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Military policemen patrol the streets in Bogota on Sept. 16.RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

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For a second year in a row, Colombia is the world’s most dangerous country for environmentalists, according to an international human rights group that has documented the deaths of land and environmental defenders around the globe since 2012.

In its latest report titled Last Line of Defence, Global Witness highlighted the murders of 65 land-rights and environmental defenders in Colombia that took place in 2020 – an all-time high since the reports began in 2012. The killings accounted for 29 per cent of all of the 227 documented murders of environmental activists worldwide.

The inconsistent implementation of the 2016 peace accords with the former combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC guerrillas), and the government’s failure to breach the socioeconomic divide and wealth inequality between urban and rural Colombia are cited as factors contributing to the increase.

The reasons for the killings are several-fold, ranging from environmental campaigners falling into the crosshairs of paramilitary, guerrilla and other criminal groups vying to increase their control of lucrative and strategic coca-growing regions, to other defenders speaking out to protect their lands from large-scale industrial development such as fracking projects, mining concessions and more. The report also makes it clear that there’s a diversity of types of environmental leaders that have been targeted.

“There are leaders who are trying to prevent deforestation. That deforestation is largely happening due to cattle ranching, tearing down forests to grow things like palm or to harvest wood. Those can be legal and can be illegal interests,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at International Crisis Group. “But the bottom line is that there’s an economic interest at stake and the resistance is a civilian who is unprotected and has very limited resources and is someone who is essentially disposable to this very powerful interest.”

The majority of the killings took place in rural territories with little or no state presence, although each case is different and each region comes with its economic particularities – be they gold mining, coca cultivation or an agribusiness project. During the armed conflict prior to the 2016 peace accords, many were under the control of the FARC guerrillas.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that environmental leaders are only endangered by armed groups and their interests,” Ms. Dickinson said. “But, in fact, it’s the entire economy in these areas that’s rigged against them.”

Tragically, environmental activists are far from the only individuals targeted. Indepaz, the Colombian institute of Studies for Development and Peace, has reported the assassinations of 115 social and community leaders so far in 2021. And in the lead-up to the presidential elections due to take place in 2022, Pares, the Colombian Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, has registered incidents of electoral violence occurring every four days for the past five months.

Global Witness points to the Colombian government’s failure in carrying out the peace accords. President Ivan Duque campaigned on a platform of “tearing the agreement to shreds,” before being elected into office in 2018.

Those involved in the formal peace negotiations with the FARC lament the missed opportunity to effectuate “territorial peace.” The concept is designed to recognize the Colombian state’s debt to the countryside and its inhabitants – after decades of abandonment – by creating a participatory response to the peace agenda through political participation and reparation.

Predictably, the COVID-19 pandemic only served to worsen the situation across the country. Official lockdowns led to defenders being targeted in their homes, and government protection measures were cut. As such, the lack of progress in pursuing the perpetrators has left a long trail of impunity. Colombia has a broad range of policies and laws designed to prevent abuses against environmental defenders and other people at risk, but the National Protection Unit, implemented in 2011, only provides individual protection schemes in response to reported threats.

“Institutions in Colombia just don’t investigate. The perpetrators are not identified and the only information we receive is that it was a hitman, and nothing more,” said Marina Commandulli, a campaigner for Global Witness. “And the government’s response in some cases has been the militarization of an affected territory. Militarization does not resolve the root causes of the problems.”

In October, 2019, in response to the killing of five members of an indigenous community in the state of Cauca, Mr. Duque ordered the deployment of 2,500 soldiers to complement the extra 1,350 he had sent the previous August to dismantle groups involved in narco-trafficking in the region.

Along with legal and illegal economic interests in Colombia’s regions, forced displacements from previous periods of conflict have also created grey areas in terms of ownership.

“There were huge displacements of people from their lands in the 1980s and 1990s,” said environmental activist Oscar Sampayo from the city of Barrancabermeja, an oil-rich region of central Colombia that has seen more than its fair share of conflict. “Near here, stolen lands were later registered to front men for the now defunct Norte del Valle drug cartel. We don’t know who they belong to now, but we can say that we know that they are being primed for petroleum exploration.”

Home to the largest oil refinery in the country, Barrancabermeja and its surrounding areas in the state of Santander have long been coveted for natural resources and strategic positioning on the imposing Magdalena river, a fluvial highway from the interior of the country to the Caribbean coast.

Mr. Sampayo campaigns for the defence of water sources in Santander and against fracking in the region. Despite having received two death threats from the Aguilas Negras paramilitary group in 2021, he doesn’t shy from his work.

“In Colombia, death threats are carried out,” he said. “But, aside from this fact, the real concern is the lack of any action from the authorities. There’s a triumvirate of actors behind these economic interests here and politicians, business owners and paramilitary groups are all involved.”

Similar to thousands of others in Colombia, Mr. Sampayo is committed to continuing his activism. Whether they are involved in campaigns against fracking, mining, aerial fumigations of coca crops or agribusiness, Colombia’s environmental defenders remain imperiled.

“These people are on the front line of risk,” Ms. Dickinson said.

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