One year ago, on July 31, 2018, just after leaving home in the Ukrainian city of Kherson, Deputy Mayor Kateryna Gandziuk felt a splash of liquid across her head and face. An assailant had thrown a full liter of sulfuric acid on her, leaving her near death, with burns across half her body. In the months leading up to the attack, she had accused several local politicians of illegal logging in the nearby Oleshky forest. She spent several painful months in the hospital, finally dying of her wounds on Nov. 4. After protests and international pressure, several suspects were arrested, but Gandziuk’s family and supporters allege a cover-up to protect the organizers of the assault that rises to the highest levels of the Ukrainian political elite.
Kateryna Gandziuk’s brutal attack is just one of 164 murders of environmentalists, and land and water defenders that occurred in 2018, cataloged in a new report titled “Enemies of the State? How governments and business silence land and environmental defenders.” Published by Global Witness, an international nonprofit organization that works to protect human rights and the environment by confronting corruption, the report notes that “the real figure is likely to be much higher because cases are often not recorded and very rarely investigated.”
The report is global in scale. Among the most dangerous places for land defenders in 2018 were the Philippines, Guatemala and Brazil. The pace of violence in Brazil has only accelerated since the right-wing, climate change-denying extremist Jair Bolsonaro assumed the presidency last January.
“Jair Bolsonaro was elected promising an anti-environmental campaign. Now he’s delivering, unfortunately,” Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian civil society organizations, said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. “The department responsible for combating deforestation, the Ministry of the Environment, was shut down.” Since Bolsonaro took office, the rate of destruction of the Amazon rainforest has increased by almost 40%. Known as “the lungs of the planet,” the rainforest plays a vital role in regulating the world’s climate. In May, eight former Brazilian environment ministers warned, “We’re facing the risk of runaway deforestation in the Amazon.” As one put it, Brazil is becoming an “exterminator of the future.”