It’s important to note that we do not aspire to have a complete picture of the attacks that took place during this time period, given how many cases go unreported. However our database -nurtured by a wealth of sources, including state institutions, press archives, social organizations and on-the-ground reporting- shows a devastating scenario.
What we found
Our investigation shows 1180 attacks and damages against men and women and 177 against communities or organizations who defend the environment or ethnic territories. 81,7% of them happened targeted men, perhaps reflecting that they have traditionally held leadership positions more often. However, we did document 216 attacks on women - including those you can read about in our stories about Saweto in Peru or Patricia Gualinga in Ecuador.
From killings and direct attacks to legal harassment and forced displacement, these communities have paid a high price for defending their rights to a healthy environment and protecting the strategic ecosystems (jungles, mountains, forests, lakes, rivers and wetlands) within their lands.
Ethnic minorities under siege
The target of a very alarming 56% of these episodes of violence (a total 761 cases) hail from ethnic minorities, proving that indigenous and Afro-descendant lands are especially vulnerable to these criminal interests.
Our data shows different patterns of attacks against members of at least 124 diverse indigenous peoples. Just in Colombia, 11 of the peoples affected are considered endangered.
In fact, nince of our stories document attacks against indigenous communities seeking to safeguard their ancestral lands - the Raramuri and Odami in Mexico, the Shuar and Kichwa in Ecuador, the Zenu and Nutabe in Colombia, the Karipuna and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau in Brazil, the Moxeño Trinitario and Torewa in Bolivia or the Ashaninka and Tikuna in Peru.
Our database also shows 136 cases of violence against Afro-descendant communities, or 10.02% of the total. One of our stories recounts similar efforts by descendants of African slaves in Colombia’s Pacific coast.
What do they defend and who from?
Although in many cases environmental leaders seek to protect more than one natural resource, in this investigation we took the main resource defended into account.
In the same light, in many cases leaders and communities have been defending themselves from multiple actors. In our investigation we took into account who the main actor affecting communities is: from agroindustry, oil drilling, mining, hydroelectric projects and roads to drug traffickers and illegal loggers.
The following are the types of violence against leaders that we mapped, although we find it important to underscore how in many cases leaders and communities have suffered from more than one type of attack, which is why we chose the main source of violence.
We also found that a significant percentage of attacks have happened in the vast rainforest areas that are home to the natural wealth that make Latin America the most biodiverse region in the world.
Exactly half of our stories investigate violence against leaders, communities and park rangers in the Amazon basin, who have tackled all sorts of legal and illegal interests.
The most difficult information to establish was the legal status of these cases. We only found serious information about rulings (either convictions or acquittals) for 50 cases (or 3,68% of them), evidence that the administration of justice is sorely lacking in most attacks against environmental leaders. In the majority of these cases these rulings were against material or direct authors, not the masterminds behind them.
Equally alarming was finding information suggesting that, at least in 546 cases (or 40,23% of the total), there were complaints filed by victims and their communities before authorities, from national institutions to international organizations such as the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and Court.
Even though ours is by no means a scientific effort but a journalistic inquiry, the two years in which we found the largest number of episodes of violence were 2017 (with 14.8% of the cases) and 2016 (with 12.6% of them), underlining the seriousness of the situation today.
These defenders protect the land that imbues them with life, but also the mountains that provide us with water in the cities and the forests that bring us clean air. They are being threatened and murdered. Each of them is more than a number. These are their stories of life, of struggle, of resistance.
The most difficult data
The toughest information to establish was the state of cases in the justice system. We only found conclusive data on verdicts (whether convictions or acquittals) in 50 cases (3,68% of the total), evidence of how the administration of justice is deeply in debt with society when it comes to holding perpetrators accountable for attacks against environmental leaders. Most of these cases address material perpetrators and not their masterminds, like in the recent ruling in Mexico over the murder of Isidro Baldenegro, Goldman Environmental Award recipient in 2005.
Equally alarming was finding information of at least 545 cases (or 40,19% of the total) in which victims and their communities had filed complaints prior to the events before the authorities, whether State institutions or international organizations like the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and Court.
Even if ours is not a scientific but a journalistic investigation, the two years in which we found a largest number of violent episodes were 2017 (with 14,8% of the cases) and 2016 (with 12,6% of the cases), highlighting the seriousness of the phenomenon today. Regarding 2018, many sources had not yet published or compiled the data they gathered during their inquiries.
These defenders protect the land that gives them life, as well as the mountains that provide us with water and the forests that bring clean air to our cities. Yet they are being threatened and murdered. Each one of them is more than just a number. These are their stories of life, of struggle, of resistance.