Environmental defenders in Colombia continue to face high levels of violence over their opposition to resource extraction, land appropriation and current drugs policies, according to a new study by the El Espectador newspaper which documented the murders of ‘at least’ 44 environmental defenders between 20 July 2020 and 30 April 2021, a period of under ten months.
It continues the alarming trend that saw Colombia register as the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders in 2019, when 64 such murders were committed according to a report by the international NGO Global Witness. The latest figures suggest that Global Witness’ forthcoming report for 2020 will again document extremely high levels of violence against people who seek to protect land and natural resources.
Indigenous activists were disproportionately impacted, accounting for 21 of the 44 deaths despite the fact indigenous people form only around five per cent of the national population. Many indigenous communities live in zones rich in natural resources, where they are targeted for opposing mineral extraction of ancestral lands which damages forests, rivers and fragile ecosystems. The Awá population of southern Colombia’s Nariño region was particularly affected, with nine people killed.
Community leaders working to implement the 2016 peace agreement’s chapter on voluntary substitution of illegal crops, in which agricultural communities themselves remove crops used in drugs production and replace them with legal alternatives, were also targeted. Research earlier this year found that at least 75 people working on crop substitution programmes were murdered between 2016 and 2020. Among those killed was Jorgé Iván Ramos, a FARC former combatant in the peace process who travelled rural regions to promote voluntary crop substitution policies.
A town councillor in Argelia in the southwest department of Cauca, Fermiliano Meses, was murdered in January, after he had supported crop substitution programmes and opposed state plans to reintroduce aerial spraying of chemicals over illegal crops due to the harm the practice causes to the environment and public health. Other victims include Juana Perea, a Colombian-Spanish dual citizen who was abducted and killed by paramilitaries in the western Pacific region of Chocó last October. She had developed sustainable tourism in the region and opposed the construction of a port which would destroy rainforest and mangroves. Rural land defender José Gustavo Arcila was murdered at his home in Corinto, Cauca, on 26 July 2020.
Colombia’s shocking violence directed against environmental defenders comes as the government refuses to ratify the Escazú Agreement, an international treaty signed by 24 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Colombia. The agreement contains provisions on environmental justice, public participation in creating environmental policies and guarantees over the rights of environmental defenders. The agreement has encountered strong opposition from powerful business lobbies in Colombia, including national associations of ranchers, rice producers, coffee producers and others whose profits depend on exploitation of land and natural resources. Opposition politicians and social organisations continue to call on the government to ratify the Escazú agreement, with several congress members in President Iván Duque’s Democratic Centre party openly hostile to its implementation.