They were killed by their own army. On December 3, while members of the Taboli-manubo people on the Philippine island of Mindanao were farming and doing housework, the army began shelling their neighborhood and spraying them with gunfire from all directions. Eight people were killed.
The dead included Datu Victor Danyan, a leader of protests against the expansion of a coffee plantation by an agribusiness firm, and four of his family members. Danyan had long been involved in resisting the company, Silvicultural Industries Inc., whose operation had taken over ancestral land and threatened the community’s livelihood. More were injured in the attack, and 200 were forced to evacuate the area, abandoning the fields they had sought to preserve. While the Taboli-manubo people believe the cause of the attack was their resistance to Silvicultural Industries, the Philippine army disputes this.
This was one of many attacks on land and environmental defenders in 2017 recorded by Global Witness, which defines such defenders as those who take peaceful action when land, forests, or rivers are encroached upon by industry, whether as members of the local community, or as activists, journalists, or lawyers.
In a new report released Tuesday, the anti-corruption watchdog organization says that 2017 was the deadliest year for land and environmental defenders since it began keeping track in 2012, with a total of 207 defenders killed worldwide. The report attributes this increase to a surge of killings related to agribusiness opposition, as well as better reporting on the issue. Global Witness says the true number of deaths is even higher, and “many, many more were attacked, threatened, and criminalized.”
The highest number of killings was recorded in Brazil, which accounted for more than a quarter of reports. Brazil was followed by the Philippines, as well as Colombia and Mexico. Agribusiness was the most dangerous industry to oppose, a first since reporting began, although resistance to mining, poaching, and logging continued to be risky as well. Indigenous people remained a disproportionate target of attacks.
Although Global Witness identified government actors as the suspected perpetrators in 56 of the deaths, governmental culpability likely plays a role in many more. Officials are often in league with business interests, cutting local communities out of decision-making and creating a “culture of impunity,” according to the report.
“Perpetrators feel emboldened by the cumulative impact of these murders. Government is guilty by omission because they’re not prosecuting these crimes, and a lot of times, they’re guilty by collusion,” Ben Leather, one of the authors of the report, told The Intercept. Thus, deaths attributed to local militias, gangs, or businesses themselves still often involve government complicity. “Tackling impunity is possibly the only way to really end this in the long term,” Leather added.
The Philippines witnessed a 71 percent increase in the number of land and environmental defenders killed between 2016 and 2017. The 2-year-old regime of President Rodrigo Duterte has already developed a reputation for violence. Last year, Duterte pledged 1.6 million hectares of Philippine land for agribusiness use, mainly in Mindanao, which is rich in natural resources. He declared martial law on the island, restricting the ability of activists to organize. At the same time, he has criminalized the Indigenous people there, calling them terrorists and communists, and mobilizing his forces against them.
The Philippine army claims the December incident was in defense against an attack by communist rebels, although Global Witness was unable to find evidence of this. The army says that two of its soldiers died as well.
Jaybee Garganera of the Philippine-based organization Alliance to Stop Mining, which assisted Global Witness with its report, said that resistance has grown riskier in recent years. “Martial law has justified the presence of the military in the ancestral land of Indigenous [people] and the areas where mining, plantations, dam projects, and coal power plant projects are happening,” he told The Intercept.
“I don’t think we will find any paper trail that links the Duterte administration to any bribery or corruption,” Garganera added. However, Duterte is actively encouraging outside investment, particularly among Chinese investors. “The aggressive push of plantations and large infrastructure projects is motivated by Duterte’s policy of wanting to build, build, build,” he said.
Agribusiness — large-scale farming, processing, and manufacturing — has replaced mining as the deadliest industry for land and environmental defenders, according to the report. “Agribusinesses is land intensive,” said Ana Zbona, a project manager with the Business and Human Rights Resource Center. “Over the last decade or so, investors and companies, encouraged by governments, pushed increasingly into remote rural areas as they seek new lands.” Businesses typically make deals with governments that cut out the local community, leaving them on a “collision course,” according to Leather. “Communities have to become defenders because they’ve been excluded from proper channels,” he told The Intercept.
Although mining has been overtaken as the most dangerous sector to protest, Leather says this isn’t because of any improvement in the industry. Rather, the number of killings related to mining opposition has reached a new high as well.
The report concedes that it is most likely underreporting its figures in African countries, at 19 deaths last year, mainly from opposition to poaching and mining. The authors say this is a result of their methodology, which relies on local news and civil society reports for verification. When those sectors are underdeveloped or stifled, researchers say that they are unable to verify many deaths. As reporting improves and investment floods the continent, those numbers could rise.
Because of this verification process, and the focus on deaths over other outcomes, the report says the 207 killings are the “tip of the iceberg.” Other underreported areas include Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Russia, and China, where journalism and civil society are suppressed, and reports are few and far between. “We can safely assume that if defenders are unable to speak out, that they could well be facing other risks as well,” Leather said.
Global Witness’s report includes numerous recommendations for governments and businesses, including the need for prior, free, and informed consent by affected communities, and ensuring those responsible for violence are brought to justice. Consumers are also becoming increasingly aware of “the link between shampoo in our bathroom or coffee in our shelves and that community in the Philippines,” he said. However, the report makes clear that until governments disentangle from business interests and provide accountability, there won’t be an easy end to the killing of those defending their communities.