BOGOTA • A record 227 people were killed worldwide last year for their defence of nature - more than four a week on average, and almost three-quarters of them in Latin America, environmental rights organisation Global Witness said.
For the second year in a row, Colombia was the country with the highest number of killings - 65 - while Nicaragua had the highest per-capita rate, with 12 murders, up from five in 2019, the group said in its annual report published yesterday.
Seven of the 10 deadliest countries for land and environmental defenders were in Latin America, with 165 killings recorded, though Global Witness said the number was "almost certainly" an underestimate.
After Colombia, Mexico had the second highest number of deaths globally, with 30.
It was followed by the Philippines (29), Brazil (20), Honduras (17), the Democratic Republic of Congo (15), Guatemala (13), Nicaragua (12), Peru (six) and India (four).
"This is a crisis against humanity," said the report. "Land and environmental defenders that have stood up to powerful interests have paid a heavy price - with their freedom, livelihoods and even their lives."
Repressive governments, added Global Witness, used the global coronavirus outbreak "as an opportunity to clamp down on civil society as companies pushed ahead with destructive projects".
Many activists and communities also experience attempts to silence them through death threats, surveillance, sexual violence or arrests, said the report.
The majority of victims - 71 per cent - had been working to protect forests, while others died for their work to conserve rivers, coastal areas and the oceans.
A third of fatal attacks targeted indigenous peoples, who make up only 5 per cent of the world's population.
"We are indigenous... we know that only the environment can sustain us," Ms Celia Umenza, who agitates against mining and sugarcane farming in the violent south-west of Colombia, told Agence France-Presse.
She has survived three attacks.
In Mexico, where lethal attacks increased 67 per cent from 2019, the Kumeyaay people have organised against a brewing company they accuse of hoarding drinking water. One of their leaders, Mr Oscar Eyraud, was killed last year.
"It was very shocking. A group of people came to his house and killed him with big guns," a friend, Ms Diana Aranguren, told AFP, adding that there has been no progress in the investigation.
The report blamed corporations that it said operated "with almost complete impunity" in countries rich in natural resources.
It added: "It's clear that many companies engage in an extractive economic model that overwhelmingly prioritises profit over human and environmental harm."
Global Witness said 23 people worldwide were killed last year for their activism against logging - the biggest single category - 20 in disputes over water and dams and 17 each for challenging the agribusiness and mining sectors.
It also criticised governments for being "all too willing to turn a blind eye".
The environmental rights group also said the data in its report did not capture the true scale of the problem, given press restrictions or a lack of independent monitoring of attacks in some countries.