.

Across the world, Global Witness’s research found 711 individuals reported as killed in the past decade – an average of more than one killing per week. Of these, 106 people were killed in 2011 – nearly twice the death toll in 2009. It includes those killed in targeted attacks and violent clashes as a result of protests, investigating or taking grievances against mining operations, logging operations, intensive agriculture including ranching, tree plantations, hydropower dams, urban development and poaching.

Killings took a variety of forms, including clashes between communities and state security forces, disappearances followed by confirmed deaths, deaths in custody, or one-off or multiple targeted assassinations.

The briefing shows that there is an alarming lack of systematic information on killings in many countries, and no specialized monitoring at the international level. These figures are therefore likely to be a gross underestimate of the number and extent of killings. The investigation also reveals that the countries with the highest reports of killings are Brazil, Peru, Colombia and the Philippines. In these and other countries (e.g., Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia) there are continuing concerns about domestic and foreign private sector involvement in these killings.

The survey did not find high levels of killings in Africa. The interpretation is that this could be due to lower levels of rights awareness and reporting activity in rural areas of the continent. It is also likely to be due to factors such as high levels of state ownership of land and forests. For example, in Africa the area of forest administered by governments is 98% of the total, whereas it is 66% in Asia and 33% in Latin America. Global Witness’ report found that the predominance of state ownership of land and forests in Africa may have contributed to disempowering poor, rural populations who are then less likely to pursue grievances.

Another trend identified is that a culture of impunity, especially strong in many countries, contributes to low levels of convictions.

These trends are symptomatic of the increasingly fierce competition for resources, and the brutality and injustice that come with it.

The pressure on the finite assets of land and forests has already taken its toll – only 20% of the world’s original forest remains intact and 25% of land has become increasingly degraded in the past 20 years. Yet global demand for land and forests (for food, fuel, fibre and other resources) is predicted to increase – pushing the frontiers of investment further into areas with inadequate governance, tenure rights and rule of law. As this competition intensifies, it is local rural populations and activists who find themselves in the firing line.

At the global level, it is well known that the main driver of demand for land is agribusiness, and global demand is increasing exponentially, with the World Bank reporting a fourfold increase in global large-scale farmland investments between 2001 and 2009. Africa has received the majority of such investment (62% of projects covering a total of 56.2 million hectares) followed by 17.1 million hectares in Asia and 7 million hectares in Latin America.

From Cambodia to Peru, rural communities face more extreme intimidation, violence, forced evictions and killings. Deals are often agreed in secret between government officials, elites and the private sector, while local communities who directly live off the land or forest, and often actually own it, are afforded no rights or meaningful say in the matter. Very often, these communities stand to gain little or nothing from the investment.

Reports of killings carried out by men in uniforms, acting on behalf of private sector interests and/or governments, featured more commonly in Brazil, Cambodia, Colombia, Indonesia, Peru and the Philippines. In the Philippines where “involuntary disappearance” has only recently become a crime, 50 killings occurred in the past decade, but not a single case has led to a prosecution.

Professor Bill Kovarik of Radford University, who has undertaken research on killings in Asia and Latin America, commented: “There is no question that we are seeing a statistically significant rise in the number of environmentally related murders being reported in the local Asian and Latin American media. It’s difficult to know whether that is because there are more murders or whether it has now become more difficult for these things to be ignored. That can only be discovered with further research. But we are, in any case, obliged to consider these human rights violations as part of an emerging and now visible pattern.”

The briefing provides more detailed accounts of the killings of Chut Wutty from Cambodia, Frédéric Moloma Tuka from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nísio Gomes from Brazil, and Eliezer “Boy” Billanes from the Philippines.

An article in The Guardian ( tells the story of José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo, murdered for their struggle against logging and agribusiness activities in Brazil.

All of them are no longer mere figures; they have become the faces of the many community leaders, indigenous people and activists who will be remembered not only for their deaths, but also, and especially, for their lives.

(photo by Global Witness)