Le Billon, P. and Päivi Lujala (2020)
Environmental and land defenders play a crucial role in attempts to slow down environmental change and address power inequalities in land-use and resource development. Yet, they frequently face repression, including defamation, criminalization, and assassination. Recent policy and media coverage initiatives have provided much needed attention to the protection and support of defenders, but there has so far been little systematic analysis of patterns and determinants of repression at multiple scales. Here, we use databases providing the best available worldwide record of cases of socio-environmental conflicts and killings of defenders to identify patterns of repression and potential determinants of killings. Globally, about a third of socio-environmental conflicts involve mass mobilization, arrests and direct forms of violence. These ‘high intensity’ conflicts are more frequent in Asia and Latin America. At least 1734 killings of environmental and land defenders took place in a total of 53 countries between 2002 and 2018, most of them occurring in Brazil, the Philippines, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru. Our multivariate analysis indicates that major country-level determinants of killings include income level, foreign direct investment, dependency on mineral extraction, regime type, frequency of protest movements, and size of Indigenous populations. We suggest that more systematic reporting and analysis of repression – including through subnational level studies for which we provide testable hypotheses – can help
protect and support defenders, notably through conflict-sensitive investment policies and greater accountability for abuses.