Twenty-three people were killed in India last year for defending their land and environment, with only the Philippines and Colombia recording more deaths, human rights group Global Witness said in a report on Tuesday.

The report, titled “Enemies of the State”, mentioned the deaths of 13 protestors allegedly in police firing in Tamil Nadu in May 2018 during the anti-Sterlite protests.

The organisation documented 164 killings worldwide of “land and environmental defenders – ordinary people murdered for defending their homes, forests and rivers against destructive industries”. However, it said “countless more were silenced through violent attacks, arrests, death threats or lawsuits”, and the data could not provide an accurate picture of the true scale of the problem.

Nineteen countries recorded at least one such death. There were 30 deaths in Philippines and 24 in Colombia. India was followed by Brazil with 20 such deaths, Guatemala with 16 and Mexico with 14. This is the first time since the organisation began documenting the deaths in 2012 that Brazil has not topped the list. More than half of all deaths took place in Latin American countries, while Europe recorded only three such deaths, all in Ukraine.

Globally, 43 of the 164 deaths were due to protests against the mining industry. The agribusiness sector was linked to 21 deaths, and water and dams to 17.

“These are ordinary people trying to protect their homes and livelihoods, and standing up for the health of our planet,” the report said. “Often their land is violently grabbed to produce goods used and consumed across the world every day, from food, to mobile phones, to jewellery. Across continents, governments and companies are also using countries’ courts and legal systems as instruments of oppression against those who threaten their power and interests.”

The report noted that in some countries, the “situation facing defenders is hard to gauge because the press isn’t free, and governments or NGOs don’t systematically monitor or document abuses”.

The organisation said land and environmental defenders will be able to carry out their activism safely only when states, companies and investors “take action to prevent attacks against them, protect those defenders who are at risk, and react when threats do occur”.

Anti-Sterlite protests

Thirteen people protesting against the expansion of Vedanta’s Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, were killed on May 22 and May 23, 2018, prompting the state government to permanently shut down the plant days later. Several people were arrested for rioting, burning vehicles in the premises of the collectorate, pelting stones and damaging public property. Residents claim the plant was contaminating the region’s air and water resources.