Julian Newman of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency said the killings will only get worse because one of the key flashpoints — land ownership — ignites powerful passions.
"To people protecting their lands, their forests, it's very personal, and they suffer when confronted with influential forces who have protection, be it the police in Indonesia or thugs in China," Newman said.
Targeted assassinations, disappearances followed by confirmed deaths, deaths in custody and during clashes with security forces are being reported. The killers are often soldiers, police or private security guards acting on behalf of businesses or governments. Credible investigations are rare; convictions more so.
"It's so easy to get someone killed in some of these countries. Decapitate the leader of the movement and then buy off everyone else — that's standard operating procedure," says Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch.
The countries where environmental killings are most common share similarities: a powerful few, with strong links to officialdom, and many poor and disenfranchised dependent on land or forests for livelihoods, coupled with strong activist movements which are more likely to report the violence.
Environmental groups say it is time to build a comprehensive database of such violence and mount unified campaigns.
"In Asia there has been a rise for some years but this has been off the radar of international NGOs until recently," says Pokpong Lawansiri, Asia head for the Dublin-based Front Line Defenders. "Political rights activists usually have international connections but environmental ones are often teachers, community leaders and villagers, so they have little profile."
Robertson called for "a waves-to-the-beach strategy. It can be small and irregular but it always has to keep coming."
"Without that constant level of concern and anger, things won't change. Governments and companies play for time and for most of the victims and their families time is not on their side," he said.
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