Colombian Activists Defend the Environment Risking their Lives

By Sinikka Tarvainen, (dpa)

Colombian indigenous activist and environmentalist Milton Conda. Photo:

Defending the environment is a risky business in Colombia, where more activists were killed in 2019 than in any other country. Critics accuse the government of lacking the political will to protect campaigners, who face a constant threat from armed groups.

HAVANA TIMES – For four years now, Colombian indigenous activist and environmentalist Milton Conda has feared for his life.

“The threatening pamphlets were left outside in 2017, 2018 and last May, with the most recent one telling me to leave or I would become a military target,” the 40-year-old told dpa from Florida, in the violence-plagued south-western Cauca region.

Conda has also received two threatening phone calls from people whose identity is not clear.

“I cannot sleep peacefully,” says the father of two, who is seeking advice from elders of his Nasa ethnic group about possibly leaving the region.

Conda has reason to worry. In Colombia more land and environmental activists were killed last year than in any other country, according to the NGO Global Witness, which reported 64 such killings there in 2019.

That was up 150 per cent from 2018 and constitutes 30 per cent of documented killings globally.

The coronavirus pandemic has not stopped and may even have fuelled assassinations of civil-society activists because “armed groups can more easily find people who are confined in their homes,” said Leonardo Gonzalez from non-governmental organization (NGO) Indepaz, which monitors the killings.

Conda has campaigned against the construction of a highway of more than 1,400 kilometres from Puerto Carreno to Buenaventura, which would cross five indigenous mountain reservations.

The government has billed the project as economically beneficial to 16 million people but Conda says it would destroy two paramos

– unique Andean ecosystems that between them contain 365 lagoons.

The activist has also opposed plans to start mining projects in the area. Those threatening him, who his community thinks could be paramilitaries, accuse him of preventing “development.”

Activists who support environmental protection, land rights, human rights and other causes face a constant threat from armed groups, with a 2016 peace deal with guerrilla movement FARC failing to restore calm.

About 7,000 FARC fighters were demobilized but other armed groups are now vying for power in areas the guerrillas withdrew from.

Nearly 1,000 activists were killed in Colombia between the signing of the peace deal and mid-July, according to Indepaz.

FARC dissidents, the guerrilla group National Liberation Army (ELN), paramilitaries and criminal gangs threaten or kill people opposed to their presence and activities, such as illegal mining and trafficking drugs through rural areas.

Global Witness attributed a third of the 64 killings it documented to organized criminal and paramilitary groups. Fourteen of the victims had supported or participated in programmes to substitute the cultivation of coca – the plant cocaine is made from – with other crops.

Activists are also targeted for opposing monoculture – the cultivation of just a single crop in a given area – or oil exploration, Gonzalez said.

Half of the environmentalists murdered in 2019 were indigenous people, though they only make up 4 per cent of the population, according to Global Witness.

Leadership in indigenous communities is always environmentally oriented because their world view is based on preserving their ecosystems, Camilo Nino from the National Committee of Indigenous Territories (CNTI) said.

The consolidation of indigenous land rights and defence of indigenous culture contribute to “the protection of forests and water,” he added.

President Ivan Duque’s government has provided thousands of grassroots activists with bodyguards and other security measures, but critics say the right-wing, pro-business government does not have a strong commitment to protecting people who often oppose infrastructure or other economic projects.

Conda says that one of his two bodyguards and a car that had been given to him were taken away, with authorities claiming that security had improved.

About 90 per cent of killings of human rights defenders go unpunished, Global Witness pointed out.

A critic of the 2016 peace deal, Duque is also accused of not fully implementing some key aspects that might help to pacify the countryside, such as crop substitution and the reincorporation of former FARC fighters into society.

Killings may be encouraged or tolerated by some entrepreneurs and politicians, who hire armed groups to protect their interests or who launder drug money, Gonzalez said.

Nino pointed to cases where armed groups displaced people and agribusiness companies and then moved in to take their land.

Some of the killings are carried out by soldiers, who may be allied with armed groups, Gonzalez said.

Conda, meanwhile, does not intend to give up the fight even if he has to move. “Not all of us agree with our territory being destroyed,” he said.