At least 227 land and environment defenders were killed in 2020, making it the deadliest year on record — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, according to a report released by international NGO Global Witness this week.
That is more than four people killed per week and likely an undercount, the group stated. The report identifies several high-level findings, including that nearly three out of four killings were in the Americas, and a third of all lethal attacks were against Indigenous peoples. Colombia was named the deadliest with 65 deaths, while Mexico and the Philippines were ranked second and third, respectively, with 30 and 29.
Canadian animal rights activist Regan Russell, who was hit by a transport truck while protesting outside a slaughterhouse in Burlington, Ont., is the only person outside the Global South to be included in the death toll. The driver was reportedly charged with careless driving.
“It might feel morbid to record and analyze each death of a land and environmental defender. But it’s important to understand what connects these seemingly disparate cases — the water defenders murdered in northern Mexico to the South African grandmother shot dead outside her home seemingly for rejecting the expansion of a nearby coal mine,” the report reads.
“It may sound simplistic, but it’s a fact worth considering — the process of climate breakdown is violent, and it manifests not just in violence against the natural world, but against people as well.”
The report says the violence, like the climate crisis itself, has three “core truths”: its impacts are unequal, business is responsible, and governments cause and fail to stop it.
MiningWatch Canada’s Jamie Kneen says only focusing on deaths can hide a lot of harm.
“They can be intimidated, attacked, anything short of being killed and they don't make the list,” he said.
“When you look at pipeline protests, or Grassy Narrows, or any number of places, the weakness of looking at how many people got killed as an indication of how bad things are shows up… Lots of lives can be destroyed without anyone getting shot.”
Jen Moore, associate fellow at the Washington-headquartered Institute for Policy Studies, says Canadians should be concerned about increasing violence around the world, in part because Canadian mining companies play a disproportionately large role in the global mining system.
"Violence, like the climate crisis itself, has three 'core truths': its impacts are unequal; business is responsible; and governments are both causing and failing to stop it," says a report from @Global_Witness. #cdnpoli
“You've got over 1,000 mining companies that list on Canadian stock exchanges –– far more than any other stock exchange in the world –– because of the ease at which they can get financing,” she said.
A study from the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project, published in 2016 and updated in 2017, found 28 Canadian companies linked to violence in Latin America between 2000 and 2015. The report identified 44 deaths, 30 of which it considered “targeted,” as well as 406 injuries, 90 per cent of which occurred during protests. That study also found more mining companies active in Latin America are based out of Canada than any other, at 41 per cent.
“The mining industry has a very close friend in the Canadian state, and has ease of access to capital in Canada, which I think is what has given rise to such a disproportionate role for Canada in the globalized mining industry,” said Moore.
Moore said Canadian mining companies are effectively exporting a model of resource extraction developed at home.
“There is a real neo-colonial face to mining activities in the Global South, and I think Indigenous peoples and affected communities are the first to identify that,” she said.
Canadian firm Tahoe Resources was sued in a British Columbia court by seven Guatemalans who claimed they were shot in 2013 by private security forces while protesting the Escobal silver mine. Escobal is now owned by Vancouver-based Pan American Silver, which bought Tahoe in 2019 and inherited its legal battles. Pan American settled but the terms remain confidential. The company now calls the silver mine a “catalyst” for growing shareholder value in an investor presentation.
A Xinka land defender named Julio David Gonzalez Arango, who was protesting the Escobal silver mine, was nearly shot to death in Guatemala in January.
“Julio David Gonzalez Arango was shot and wounded in his home by armed assailants. In the following days, Juan Eduardo Donis, Pablo Adolfo Valenzuela Lima, and Edwin Alexander Reynoso Bran, members of the peaceful resistance, received death threats,” reads a letter signed by Moore, alongside representatives from MiningWatch Canada, Earthworks, and others, sent to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
“Then, on Feb. 7, Xinka leader and Xinka Parliament employee Luis Fernando Garcia Monroy was threatened by a supporter of the mine near his home. Finally, in April, armed individuals fired three shots at the home of two Xinka representatives involved in the consultation process.”
Pan American says it condemns the violence, and that its human rights policy “specifically commits to respect and not interfere with anyone who (acts) to promote or protect human rights through peaceful and lawful means.”
The president of the Shuar Arutam people, Josefina Tunki, says she has faced death threats for opposition to Vancouver-based Solaris Resources, which is trying to develop a major copper mine in Ecuador.
A letter dated Aug. 26 sent to Canadian Ambassador to Ecuador Sylvie Bédard, with 137 organizations signed on, says the Shuar Arutam people are concerned with “corporate abuses,” including “community division, intimidation, and death threats against our president.”
The letter calls on Canada to condemn the alleged threat, and outline steps that will prevent future threats, among other actions.
"As this matter is under judicial review, we are not in a position to comment specifically on it at this time," said Lama Khodr, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada.
“It's not a bad apples kind of thing, it's actually fairly consistent and much too widespread for comfort,” said Kneen of Canadian mining companies.
Solaris Resources did not return multiple requests for comment.
John Woodside / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer