WHY ARE THEY KILLING ENVIRONMENTAL LEADERS IN COLOMBIA? Colombia continues to be the country with the second highest number of killings in the world.

By Mariana Guerrero, El Tiempo, March 16, 2020


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

In December 2019, after the NGO Global Witness reported that nearly 24 environmental leaders had been murdered in Colombia that year, President Iván Duque announced the signing of the Escazú Agreement, with the goal, among many things, of protecting their lives.

However, last February 6, Yamid Silva Torres, a park ranger in the El Cocuy Natural Park, was murdered.

On March 2, the international NGO Business and Human Rights Resource Center published a report stating that Colombia continues to be the country with the second highest number of killings of environmental defenders in the world, after Brazil.

This persecution rests on the fine line between the defense of property and the presence of armed groups and illicit economies.

The murder of Yamid Silva is not an isolated case. According to Carolina Jarro, Acting Director of National Natural Parks, 19 death threats against park rangers have been registered in recent years. Jarro believes that these attacks are because they work against deforestation, illegal plantings, land grabbing, and extensive cattle raising.

On last February 24, Natural Parks decided to evacuate ten protected areas because of the threats to officials by armed groups.

The story of Wilton Fauder Orrego, a park ranger in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, who was shot to death a year ago in the town (vereda) of Perico Aguao, in the rural area of the city, is a sign of the seriousness of the situation.

According to the recent United Nations report, published on February 26, 75% of the murders in Colombia take place in the rural parts of the provinces, epicenters of operations of the armed groups and the growth of illegal crops. Jarro also points to the fact that protection of the country’s natural heritage found in the parks is not comprehensive. There is approximately one park ranger for every 34,000 hectares that need protection.

According to Jarro, there needs to be more support “in some critical areas”, such as Norte de Santander, Meta, Putumayo, and Caquetá. After Silva’s murder, Natural Parks decided to close the place until the public order situation could be controlled.

Oil: detonator of threats and harassment

According to data compiled by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, 30% of the complaints of attacks against leaders are related to mining exploitation companies. The report mentions AngloGold Ashanti, Big Group Salinas, Cerrejón Coal, Ecopetrol, and EPM.

Joana Pinzón, President of the National Campesina Association (Asonalca in Spanish), maintains that the murder of environmental leaders “is not a drug trafficking thing, it’s not about girlfriend trouble—as ex-Defense Minister Botero claimed—or robberies. It is something planned and programmed to silence the voices of the people who defend the territory and their lives.”

Within its community, Asonalca has complained about harassment by armed groups, by private security staff employed by the companies, and even by the Armed Forces. Pinzón is emphatic about the campesina community’s rejection of oil production in which, according to her, companies authorized by the government are drilling in areas with important water sources for the community, and are harassing a number of her associates.

Among those is José Vicente Murillo, an environmental leader who has been in police custody since last December 7, charged with directing a movement against the Caño Limón Coveñas pipeline in Arauca. Ecopetrol would not comment to EL TIEMPO on this situation. His case was reported by Asonalca as a “judicial false positive”, after he was arrested without having any charge made against him. They have kept on threatening Murillo for over a year “using pamphlets and stalking by the Armed Forces,” says Pinzón.

Edgar Cruz, an environmental leader in the struggle against mining in the Piedmont lowland, in the Municipality of Guamal, Meta Province, has also been harassed. When his wife was walking out of a courthouse, two men on a motorcycle, wearing dark helmets, went up to her and told her: “You go back to Loreto 1 and you’re dead.” Already in 2013 they started to get threatening phone calls, and armored trucks would even park in front of their house for days.

Their dispute has been against what they call a “lack of effort” by the National Environmental Permit Authority (ANLA in Spanish) to control the exploitation by Ecopetrol in its Loreto 1 project. The exploratory well was abandoned by the company after the activities by the community. However, in December of 2018, at some four meters away from the original project, they built a second platform called Relocated Loreto 1, which they expanded recently.

The ANLA stated that in 2013 it had ordered the drilling company to take measures of prevention, mitigation, and control to avoid affecting the nearby river and aqueduct. Later they opted for relocation, a project that, according to them, is “suspended.” However, Ecopetrol states that the well is in an exploratory phase and denies that there is any kind of contamination associated with the project “that would affect the environment or water sources.”

“We don’t want to be the leaders of anything; what we want is that they respect our territory. We have had to take these positions because unfortunately, the government ends up accommodating whatever the oil companies want,” states the defender.

The problem also comes from the increase in illegal mining in these territories. According to reports from the National Police, this kind of activity is financing armed groups in regions like Norte de Santander, Antioquia, Tolima, and Cauca.

Illegal gold mining: 48% of illegal gold mining takes place in forest reserves.

According to reports from the office of Colombia’s Comptroller General, the use of improper mining methods has caused deforestation, the diversion of riverbeds, and the contamination of important sources of water. At the same time, the difficulty in controlling and following up has made intervention by the authorities more complicated.

Big businesses

Another of the causes leading to the killing of leaders in Colombia is their complaints about the invasion of industrial agriculture in territories such as Norte del Cauca. Rossana Mejía, an Afro-Colombian environmental leader, had to leave the municipality of her birth, Caloto, because of the death threats from armed groups that, according to her, are supporting certain companies.

Her work has focused on defending against the runaway advance of the cane industry that has left nearby municipalities in trouble because of the plantings. In the same way, animal raising and aerial spraying are tremendous contaminants, she said.

In the report by the international NGO, 28.5% of the complaints of attacks are connected to industrial agriculture, especially to plantings of oil palm and sugar cane. EL TIEMPO contacted Asocaña about the situation, but their response focused on the work the association is doing to preserve water resources.

For Mejía, “the environmental void in Norte del Cauca is extreme, and has not had any mourners.” According to data from the Mission for Election Observation (MOE in Spanish), Cauca Province is the area with the most leaders murdered right now.

Francisco Zapata, the former Director of the Cauca Regional Autonomous Corporation (CRC in Spanish), states that in the southwest part of the country there are around 243 hectares of sugar cane planted and that its accelerated expansion has generated the diversion of several riverbeds, and that the contamination of those rivers has actually had climate change effects.

According to Sirley Muñoz of Somos Defensores (We are Defenders) the situation in this province is complicated because of its geographic location that has positioned it strategically as a drug trafficking route from both the north and south of the country.

The illegal crops and their collateral damage

We can’t talk about one single cause of the murders, because the presence of the illegal crops and the drug trafficking routes in various regions has led to the persecution of the defenders of the territory.  This year eight leaders who were part of the Integrated National Program for the Substitution of Crops for Illegal Use (PNIS in Spanish) have been murdered.

After initiating its implementation, after the signing of the Peace Agreement, Indepaz has identified 85 murders of leaders connected to the program.

The most critical areas for them have been Norte de Santander, Cauca, and Putumayo. According to Muñoz, the leaders are in “a very complex situation because they are trying, along with the government, to make a transition to a different type of crop, but it’s those same armed groups that are pressuring them to keep on growing coca.”

Diana Sánchez, the Coordinator of Somos Defensores, says that “there is not just one actor that is directing all of these crimes against persons. There are different organizations in the territories whose objective is to get the leaders out of the way, because they are interfering with their economic and political interests.”

After the murder of Yamid Silva, the Minister of Environment, Ricardo Lozano, lamented the incident and stated: “We forcefully reject the harassment and murder of our officials in the national environmental system.” He also reiterated the importance of the signing of the Escazú Agreement for the protection of the lives and the rights of the citizens to a healthy environment.

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