PARIS - More than 200 environmental activists were murdered last year as government-sponsored killings linked to lucrative projects by vast agriculture multinationals soared, a global rights watchdog warned on Tuesday.
Global Witness said it had documented 207 cases where activists were killed while trying to protect land from development, often for the production of consumer staples such as coffee and palm oil, making 2017 the deadliest year on record for environmentalists.
"As global demand for these products increases, there's a scramble by business actors to get the massive amount of land they need to grow these products," Ben Leather, senior campaigner at Global Witness, told AFP.
"When people dare to stand up for their rights and demand that the environment be protected they are silenced in the most brutal way."
The watchdog said it had found evidence that government actors -- soldiers or police -- were responsible for 53 of the deaths.
"That's only the triggermen so we can guess that in the cases where criminal gangs or other non-state actors carried out the attacks, the state may well have been involved," Leather said.
"While in a shocking number of cases state actors pulled the trigger, in other cases where the government allowed businesses to enter without protecting local rights, they're also complicit in the murders of these activists."
Global Witness' report on environmentalist killings documents harrowing crimes around the world against communities daring to speak out against big businesses and government-led development.
These include murder, but also death threats, intimidation, arrests, cyber attacks, sexual assault and lawsuits.
It links the violence to what we put on our shelves: mass-scale agriculture, mining, logging and poaching all produce ingredients for everyday products such as palm oil for cosmetics, soy for beef and timber for furniture.
Brazil was the most dangerous country for land activists in 2017 with 57 killed, while the Philippines accounted for 48.
"Governments have a legal and ethical duty to protect human rights defenders but they're usually attacking them verbally and, as our statistics show, through their armed forces who are conducting some of the killings," Leather said.
Global Witness singled out the government of Brazilian President Michel Temer for special criticism, accusing his administration of seeking to reduce regulation on big agribusiness during what is an election year.
"Michel Temer and the Brazilian legislature are actively weakening the laws and institutions designed to protect land rights and indigenous peoples," the report said.
"At the same time, they have set about making it easier for big business -– apparently unperturbed by the devastating human and environmental cost of their activities –- to accelerate their exploitation of fragile ecosystems."
In addition to being the deadliest single year for environmentalists since Global Witness began documenting their deaths, 2017 saw the most massacres of land activists on record.
The watchdog found seven cases in which more than four activists were killed at the same time, including the massacre of eight villagers protesting a coffee plantation by soldiers in the Philippines.
'MY LIFE IS AT RISK'
By far the most frequent victims of violence were indigenous peoples, who are often already maligned by governments and society.
"Of course, my life is at risk," said activist Mario do Socorro Costa da Silva, who campaigns with indigenous communities in Brazil against hydro aluminium factories.
"I receive death threats 24 hours a day because I'm not going to shut my mouth in the face of this atrocity."
As well as calling for more accountability and greater protection for at-risk communities, Leather said agribusiness investors and even consumers could help reduce the violence by demanding better transparency.
"We should be asking questions of those producing the products on our shelves," he said.
"The palm oil sector absolutely needs to clean itself up and anyone investing needs to do proper due diligence to know that their money is not going to fund land grabs, human rights abuses and ultimately killings of those who denounce it."