We must protect those defending the land and environment in Colombia

By Rodrigo Sales

The COVID-19 pandemic has redefined the vital importance of the home as a space in which we can evolve and feel safe. It has also, however, highlighted the situation of millions of people for whom their home is, paradoxically, the most insecure place for them.

This includes people living in some of Colombia’s most natural resource-rich areas. For them, defending their homes has become a lethal activity.

According to the most recent information from Global Witness, Colombia is the world’s most dangerous country for human rights defenders. For those defending rights to land, territory and the environment, the situation is even worse.

Their demand is simple: to live in peace in their home. But, for them, that home is not a physical space with a bedroom, a living room and a kitchen; it is their territory, with its rivers, forests, plants and animals.

This territory is also their hospital, where they find healing for their physical and psychological wounds. It is their sacred temple, used for rituals and to connect with deities. It is their supermarket, because the land gives them their food. And it is where friendships are forged, because everyone sees themselves as part of the same environment.

According to the most recent information from Global Witness, Colombia is the world’s most dangerous country for human rights defenders

Afro-descendant, indigenous and rural farming communities exercise collective ownership of the land and territory and it is they that are defending the resources that keep our planet – and us – breathing.

“The Amazon is important to me because it's my home but it's also home to many others. Those who don't live in the Amazon are still linked to it, even if they don't know it, because it helps them breath, it is one of the lungs of the planet,” defender Jani Silva told me as we sailed down the Putumayo River.

And yet the natural wealth that offers them a way of life on the land is, paradoxically, the very thing that is putting them in most danger because armed groups and businesses want to exploit it and unscrupulous authorities are failing in their duty to protect them.

Over the last year I’ve had a chance to meet many people who, like Jani, have been putting their lives on the line to defend their home and the environment for decades. Their stories have been captured in Amnesty International's new report “Why do they want to kill us?

Many of them have paid a high price for their courageous work. Jani, for example, had to leave her community in 2018 because of constant threats and attacks from armed groups that invaded her territory following the departure of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016.

But these threats have made her even stronger and more determined.

“No one's going to stop me,” she says. “As long as there are abuses in the territory, I'll keep denouncing them. One day, I'll be able to go home.”

Jani's story of pain and courage is repeated across the country.

Danelly Estupiñán, who defends the rights of Afro-descendant communities in the western city of Buenaventura, has also had to leave her home because of the threats she has suffered.

She says the attacks are in retaliation for her opposition to several infrastructure projects in this large port city. Fighting for recognition of the ancestral rights of Afro-descendant communities puts her in danger. The authorities have provided her with bodyguards but Danelly says that is not enough. What is needed, she says, is for the state to address the structural causes of violence against the communities.

“These protective measures don't mitigate the risk because the attacks aren’t really aimed at me, they’re aimed at the work I do. Anyone doing the same work would suffer the same attacks,” Danelly explains.

In other areas of Colombia, including those where coca is grown and where the armed conflict is ongoing, the situation is even worse.

María Ciro, a human rights defender I met in Catatumbo, in the east of the country, explains that the region’s communities live not only with the threat of armed groups and the army, but also with a lack of humanitarian aid from the government, which prevents them from finding viable substitutes for their illicit crops.

“People have taken refuge in their homes, which means they can't work in the fields or obtain food to eat,” María told me.

People like María, who are working to defend these people, are stigmatized by the perception that rural farmers are linked to drug trafficking.

Colombia is a country of paradoxes. On the one hand, it has some of the highest standards and the most protocols and institutions protecting human rights defenders, but at the same time more people are killed there than anywhere else for trying to protect the land and environment

Indigenous community leaders also spoke to me about the attacks against them.

Mauro Chipiaje, an indigenous community leader from the Meta region, told me that once they were able to return to their territory in 2015, after decades of displacement, they realized that the environment had been destroyed and that other people were taking over. Today, they are fighting to get their homes and their lives back.

Colombia is a country of paradoxes. On the one hand, it has some of the highest standards and the most protocols and institutions protecting human rights defenders, but at the same time more people are killed there than anywhere else for trying to protect the land and environment.

One problem is that the authorities are not listening to the communities about the protective measures they need. Another is our apathy and failure to understand that all those who defend the land, territory and environment are protecting not only their own homes, but the very nature that keeps all of us on this planet alive.