Colombia: the deadliest country for environmental leaders

On average, four human rights defenders have been killed every week since December 2015

Colombia: the deadliest country for environmental leaders
Ramón Bedoya's father, Hernan, led the local resistance to palm oil and used part of his plot to recover native ecosystems. Hernán was shot 15 times while riding his horse to the vet in Pedeguita and Mancilla

On average, four human rights defenders have been killed every week since December 2015, according to the Global Witness annual report. More than half of the murders occurred in Colombia and the Philippines.

According to the annual report by the NGO Global Witness, which compiles the murder of environmental leaders, 212 leaders were killed in 2019, the deadliest year for environmental defenders. Perhaps most worryingly, half of these events occurred in two countries: Colombia and the Philippines.

On average, four defenders have been killed every week since December 2015, the month in which the Paris Climate Agreement was signed, at which time the world apparently united in hopes of reaching a new era of progress in the fight against climate change.

And particularly in Colombia, the report shows that the murder of community and social leaders has increased dramatically, with 64 land and environment activists killed. This means more than double the number of murders that occurred in 2018, and the highest number recorded by Global Witness in the country. Of the total of these deaths, 14 are related to the illegal substitution of crops.

“A key aspect of the peace agreement was to provide an incentive to move farmers away from coca cultivation, thereby reducing cocaine production and disrupting the drug trade that had fueled the conflict. Coca growers were offered subsidies to start alternative crops, such as cocoa and coffee. But this crop substitution program was poorly implemented, as many farmers did not receive their payments, putting the livelihoods of up to 100,000 families at risk. Those who supported or participated in the program have been threatened by criminal and paramilitary organizations that still invest heavily in drug trafficking, "writes the organization.

Statistics reveal that a number of several key aspects. The first is that the majority of murdered land and environmental defenders belong to indigenous communities, whose land and water management skills are crucial to combat the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity.

“Legal insecurity in their right to land tenure, irresponsible business practices, and government policies that prioritize extractive economies over human rights are putting these people and their lands at risk. It is estimated that indigenous and local communities have rights to more than half of the world's land area, but they only have a legal title of 10%. However, of the nearly 200 commitments established by the countries under the Paris Climate Agreement, only 21 include any promise to promote community management of natural resources or land tenure, ”the report says.

The second is that mining is the sector most closely related to the deaths of defenders, with 50 defenders killed in 2019. More than half of these victims came from communities affected by mining in Latin America, while the Philippines was the country with more murders related to this sector, with 16 deaths. In the world the panorama for Latin America is gray: more than two-thirds of the murders occurred here. In 2019, 33 murders of defenders occurred in the Amazon region alone, 90% in Brazil.

The right to protest has also been diminished in the COVID-19 crisis and in general in the last year. As for environmental leaders, smear campaigns or false accusations have been carried out to silence them, or the protest has been outlawed (such as those that are facing the pipelines in North Dakota, in the United States).

According to CIVICUS, only 3% of the world lives in countries with an open civic space, understood as the ability to organize and participate in political and social activism. There is ample evidence that governments are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to further suppress the protest.

“Many of the world's worst environmental and human rights abuses are fueled by the exploitation of natural resources and corruption in the global political and economic system. Normally, the most direct opposition comes from communities whose lands and rights are being threatened, and their ability to protest peacefully is being systematically restricted, ”the report concludes.

The murder of defenders of the land and the environment occurs in a climate of persecution and non-lethal threats that seek to instill fear in those who are brave enough to speak out. Angélica Ortiz, an indigenous Wayuu woman from La Guajira in northern Colombia, knows this very well. She is the general secretary of Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu, who has led protests against the large coal mining project El Cerrejón. According to recent investigations, 44% of the attacks that occurred between 2015 and 2019 were against human rights defenders who expressed concern about the operations of five companies, and Cerrejón is one of them.

Angélica's organization has faced repeated threats (six only in 2019), which supposedly came from paramilitary groups, as well as public smear campaigns. The organization says the government has failed to provide an adequate response to any of its repeated requests for protection, dating back to 2018.

Women defenders such as Angélica and Francia Márquez, who suffered an attempt on her life in 2019, face increasing threats in Colombia, while the UN documents a nearly 50% increase in the murder of women between 2018 and 2019. According to reports, They are also more likely to face verbal abuse and surveillance than men.

John Anderson
John Anderson
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John Anderson

Writer, Editor, Teacher, tinkerer, always looking to make something from nothing

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