(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

In the middle of the reactivation of social and economic life after the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, the re-election campaigns for Congress and the Presidential election, the violence against social leaders has persisted, silently, and constantly. Two organizations are sounding the alarm about the attacks they have suffered for protecting the people they work with.

Between January and May of this year, there have been 42 human rights violations against leaders and defenders of nature in Colombia. That’s the conclusion reached by the Yariguies Regional Corporation Group for  Social, Extraction, and Environmental Studies in of the Magdalena Medio (CRY—GEAM), together with the Conflict Responses (CORE) Foundation, and Colombia Extinction Rebellion, after they finished the systematic registration of the violence against environmental leadership in this country.

With the support of the Somos Defensores (We Are Defenders) Program, the three organizations have constructed, beginning in the middle of 2021, a system of information that they make public through the “First Report of the Information System on Human Rights Violations Against Environmental Leaders In Colombia Between January and May of 2022.”

The information system documents and systematizes the cases of attacks on leaders who are charged with protecting nature and the countryside from the environmental conflicts generated by the intervention of economic projects, infrastructure or other activities of public or private interest in Colombia and Latin America regarding hydrocarbons, mining, deforestation, planting of illegal crops and the accompanying laboratories, as well as cattle raising, monocultures, and wetlands.

The 42 attacks they registered break down as follows: 11 murders, 19 threats, 4 forced displacements—one of them to another country—and 8 attempted murders. “The acts identified have been suffered by 37 environmental leaders in Colombia during the first five months of 2022,” reads the document.

Monitoring was done in 18 departments, and La Guajira, Cesar, Norte de Santander, Santander, Antioquia, Quindío, Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Nariño, and Putumayo stand out. They were selected because they are being affected by different conventional extractive activities of mining, hydrocarbons, monocultures, and illegal plantings, which affect the environment, and which can be attributed to the presence of illegal armed groups.

The three departments that appear with the greatest number of attacks are Santander (23), Cauca (6), and Antioquia (4). According to the type of leadership, the most affected by the lethal violence have been indigenous people (7), campesinos (2), Afro-Colombians (1), and environmental (1).

As to the perpetrators of violence against environmental leaders, in 35 cases there has been no identification of those responsible, and in some of them, the report attributes the attack to the AGC. That group, of paramilitary origin, was involved in three attacks, two of which are collective threats that took place in the Magdalena Medio region.

The other two actors for whom there are reports are the Armed Forces, which have been involved in the murders of two environmental leaders during the processes of defending the countryside against the eradication of illegal plantings, and there is also some responsibility of the Jaime Martínez Column of the FARC dissidents in at least two killings in Cauca. One of those was in January of this year in the Municipality of Buenos Aires, when a Guardian at the Las Delicias indigenous reservation and defender of the environment, Breiner David Cucuñame López, only 14 years old, was murdered.

“Yes, by killing this child yesterday, they clipped the wings of our Mother of the Forests. Yes, he is one more of the many that continue to be murdered in the mafiosa territorial disputes that that are embedded in our territories. Shedding the blood of the Mother of the Forests everywhere is profoundly painful,” stated the CRIC (Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca) in a message.

Indigenous people, the principal victims

In the case of the indigenous leaders, lethal violence is concentrated in the departments of Cauca and Nariño. “It’s the groups of Farc dissidents like the Jaime Martínez Column or Dagoberto Ramos that most often do violence to the indigenous communities, as well as where the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles) or Sur Occidental are present. They also make threats against indigenous leaders,” states the report.

The document points out that the indigenous Guardians and leaders of the Association of Indigenous Councils of North Cauca (ACIN); the main councilors of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC); and the Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (AICO) are the leadership that are suffering the most violations of their human rights by the armed actors, legal and illegal.

At the root of the dynamics of the conflict is the primary objective, to defend the countryside and nature in departments like Cauca. The indigenous communities have restricted their struggle to “control and halt the expansion of illegal plantings, the laboratories used to prepare the coca base and cocaine that are found in different indigenous reservations in Cauca Department, and which are creating contamination by the chemicals that are used in the final elaboration of the product, which also involves the indiscriminate use of water,” points out the document.

The systematic violence against indigenous leadership, besides weakening their organizing processes, has a second significant harm: it reduces the population growth required to generate new leaders.

Extraction of petroleum

The hydrocarbon extraction economy is one of the thorniest issues in the struggle for the environment, particularly the manifest intention of the Iván Duque administration (2018-2022) to promote tests of fracking in the Magdalena Medio.

The report points out that one of the concerns with this kind of economic activity is the “cases of alleged money laundering, where funds from the guerrillas and narcoparamilitaries are laundered through supposed business owners with contracts for whatever kind of property and services with the oil companies, with municipalities in the region, or with the departments that make up the Magdalena Medio.”

Opposing those private interests has led to risks to social leaders. According to information collected in the report, in reaction to the mobilization and participation of young people in public debates in the Departmental Assembly of Santander and in the municipal council in Puerto Wilches, as well as working on street events, has brought the leaders intimidations that have intensified since the beginning of 2021.

One of the best known cases is that of the leader Yuvelis Morales, a member of the young people’s collective United for Puerto Wilches, and the Committee to Defend the Water, the Lives, and the Land (Aguawil), and a member of the municipal Youth Council, which opposes the promotion of fracking. The seriousness of the threats led that young woman to leave the country at the end of February of that year, in order to save her life.

Companies and the violence against the leaders

The Center for Information on Businesses and Human Rights (CIEDH), a nonprofit organization with more than 70 researchers worldwide, which documents attacks against human rights defenders that are related to business contexts, updated the report on Colombia that it had issued in 2020. The updated report warned that, two years later, the attacks on people that express concern about the impacts of business operations have persisted.

Titled, “Business and Human Rights in Colombia: there is an urgent need to protect people that are defending the land, the countryside, and the environment”, the report gives an account of the attacks registered between 2015 and 2019, and shows systematic and sometimes lethal attacks that human rights defenders who are trying to prevent or expose abuses by companies have to confront. It reached the conclusion that Colombia is the second most dangerous country in the world for people that do this work.

And that’s not all as, according to their monitoring, during these five years, 72 social leaders have been murdered and 181 have suffered some kind of attack. This equals, “nine percent of all the attacks in the world in this period.”

Two years later, the panorama has not improved. CIEDH registered 58 attacks, established that the hydrocarbon sector was the most dangerous, and observed that half of the attacks were directed at defenders of the environment.

Regarding the attacks, the report states that just like in other countries in Latin America, “They are perpetrated by a variety of actors, including security businesses hired by the companies, the Armed Forces, local authorities or other public officials that support projects that they say are in the ‘national interest’, in spite of the opposition by the community.”

It concludes that the majority of the attacks are connected to paramilitary groups and organized crime groups. “These groups are carrying out attacks in retaliation for the resistance to business operations supported by paramilitary groups that, allegedly, sometimes act in the name of private companies.”

Likewise, the research found that the largest quantity of attacks on defenders that oppose business interests are concentrated in Santander Department, and are related to the concerns about water in an area that has seen decades of petroleum extraction.

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