July 13 (UPI) -- A record number of environmental activists were killed in 2016, according to a report from Global Witness.
At least 200 activists were killed in 24 countries last year, compared to 165 in 14 countries in 2015, the report says. At least 40 percent of those killed were indigenous people. Despite the rise in deaths, there have been few prosecutions and the group said it found "strong evidence" that police and military were behind at least 43 killings "with private actors such as security guards and hitmen linked to 52 deaths."
"There is an epidemic now, a culture of impunity, a sense that anyone can kill environmental defenders without repercussions, eliminate anyone who stands in the way," John Knox, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, told The Guardian.
Global Witness said conflicts over the control of land with natural resources, such as oil and minerals, were linked to 33 killings in 2016, the most of any industry. Activists rallying against logging were killed 23 times in 2016, as were those defending land against agribusiness interests.
The deadliest country was Brazil, according to the report, which accounted for 49 environmental activists' deaths. Colombia came in second with 37 and Philippines was third with 28 deaths. India and Honduras were fourth and fifth, with 16 and 14 deaths, respectively.
"Human rights are being jettisoned as a culture of impunity is developing," Knox said. "There is now an overwhelming incentive to wreck the environment for economic reasons. The people most at risk are people who are already marginalized and excluded from politics and judicial redress, and are dependent on the environment. The countries do not respect the rule of law. Everywhere in the world, defenders are facing threats."
Colombia and India were pointed out as countries where the situation has worsened for environmental activists.
Despite a peace deal between the government and FARC rebels, Colombia saw its worst year on record for environmental activist deaths in 2016. In addition, paramilitary groups linked to the government are suspected in at least 22 of the country's total 37 environmental activist deaths.
Jakeline Romero, an activist representing Colombia's indigenous Wayúu people, said she and her daughters' lives were threatened.
"For the Wayúu people we are paying with our lives. We are paying with our culture," Romero said. "We are paying with the threat of being extinguished ... simply because we defend this small piece of land that used to give us enough to eat."
In India, 16 activists were killed and police officers are suspected in at least 10 killings.
"There is a complete breakdown of the law," said the writer and social activist known as Rinchin.