A new report documents hundreds of green activists killed in resource and land conflicts

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. When you're an environmental activist, everyday is Earth Day, not just April 22nd. In many places around the globe, being an environmental activist can literally mean putting your life on the line. In fact, between 2002 and 2013, more than 900 environmental and land's rights activists were killed around the world. That's the conclusion of a new report by the watchdog group, Global Witness. Oliver Courtney is one of the report's co-authors. That's a pretty big number of murders, and we are talking murders here, right? No accidental deaths?

Oliver Courtney: Exactly. We're talking about people who've been killed in the line of protecting the rights to land and the environment.

Werman: As these numbers started coming in as you did your research, were you actually shocked to see how many people have been killed in the line of this duty?

Courtney: The numbers have been shocking. This piece of research actually grew out of a growing concern within our organization, Global Witness, on the back of the killing of a colleague and friend of ours investigating illegal logging in Cambodia. There was a growing sense that actually this was happening more and more often and that not enough was being done to monitor it or to do something about it. I think the numbers are shocking. I think what's perhaps even more shocking is that all the signs point to there being a vast number of cases which are going unmonitored and unrecognized.

Werman: What kinds of situations do activists find themselves in, that someone wants them eliminated?

Courtney: Two-thirds of the cases that we've documented you can track back to contests over who has the right to land and whether or not the people who've been living on that land for generations can really assert that right. Often these are some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world and they really are often faced with very little choice but to defend those rights.

Werman: I was struck, Oliver, by the finding in the report that of the six worst places in the world to be an environmental activist, five are in Latin America. Brazil, Honduras, Peru, Colombia and Mexico. Why?

Courtney: One of the common themes seems to be the concentration of land in the hands of a few small, very powerful landowners and you have a large chunk of the population which remains poor and is very much reliant on the land and, as I have said already, that dynamic sparks conflict.

Werman: How many of these cases are prosecuted?

Courtney: 1% of the cases that we have documented, there's a known killer who's been brought to justice.

Werman: How do you get these numbers to go down? What can the world do? What perhaps can we do as Americans now that we know this, other than to just shake our heads and say "Wow, that's really awful."?

Courtney: The immediate responsibility definitely lies with governments. There's also a role for companies. The vast majority of the cases that we've uncovered have involved resistance to the operations of mining or logging or agribusiness, so those companies have a responsibility to make sure that they aren't involved with or sponsoring this kind of abuse. There is a role for consumers in that this problem is ultimately driven by consumption in the rich world. So that's something we have to consider ourselves on a day-to-day basis and our governments have to legislate for.

Werman: Oliver Courtney is a co-author, along with Alice Harrison of the new report "Deadly Environment: the Dramatic Rise in Killings of Environmental and Land Defenders," from the watchdog group, Global Witness. Oliver, thanks very much for your time.

Courtney: Many thanks.