They’re Killing Us: Colombia’s activist crisis

From ToxicLeaks

Colombia’s history of conflict[edit | edit source]

In August 2018, President Iván Duque of Colombia took office with a vow to protect a historic peace agreement while stepping up efforts to secure justice for victims of the country’s armed rebel group, historically the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Yet what’s become clear since the 2016 agreement went into force is that the killings continue and too many victims are environmental activists.


At least two dozen of these threatened indigenous and community leaders died in 2017; they include Hernán Bedoya, who was shot by a paramilitary group 14 times after protesting against the economic and environmental damage of palm oil and banana plantations built on land stolen from his community.


The battles in Colombia over land use and rights are in many respects the same struggle that launched a 50-year civil war, and the legacy of the decades preceding it. FARC was founded in 1964 in the Cauca region – the scene of many killings still today – after years of political violence between the country’s landholding oligarchs and parties, and populist leaders demanding land reform. More than 300,000 Colombians died between 1948 and 1958 in the “La Violencia” uprisings that followed the assassination of Bogota mayor Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. A volatile Colombia gave rise to the FARC years, which saw another 220,000 killed and 7 million people displaced as the leftist guerrillas evolved into drug warlords. At the height of their reach in the 1990s and 2000s, FARC controlled about one-fourth of the nation.

Failure of historic 2016 agreement[edit | edit source]

Optimism ran high as a November 2016 peace deal was signed and FARC disbanded, despite a narrow rejection of the deal by Colombian voters who wanted heavier consequences for FARC members. Its terms included the requirement for FARC rebels to relinquish their arms to United Nations monitors. More than 8,000 weapons were recovered as part of a deal that also guaranteed 10 FARC seats in the legislature, and a reintegration process that has now seen former fighters as assassination targets too.

Yet peace never came to the indigenous leaders protecting land and environmental rights. Targeted killings are on the rise, with armed actors including the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), powerful Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) and newly formed FARC dissident factions. There were seven such deaths, one for each day, in the first week of July alone.

Environmental activists targeted[edit | edit source]

On average, one activist dies every three or four days in Colombia, where the short documentary “They’re Killing Us” by independent filmmakers Daniel Bustos, Tom Laffay and Emily Wright has drawn global attention to their plight. “Activists are being targeted with impunity in the interests of territorial control, illegal mining and illicit crop cultivation,” Laffay said. In Cauca alone there are 12 armed groups, primarily in the drug trade, that stepped into the vacuum FARC left and the government failed to fill.


A July 2018 UN report points to economic projects such as coffee cultivation in Gauca to employ 650 former fighters, and the broader effort to replace coca on plantations linked to the USD$600 million drug trade with other crops. But many of more than 77,000 families who signed voluntary substitution agreements in May 2017 have found a lack of government support for their success. Worse, they find themselves targets too. “It is disconcerting that some community leaders who are participants in the voluntary program have been killed or subjected to threats from drug traffickers,” the UN confirmed.


Ancízar Barrios, a regional representative for the National Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Growers Coop (COCCAM), says farmers are being killed one by one for supporting the effort to substitute other crops for coca and the program is a “fatal failure.” A July 30 attack in El Tarra claimed nine lives, including a community leader and crop-substitution participants; nearly all activists are experiencing death threats.


Nor are coca farmers and ex-rebels the only ones paying the price. Activists standing up to agribusiness and mining concessions face death in Colombia which – according to the Global Witness annual report – remains in the top three worst nations since the NGO began tracking environmental killings in 2002.


The Commission for Justice and Peace in Colombia (CIJP) says cattle ranchers and palm oil and banana growers count on armed groups to intimidate and kill community leaders who are defending their land.

Damage to Colombian ecosystems[edit | edit source]

Colombia’s long decades of conflict have created their own environmental crisis in a country where land mines dot an estimated 50 percent of the landscape, in numbers second only to Afghanistan’s. The Colombian organization Dejusticia adds the bombing of oil pipelines, glyphosate use on illegal crops, chemical pollution from illegal mines, and the impact of forced displacements on agricultural land.


The Colombian government says USD$7.1 billion in environmental costs is attached to the conflict. A forest the size of Belgium has been lost; degraded land will take 20 years to recover; some 60 percent of the water resources are potentially contaminated by the illegal extraction of minerals and oil spills. Yet the greatest and most long-lasting impact is the loss of Colombia’s environmental defenders, standing up to armed groups in the face of death threats to protect their communities and natural resources.