The Unknown Victims of Illegal Logging: 185 Environmental and Land Activists Murdered in 2015

“Across the world, collusion between state and corporate interests shield many of those responsible for the killings [of activists]."


When we think about activists, our minds naturally gravitate to the countless monumental achievements of activism that have been documented throughout history – women’s rights, racial discrimination and LGBT rights being some of the most renowned examples.

Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, fights against social change rarely gain the attention they deserve. As a result, it becomes relatively easy for individual activists to fall through the cracks they have made in the institution they are tirelessly fighting to change.

A total of 185 activists were allegedly killed in 2015 – a 59 percent increase on the previous year – making it the highest annual toll on record. Activists attempting to halt illegal logging for Big Beef are said to be one of the key targets of such violence.

Image: Flickr, PRODaniel Beilinson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

While many may find this statistic surprising, in reality, the death toll is likely to be much higher, revealed a report titled “On Dangerous Ground,” from London-based advocacy group, Global Witness. Many of the victims were from indigenous communities – around 40 percent – which are often based in areas rich in natural resources, such as the rainforest. As a result, many of the murders cannot be verified, or simply go unreported.

According to the report, “the Amazon states of Brazil saw unprecedented levels of violence in 2015, where communities are being encroached on by ranches and agricultural plantations or gangs of illegal loggers. The rainforest has given way to thousands of illegal logging camps whilst the agricultural frontier is pushing further into previously untouched indigenous reserves. It’s estimated that 80% of timber from Brazil is illegal, and accounts for 25% of illegal wood on global markets. Much of this is being sold on to buyers in the US, Europe and China.

Meanwhile, in many well documented cases, the hope of obtaining justice is little more than a pipe dream. In one such case, the father and grandfather of Filipino activist Michelle Campos were publicly executed after their attempts to defend their ancestral land against mining.  The killers, who were identified by many witnesses, have never been brought to justice.

“Across the world,” the report continues, “collusion between state and corporate interests shield many of those responsible for the killings. In cases that are well-documented we found 16 were related to paramilitary groups, 13 to the army, 11 to the police, and 11 to private security — strongly implying state or company links to the killings. There was little evidence that the authorities either fully investigated the crimes or took actions to bring the perpetrators to account.”

Such corruption can also be seen in Western nations; last year it was revealed that the FBI had prioritized environmental activists on its terrorist lists.

Governments and companies are using inflammatory language to denigrate activists and publicly brand them as ‘anti-development.’ At the same time, they are turning a blind eye to corruption, illegalities and environmental degradation. Impunity reigns in many cases, and the suspected perpetrators behind the violence — corporate and state interests — are not being investigated.

Since 2002, Global Witness has documented 1176 cases of killings of land and environmental defenders. The dramatic increase of cases in the last year is a clear indication that governments and companies are refusing to acknowledge the violence and corruption that is consuming the Earth’s most biodiverse areas, and the people who have dedicated their lives to protecting them.

Image: Flickr, crustmania (CC BY 2.0)

The highest level of killings was recorded in Brazil (50 deaths), the Philippines (33 deaths), Columbia (26 deaths), Peru (12 deaths), Nicaragua (12 deaths) and Democratic Republic of Congo (11 deaths).  Pressure on the ownership, control or use of land was cited as the underlying factor behind all killings.

Killing has become politically acceptable to achieve economic goals… I’ve never seen, working for the past 10 years in the Amazon, a situation so bad,” said Brazilian conservationist Felipe Milanez.

In addition to violence, in many cases, governments and companies are “using legal measures to attack activists and obstruct their legitimate defence of land and environmental rights.” To overcome this impending issue, national governments must take the steps to publicly protect the rights of environmental defenders; prioritize actions to tackle the illegal exploitation of natural resources, and ensure that relevant laws are enforced to protect the defenders from violence.

Image: Flickr, Jesse Clockwork (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This article (The Unknown Victims of Illegal Logging: 185 Environmental and Land Activists Murdered in 2015) is a free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to the author and

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