For the last nine years, Global Witness has tracked the murders of land and environmental activists across the world, and the numbers get worse every year. What is most troubling, though, is the disproportionate number of murders of Indigenous defenders.
Global Witness has been keeping track of these murders since 2012 and their 2020 report recently came out. It outlines where the attacks are most prominent and examines the demographics of these killings. By far, the majority of killings in 2020 took place in Colombia, Mexico, and the Philippines. But the standout isn’t where, but who is being murdered — Indigenous people.
It’s not just Indigenous environmental activists that are being targeted, either, it’s also social activists. This is especially the case in Colombia where, since 2016, research has shown that 16% of all activists’ murders have been Indigenous leaders, even though Indigenous people only make up 4.4% of the general population.
In July 2020, Indigenous leader and governer Rodrigo Salazar Quiñones was killed in Colombia by a hitman who had been ordered to kill him by the leader of a criminal organization. In December of the same year, John Chicaiza Chindoy was also murdered. He was an Indigenous activist and husband to Martha Ortiz, the president of the Community Council of La Viña.
The violence against Indigenous people in Colombia has escalated so much that the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca has started labeling these attacks as genocide.
While Global Witness found Colombia to have the most murders of environmental activists, Mexico isn’t far behind. In 2020, there were 30 fatal attacks on land defenders, a 67% increase from 2019. By July of this year, there have already been 14 murders of Indigenous leaders alone.
Among the Indigenous leaders and activists killed in 2020 was Simón Pedro Pérez López, a human rights defender who was tracked down, shot, and killed by a hitman riding a motorcycle. Simón was simply walking into a market with his son when the attack occurred. Later that year, Óscar Eyraud Adams, an activist working to help an Indigenous community in California get better access to water, was also shot to death while in Mexico. He was a member of the Kumeyaay Indigenous community.
Then, in May of this year, Tomás Rojo Valencia went missing until his decomposed body was ultimately found and identified in July. He was a leader of the Yaqui Indigenous community. According to NBC, he had served as a spokesperson for the community over land and water rights for many years. At the time of his death, he was protesting gas ducts, water pipelines, and railway lines that were being built on Yaqui land.
And yet another Indigenous activist, David Díaz Valdez, was murdered in Mexico this year when he was shot and killed as he tried to get into his car. According to the Associated Press, he was an environmental defender and was leading the opposition to the construction of a power plant on his community’s land.
After Valencia and Valdez’s deaths, the Mexican Center for Environmental Law’s Human Rights Manager Gabriela Carreon said,
“We are facing an alarming situation. The 18 murders in 2020 compared to 14 in half a year in 2021 puts us on alert about how this year will close.”
Based on Global Witness’ findings for all murders of environmental activists in 2020, at least 89 were carried out by hitman and at least 30 were committed by members of the military. Given that there are a disproportionate number of Indigenous people killings within this group, it’s fair to wonder if there is a specific target on that demographic.
Unfortunately, Global Witness only looks at the number of murders for environmental activists, but it’s obvious that activism, in general, is leading to death in these countries, particularly for Indigenous people. What’s worse is that, while officials in these countries will publicly denounce these murders, governments are doing next to nothing to ensure justice is served.
People everywhere, not just in these countries, need to be on alert and need to bring the murders of Indigenous activists into the spotlight. Until these countries are under pressure from the rest of the world, these killings are not going to stop.
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Aside from being a writer, Ashley is a mom of two girls and a wife to a passionate public school administrator. When she does have free time (cue laughter from working moms everywhere) she loves going to hot yoga classes, watching anything on Netflix that isn’t a cartoon, and weaving her way through every aisle of Target while listening to one of her favorite podcasts.