Fatal protest

The dangers of environmental activism in Colombia and what's being done about it.

In 2020, Colombia was the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists. According to Global Witness, an international NGO, 65 environmental leaders were murdered in the country, out of a total of 227 activists killed around the world.

An executive at an environmental NGO in Colombia explained part of the issue, “The problem is that, in Colombia, there is no legal category of environmental leaders in the same way as there is for human rights defenders. This makes it hard to gather data on the types of threats faced by environmental leaders and means that government institutions won’t recognise a systemic threat to these people. The work of Global Witness has helped to shed light on the issue.”

“The problem is that, in Colombia, there is no legal category of environmental leaders in the same way as there is for human rights defenders.”

Executive, environmental NGO, Colombia

The main obstacle for the protection of these activists lies in the convergence of powerful interests unwilling to combat environmental threats. International and national corporations, corrupt public officials, paramilitary groups and drug cartels vie for the control of swathes of land in Colombia which block the path to a negotiated solution.

An official at Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development commented, “Drug trafficking destabilises local economies and social leaders who denounce abuses and lack of environmental control are vulnerable to violent reactions from organised crime. The government is aware of this and is working to provide them with protection; the perception that the government doesn’t care is false. You have to remember that just twenty years ago, there were some parts of Colombia that had no police or army presence, there is a lot of work still to do.”

“Drug trafficking destabilises local economies and social leaders who denounce abuses and lack of environmental control are vulnerable to violent reactions from organised crime.”

Official, Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, Colombia

To combat the threat, President Iván Duque has increased military operations against criminal groups and resolved to send additional judges to remote areas.

In this context, on 22th April 2021 the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean approved the Escazú Agreement, an environmental treaty which protects the rights of every person of present and future generations to live in a healthy environment with sustainable development. The agreement includes defence mechanisms for environmental activists.

“The agreement is important for the issue of social leaders,” explains an environmental lawyer, “Article 9 refers to human rights defenders in environmental matters, stating that adequate and effective measures will be taken to recognise, protect and promote all the rights of human rights defenders in environmental matters and prevent, investigate and punish attacks, threats or intimidation with respect to them.”

The lawyer continued to outline the strengths and limitations of the Escazú Agreement, “The agreement is important for several reasons: it promotes inter-institutional cooperation and it brings jurisprudence on environmental issues in terms of information, participation and justice. The major limitation is that Colombia does not recognise the competence of the International Court of Justice so the agreement has no teeth.”

In Colombia, the government agreed to sign the Escazú Agreement only after the country experienced massive social protests which endangered the position of President Iván Duque. Nevertheless, its approval has been subject to criticism after several trade unions and civil society groups argued that the country would lose national sovereignty if it entered the treaty.

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