Killings of environmental defenders have doubled over the past 15 years to reach levels usually associated with war zones, according to a study that reveals how murders of activists are concentrated in countries with the worst corruption and weakest laws.

At least 1,558 people in 50 states were killed between 2002 and 2017 while trying to protect their land, water or local wildlife, says the analysis, which calculates the death toll is almost half that of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

The rate of deaths in this period increased from two to four a week, which the authors attributed to rising environmental stress as the global demand for resources pushes mining, farming and other extractive industries into ever more remote regions.

The study, published in Nature Sustainability, attempts to identify the most important drivers for the murders of environmental and land defenders.

The strongest correlation was with rule of law. Almost all of the killings occurred in the countries that scored lowest for corruption, fundamental rights, government powers, transparency and legal oversight. Most of these were in tropical and subtropical countries, particularly in Central and South America.

Only 10% of defender murders results in a conviction, compared with an average of 43% for all global homicides, says the paper.

“The toll is unbelievable,” said Nathalie Butt, the lead author and a researcher at the University of Queensland. “Conflict over resources is the issue, but it is corruption that is the problem.”

She said companies and consumers in wealthy countries in the northern hemisphere should take more responsibility for products sourced in the south. “We need to make ethics and transparency an important part of the supply chain. We need to ensure that there is no blood on our hands.”

The researchers say the tally is likely to be a conservative estimate because many deaths were unreported, particularly in authoritarian states where the media and NGOs are restricted.

The data is provided by the watchdog NGO Global Witness, which reported a fall in killings – closer to three a week – in its latest annual survey. But the authors say the long-term trend remains higher, particularly with regard to killings of indigenous people, who make up a disproportionately large proportion of the victims.

“We think attacks on indigenous people are likely to increase, particularly in Brazil where [president] Jair Bolsonaro has taken power with a promise that indigenous people must adapt to the majority or disappear. He is putting exploitation of the environment first,” warned the report’s co-author, Frances Lambrick, a co-founder and director of the Not1More NGO.

Such concerns increased last month with the killing of the indigenous leader Emyra Waiãpi in an area rife with illegal gold mining.

On Monday the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, called on the Brazilian authorities to investigate the incident and bolster efforts to halt illegal land seizures by miners, loggers and farmers.

“The Brazilian government’s proposed policy to open up more areas of the Amazon to mining could lead to incidents of violence, intimidation and killings of the type inflicted on the Waiãpi people last week,” Bachelete said.

“I call on the government of Brazil to reconsider its policies towards indigenous peoples and their lands, so Emrya Waiãpi’s murder does not herald a new wave of violence aimed at scaring people off their ancestral lands and enabling further destruction of the rainforest, with all the scientifically established ramifications that has for the exacerbation of climate change.”


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