In April, Chut Wutty was shot to death in the Cambodian forests he was so outspoken in defending, a slaying that outraged human rights activists suspicious of the conflicting explanations given by police.
His death appears to be part of a chilling trend. Growing numbers of activists and others defending the environment have been killed over the last decade, according to a new report from the environmental watchdog group Global Witness.
The London-based group says more than 100 people were killed last year while protesting or investigating environmental causes -- the highest death toll it has found in a decade of tracking such killings.
It linked the apparent rise in environmental slayings to fierce competition for dwindling resources worldwide that have put local activists "in the firing line" as they protest against being forced out of their homes to make way for development, losing the forests they rely on and other disputes.
Such killings often go unpunished, Global Witness lamented. In Brazil, for example, fewer than 10% of such cases have gone to court and barely 1% of them have led to convictions, the report said, quoting the Catholic Land Commission.
The death toll is "the sharpest of wake-up calls" for delegates convening in Rio de Janiero on Wednesday as the United Nations holds the biggest conference in its history to save the environment, Global Witness campaigner Billy Kyte said. "Over one person a week is being murdered for defending rights to forests and land."
The watchdog group consulted with other human rights groups, journalists and the United Nations and scoured website and academic studies to come up with its figures. It found that Brazil, Peru, Colombia and the Philippines had the highest numbers of killings, though it cautioned that there was an alarming lack of information and monitoring in much of Asia and Africa, which might mask killings there.
"It's difficult to know whether [the apparent increase in killings] is because there are more murders or whether it has now become more difficult for these things to be ignored," Radford University professor Bill Kovarik was quoted in the report released Tuesday. Either way, it's "an emerging and visible pattern."
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: A woman cries during the funeral in April for Chut Wutty, a prominent environmental activist killed in the Cambodian forests he was so outspoken in defending. Credit: Mak Remissa / European Pressphoto Agency