Killings over environmental and land disputes around the world are on the rise and Cambodia ranks near the top, according to a new report by Global Witness.
In the report, Deadly Witness, the U.K.-based environmental watchdog group says at least 908 people have been killed in 35 countries for protecting their rights to land and the environment since 2002, and that the rate has accelerated in the past four years. Though far behind Brazil—which topped the list with 448 deaths—Cambodia ranked ninth with 13 deaths.
Cambodia also suffered one of the highest rates of killings related to land and environmental disputes in Southeast Asia, behind only the Philippines and Thailand, according to the report.
“Our database shows a high incidence of killings of defenders in the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia, countries where land grabbing and deforestation—the drivers of much of the violence recorded in this report—are rife,” Global Witness says.
The report used Global Witness figures, U.N. reports, a network of partner NGOs and thousands of human rights websites to come up with a list of killings that could be clearly linked to land or environmental disputes.
While the report focuses largely on Brazil, it also details the 2012 death of Heng Chantha in Cambodia’s Kratie province. The 14-year-old girl was shot dead when soldiers raided her village to oust an alleged group of secessionists. Rights groups dismissed the government’s claims of secession as an excuse to evict hundreds of local families and the men eventually convicted of taking up arms against the state said they were only trying to protect their land.
Global Witness recorded three other such killings in Cambodia that year, including that of Chut Wutty. The well-known environmental activist was shot dead while investigating reports of illegal logging in western Cambodia following an argument with military police and security guards protecting a logging operation.
In its report, Global Witness names land-grabbing and land disputes as the leading reasons for the deaths on its list.
“Global Witness’ work has shown how companies and government routinely strike secretive deals for large chunks of land and forests to grow cash crops such as rubber, palm oil and soya,” it says. “In the process, they push communities off their land and out of their homes, often with the help of state forces.”
As proof, Global Witness cites a 2013 report called Rubber Barons based on its own months-long investigation into Vietnamese rubber companies running plantations in Cambodia accused of grabbing land from farmers and illegally logging their community forests while breaking a raft of local laws.
The Deadly Witness report also complains of “endemic levels of impunity” across the 35 countries on its list, with only 10 people known to have been convicted for the 908 deaths since 2002.
“There can be few starker or more obvious symptoms of the global environmental crisis than a dramatic upturn in killings of ordinary people defending rights to their land or environment,” Oliver Courtney, a senior campaigner for the group, said in a statement. “Yet this rapidly worsening problem is going largely unnoticed, and those responsible almost always get away with it.”
In Chut Wutty’s case, the courts decided that the activist was killed by a military police officer who was then immediately shot dead by a security guard in a struggle for the murder weapon. The security guard was convicted of killing the military police officer unintentionally and released days after the verdict on a suspended two-year prison sentence. Government officials repeatedly altered their version of events.
In Heng Chantha’s case, the government called the girl’s death a regrettable accident and did not investigate. No one was held accountable for the shooting.
Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, a spokesman for the Ministry of Land Management, declined to comment on the Global Witness report. Spokesmen for the Ministry of Interior and the National Police could not be reached.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)