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'Deadliest year': Record number of land and environmental activists killed in 2019

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A Guarani Mbya protester walks on trees cut by a real estate developer preparing to build apartments next to his indigenous community's property in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Jan. 31
A Guarani Mbya protester walks on trees cut by a real estate developer preparing to build apartments next to his indigenous community's property in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Jan. 31   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Andre Penner
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A record number of people were killed last year while trying to protect their land and the environment from carbon-intensive industries, according to new research highlighting the risks faced by activists on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

At least 212 land and environmental "defenders" were killed in 2019, according to an annual report by watchdog group Global Witness. On average, four have been killed every week since the Paris Climate Agreement in December 2015.

Many are indigenous people trying to protect tribal land from illegal logging. In other corners of the world, mining and oil and gas drilling are cited as drivers of the rising violence.

"This is truly a global problem," Ben Leather, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, told Euronews.

"Just at this moment when the voices of these activists are needed more than ever to help us decide how we're going to have a green recovery after the pandemic, how we're going to tackle climate change, they're facing attacks.

"They're facing the threat of imprisonment, and they're facing murders in higher numbers than ever."

Over half of all killings reported last year occurred in just two countries: Colombia with 64 murders and in the Philippines with 43.

According to Global Witness, the true death toll around the world is likely much higher, as cases often go undocumented. "Countless more are silenced by violent attacks, arrests, death threats, sexual violence or lawsuits," the report reads.

Ordinary people calling out big business

Mining was the deadliest sector globally, accounting for 50 of the environmentalists killed last year, but logging saw the steepest rise in killings over the past two years (up 85 per cent).

While Europe is the least-affected continent, two people were killed last year in Romania while trying to stop illegal deforestation there.

Indigenous communities are at a disproportionate risk of violence, making up 40 per cent of murdered environmental defenders.

Whether they’re tribal leaders in Brazil, student protesters or community organizers opposing mining projects in Colombia, "there are a whole range of often ordinary people, but with extraordinary expertise and activism," said Leather.

"Often they're calling out big businesses that are carrying out abuses, some of whom have European investments," he added, urging governments to protect these activists and bring their attackers to justice.

"We're also calling on the EU and others to put in place regulations to make sure that their businesses aren't associated with these kinds of threats and attacks," he said.

Watch highlights of the interview in the video player above.