Credit: Leo Plunkett | Global Witness

Global appetite for palm oil fueling activist murders

The latest installment in META’s special series on how environmental injustice is causing inequality around the world.


2017 was the deadliest year for environmental defenders on record with nearly 4 land and environmental activists killed every week – that’s the findings from a new Global Witness report.

The report states that 207 people were killed in 2017 while standing up to companies and governments that seize land and cause harm to the environment. 60% of the murders took place in Latin America and at 57 murders, Brazil saw the most deaths ever registered in one year in any country.

While resisting mining projects has been the most dangerous sector in the past, the report shows a huge rise in killings linked to the production of consumer products. There were 46 deadly attacks on people defending their land from destructive agriculture – such as land grabs for palm oil, a commodity found in half of all packaged products sold in the supermarket.

Giant palm oil plantations replace food crops, deprive farmers of their land, increase slave labour and cause environmental destruction through deforestation, water and soil pollution, and fires.

The report includes the stories of environmental defenders such as Hernán Bedoya from Colombia who was shot 14 times by a paramilitary group i December 2017 for protesting against palm oil and banana plantations on land he had been fighting to claim back since 2012.

Ben Leather, Senior Campaigner at Global Witness, said:

Local activists are being murdered as governments and businesses value quick profit over human life. Many of the products emerging from this bloodshed are on the shelves of our supermarkets. Yet as brave communities stand up to corrupt officials, destructive industries and environmental devastation, they are being brutally silenced. Enough is enough.

Global Witness also caution that limits on information mean that the true number of activists killed globally is likely to be far higher. They also add that alongside murder, death threats, arrests, sexual assault, abductions and aggressive legal attacks are also used to silence environmental defenders.

Global Witness is calling for companies not to use palm oil in foodstuffs unless they can be certain that the rights of affected communities are being protected along the supply chain.

Ben Leather adds:

Governments, companies and investors have the duty and the power to support and protect defenders at risk, and to guarantee accountability wherever attacks occur. But more importantly, they can prevent these threats from emerging in the first place, by listening to local communities, respecting their rights, and ensuring that business is conducted responsibly.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, John Knox, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, commented on the situation in Latin America:

“When conflicts between the companies and governments that want to profit from natural resources and the people who depend upon them occur in countries or regions that have a weak rule of law, then they are much more likely to result in violence and killing.”

In October 2017, 7500 people signed a petition calling on the European Commission to support plans for a UN treaty which would bring about fairer international trade by replacing the myriad of agreements and voluntary measures that exist for different commodities with one single treaty to regulate environmental damage and human rights abuses in global supply chains.