Behind the curtain of COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 227 people were killed in 2020 while they were protecting forests, water and other natural resources under increasing stress from climate change. This made 2020 the deadliest year on record for environmental defenders.
According to the environmental and human rights watchdog Global Witness, it gathered and analysed 2020 data from around the world involving lethal attacks on environmental defenders, and discovered that an average of more than four people a week died while defending the environment.
Global Witness also reported that most of the killings took place in Latin America. Colombia was the worst-affected country with 65 defenders killed for either protecting Indigenous land or defending forests and their coca crops.
It also said that the Philippines was the only country outside the region to record more than 15 deaths. As many as 29 people there were killed for attempting to halt mining, logging, and dam projects.
Together, more than half of the attacks in 2020 took place in those three countries.
The family members of some victims described to Global Witness how lockdowns during the pandemic made it easier for defenders to be attacked in their own homes, targeted for taking on governments and businesses to protect natural resources that their communities rely on.
Speaking to CNN, Chris Madden, one of the report's authors said, "2020 was supposed to be the year the world stood still, but our data shows that this didn't translate to safer outcomes for those standing up for our planet."
"It's clear that the unaccountable exploitation and greed that's driving the climate crisis are also having an increasingly violent impact on people," he added.
More than 70 percent of the attacks were on people defending forests — one of the planet's natural carbon sinks — from further deforestation and industrial development, according to Global Witness.
The report found logging to be the largest sector connected to most of the murder cases, with 23 in Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines collectively, followed by the fight for water rights and against dam building and mining.
Global Witness also said that more than one in 10 of the defenders killed in 2020 were women.
"We know that beyond killings, many defenders and communities also experience attempts to silence them, with tactics like death threats, surveillance, sexual violence, or criminalisation," the authors wrote.
Adrien Salazar, policy director with the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, said the report's findings also reflect what's happening in the United States, where police are cracking down on Indigenous organizers protesting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure like the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota.
While Global Witness has been documenting environmental attacks around the globe since 2012, the group also noted that they may be undercounting the killings, since many parts of the world do not have free press and independent monitoring on attacks.