“Cecilia! Cecilia! Get out here now!” The man’s voice pierced the midnight calm in rural Colombia, just outside the home of Cecilia Muriel in September. This was not the first time that assassins had tried to get to the Colombian land defender.
Muriel, along with her 20-year-old daughter and her five-year-old grandson, could only hope the men would leave. They had little choice - they knew that police wouldn’t help and that government protection measures were useless.
Muriel works for the organization Movimiento Rios Vivos, a collection of 15 groups who oppose the construction of the hydro-electric dam Hidroituango. The $5 billion megaproject aims to be Colombia’s biggest dam and provide 17% of the country’s electricity by 2024, and they say it has already had a devastating environmental impact.
Several times this year, a white pick-up truck with no license plates had parked in Muriel’s neighborhood and armed men had got out, going from door to door asking about her whereabouts. Now they were here again.
The men eventually gave up. But Muriel went into hiding. Hundreds of environmental defenders in Colombia feel the same fear in what is the most dangerous region in the world for their work, according to a recent Global Witness report. Rios Vivos was founded to defend the environment from the Hidroituango dam project, and in the midst of the nation-wide lockdown to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, members of Rios Vivos felt even more vulnerable.
“COVID-19 gave illegal armed groups the space they needed to strengthen,” Isabel Zuleta said, another Rios Vivos leader who also gets regular threats. “With everyone shut up in their homes, people are seeing groups of 20, 30 paramilitaries patrolling rural areas.” Violence against social leaders worsened by 85% since the start of the pandemic, according to experts.
In October, Front Line Defenders, a human rights organization, sent a letter to Colombian authorities expressing concern about Zuleta’s security, and that of Rios Vivos more generally. The letter referred to the sustained death threats against Muriel, as well as a smear campaign by a university professor.
“Most recently, I got a threat via Facebook saying I deserved two bullets in the head,” Zuleta said.
Despite the 2016 peace agreement between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country is far from at peace. The killing of social leaders is systematic and massacres are rising. Illegal armed groups want to control land and natural resources that major economic interests later hope to exploit. Often, the only thing standing between armed groups’ bid for territorial control are Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and peasant communities who are trying to stay on their ancestral lands. As a result, leaders of such communities are in the crosshairs.
“People have to understand that there is armed conflict in Colombia,” said Victor Hugo Moreno, former director of the Association of Community Counsels of Northern Cauca (Aconc), a grouping of 41 Afro-Colombian communities in the Cauca department on Colombia’s pacific coast. Moreno survived a grenade attack last year during a meeting with other organizations.
“The human rights violations are systematic, so what the international community has to do is support communities such as ours, who are helping to care for water, land, and the environment in general,” said Moreno.
He contrasts the view of Aconc with that of large-scale mining and agro-industrial interests in northern Cauca. “Our vision is to live in an area of peace, where people can do sustainable mining without any mercury pollution, like our ancestors,” Moreno said. “One of the things that makes our ancestral mining different from illegal mining or extractive mining is that they destroy the territory to mine all of the minerals.”
The struggle for the control of land and resources could explain why Cauca has had the most assassinations of social leaders and land defenders since 2016, and the second-most massacres in 2020, behind Antioquia, where Isabel Zuleta is based.
“You have to take into account the riches in these territories and that behind these armed groups there is always someone, someone sponsoring, someone financing, someone paying them,” said Leonardo González, whose organization the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace “Indepaz” tracks the assassinations of social leaders and land defenders. Since the signing of the 2016 peace deal, more than 1,000 have been killed.
“You can’t separate Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders from environmental defenders, because in most of those situations it involves the defense of natural resources in addition to their land rights,” said Gimena Sánchez from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights think tank. “Leaders have been threatened there, including Francia Márquez who got the Goldman Prize for the environment.”
Márquez survived the same grenade attack as Moreno in 2019. She received the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2018 for protecting her home in Cauca from the environmental impact of illegal mining, and also from multinational mining companies entering the territory, including the South African gold-mining multinational AngloGold Ashanti.
According to Colombia’s mining registry, AngloGold Ashanti has extensive gold mining interests in Cauca. Other NGOs have also denounced AngloGold for having a negative impact on human rights in the region for years. Both Santander de Quilichao and Suarez had suffered historical violence throughout Colombia’s armed conflict including displacements, massacres, and assassinations and both municipalities have continued to endure violence after the 2016 peace deal. This year alone, there have been massacres in Suarez, Santander de Quilichao, and in neighboring Buenos Aires.
AngloGold Ashanti has put out statements denying any involvement in the armed conflict and claiming that they work to uphold human rights. Regarding Cauca specifically, they say they have no interest in mining as they sold their rights to Royal Roads Minerals in 2018. However, their name still appears in Colombia’s national mining registry, which the company says is due to bureaucratic delays in updating the information.
Violence against environmental and land defenders is a regional issue. While the Philippines was second to Colombia in environmental leaders assassinated, the following five countries were all from Latin America, according to Global Witness. Honduras is also one of the most dangerous countries to defend the environment, where Goldman Prize winner Berta Cáceres was assassinated in 2016 while defending her land from a major hydroelectric dam. In Mexico, illegal armed groups involved with illicit logging are leaving communities terrorized.
Back in Colombia, the government has been sending mixed messages about the violence against climate defenders. While in January the Public Prosecutor’s office said they made progress in 57% of the cases of homicides against social leaders, Colombian President Iván Duque has avoided using the word “massacres” and instead labelling them “collective homicides,” a euphemism criticized by Human Rights Watch.
Colombia’s High Peace Commissioner went further, saying that “there were no massacres in Colombia, merely combats between criminal gangs related to drugs.” Michael Forst, Special Rapporteur from the UN, has said the Colombian government “doesn’t have a strategy to defend social leaders.”
Duque’s government continues to support the Hidroituango dam, posting photos to his twitter of a recent visit to the project, together with the government of Antioquia, the company building the dam, and representatives of the Inter-American Development Bank, who are funding the project.
Life for Isabel Zuleta and Rios Vivos was difficult before the COVID-19 crisis set in, but now they are struggling to survive. “We are only just figuring out what to do,” Zuleta said.
Amid a biological, economic, and political crisis, one of the biggest struggles has been getting people’s attention. Her and her companions move from one emergency to the next: On November 11, riot police evicted members of Rios Vivos from land which they claim as ancestral.
“Criminal groups are able to move free of worry. All the attention, of institutions, of mass media, everything, has been concentrated on COVID for months. We can denounce what’s happening, but nothing other than COVID gets mentioned,” she said.
But Zuleta and her colleagues remain at risk, whether anyone notices or not.