On August 30, Colombian President Iván Duque and administration officials hosted a hybrid Biodiversity PreCOP event in Leticia, Amazon department to discuss priorities and expectations for a post-2020 global biodiversity framework.
A controversial image, however, drew widespread attention: the president, accompanied by Minister of Environment, Carlos Correa, appeared seated at a main table without masks, while some Indigenous people with masks were seated on benches, lower down. Others were seen standing at the back.
In response to the event, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, ONIC) published a statement addressed to President Duque appealing for a serious dialogue on biodiversity. According to the ONIC, the Colombian government hosted this event with the Jusy Monilla Amilla Indigenous Community in the Colombian Amazon, a community that promotes tourism and is not an official political representative of the ONIC. As the national authority for Indigenous governance, the ONIC claimed the government “hired a tourist services operator to create an image of inclusion and dialogue with Indigenous communities.”
The ONIC’s statement recognized the serious need to address the climate crisis and advance a political agenda with the generational and traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples and nations. In the face of what they deemed a ‘spectacle’, the ONIC affirmed the national government is failing to protect the lives of Indigenous and environmentalists. In 2021 alone, the ONIC has recorded 56 threats against and 33 murders of Indigenous leaders by armed actors throughout Colombia.
The ONIC called on President Duque to convene the Permanent Roundtable for Consultation with Indigenous Peoples (Mesa Permanente de Concertación, MPC) to seriously discuss issues on biodiversity and the 2018-2022 National Development Plan. They invite President Duque “to sit down and talk with the Indigenous authorities and not with tour operators, so [they] can have a direct dialogue about biodiversity.”
An unofficial, English translation of the ONIC’s statement is available here.
*This article is based off of an interview with Yuvelis Natalia Morales, a youth environmental leader that forms part of the Committee for the Defense of Water, Life, and Territory (Comité para la Defensa del Agua, la Vida, y el Territorio, AGUAWIL) in Puerto Wilches, Santander department.
In Colombia, women bear the brunt of the violence as victims and lead rebuilding efforts in their communities. Women social leaders utilize their knowledge, skills, and struggles to comfort and uplift others in their communities. Many defend sustainable agricultural and environmental practices. They campaign for voluntary eradication of illicit crops and replace these with legal crops and play an active role in resisting large-scale development projects, even confronting powerful petroleum and other extractive companies. Others push against the presence of illegal armed groups in their communities and demand political participation. Colombia’s social leaders are fighting to protect communities hardest hit by decades of violence, particularly in the country’s Afro-descendant, Campesino, and Indigenous communities. These efforts are crucial to bringing the commitments in Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord to life.
One of these leaders is Yuvelis Natalia Morales from Puerto Wilches, a town located along the Magdalena River in the northeastern department of Santander. Yuvelis is a youth environmental leader that forms part of the Committee for the Defense of Water, Life, and Territory (Comité para la Defensa del Agua, la Vida, y el Territorio, AGUAWIL). As a student studying technology in environmental resource management, Yuvelis has dedicated her life to defending Puerto Wilches’ natural environment and abundant natural resources sought after by powerful economic interests. Like a river, women social leaders in Colombia continue to give and feed life into their communities. In the same way that fracking has adverse effects on the rivers, so does the lack of government support, corruption, and violence on the country’s social leaders.
The Magdalena Medio region is characterized by its richness in water sources such as rivers and marshes. The rural communities, who have historically protected these resources, suffer internal displacement, violence, and are murdered for defending this ecology. In 2020, Colombia was the country with the most environmental defenders killed globally, with 64 registered homicides. The lack of implementation of the 2016 peace accord increases violence in the territories with the presence of illegal armed groups who fight to control legal and illegal economies. Historically, oil extraction has functioned as an enclave economy in the municipality without generating benefits for the population.
Petroleum companies such as Ecopetrol and Exxonmobil have sought fracking operations in Puerto Wilches for the area’s richness in oil, through a pilot program approved by the Colombian government in December 2020 against the community’s wishes. Yuvelis recounted in an interview with WOLA, that in her opinion, they have done so while disregarding the local inhabitants and their community’s rights. According to Yuvelis, the municipal government fails to provide access to education and support to social leaders who raise awareness of these issues. It is her view that the companies have taken advantage of the community’s social and economic conditions and their lack of knowledge of the area’s biodiversity. Additionally, the local fishing industry has been impacted by the extraction of hydrocarbons, leaving irreparable damages to water sources and the territories. These damages directly affect community members who make a living in the fishing industry, such as Yuvelis’ father.
Additionally, the people of Puerto Wilches live in fear because of the impact of the armed conflict and persisting violence in the territories. People are murdered every day “as if they are made out of paper.” Isolated by Puerto Wilches’ geography, the community, as Yuvelis states, becomes “the community of nobody.” The armed conflict has created such a lasting impact that the people are unaware of the petroleum companies’ true intentions. Consequently, because of a lack of knowledge and education, they are unaware of the biodiverse significance brought in by the Magdalena River. It then becomes easy for these people to give away land, votes, or the entire municipality to have food and general security.
AGUAWIL is an organization of young professionals in the community, like Yuvelis, who have made an effort to educate themselves further on their environment. They have focused on using grassroots activism to raise awareness on the issue of fracking and the impact the pilot projects would have on the area. Through their local neighborhood efforts, they have primarily connected with women in the households. Although there is a general conception that women have no active part in opposing fracking, AGUAWIL has benefitted from the women who have taken their message to heart. They are often uneducated, living in impoverished conditions, and subjected to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, and the women do not want the same for their daughters. As a result, the empowered women have channeled the information about AGUAWIL’s work to other community members and have played a significant role in garnering support for the start-up committee against fracking.
Members of AGUAWIL and other human rights and environmentalist organizations have undergone death threats, assassination attempts, forced displacements, and gender violence after denouncing the irreparable damage to water sources and opposing fracking pilot projects in the region. They have also called attention to the alleged corruption in companies and environmental institutions in different municipalities in the Santander department. They have received pushback in many other forms. They have been called “guerrillas” (guerrilleros), and more than eight AGUAWIL committee members have been threatened, consequently leading to the relocation of some, including Yuvelis, for their safety. Even so, they continue working to advocate and garner support from afar.
Most of the demands made by Yuvelis and others in Puerto Wilches are very basic. They point to the need to educate and raise awareness within the communities of their human rights. They want their communities to be able to defend themselves and manage their futures. This is why Yuvelis dedicated herself to environmental studies to elevate the awareness and education of her hometown. Educating the community helps people recognize that they don’t have to accept low wages and hard work despite the few opportunities in the area. It’s precisely the efforts of social leaders like Yuvelis that help promote peacebuilding, reconciliation, and ultimately meet the needs of communities across Colombia.
“It is very difficult to defend in Colombia, very difficult,” Yuvelis reflects. The government has not protected or helped elevate social leaders’ work across Colombia, including AGUAWIL. She urges that if the government does not do any good towards social leaders, they also need not aggravate the situation. She calls on the international community and human rights organizations to advocate and garner support for social leaders and their causes and help defend human rights.
You can help support their work and protect their lives. Join WOLA’s #ConLíderesHayPaz campaign to support Colombia’s post-accord peace process.
Four years after the signing of the peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a new era of conflict plagues the Pacific department of Chocó. Illegal armed groups continue to viciously contest territorial control, inflicting violence and forcibly displacing Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities. The groups are interested in controlling this biodiverse area rich in minerals including gold. Artisanal mining by Afro-Colombians is a practice started since the time enslaved Africans were exploited and forced to work the mines. This practice takes into account Afro-descendants’ cosmology of environmental preservation and sustainable practices.
In their new book The Price of Gold, Steve Cagan and Mary Kelsey describe how these practices were changed once mechanized mining was introduced to Chocó. While traditional panning for gold minimally affects rivers and forests, mechanized machines and the use of toxic chemicals are creating grave environmental, health, and social damage. In their book, Cagan and Kelsey present an in-depth view of Afro-Colombians’ ancestral mining process and how this cultural practice was integrated into their daily lives. They discuss the impact that widespread mechanized mining is having in these communities and offer testimonials of persons who are fighting for the rights of these communities and the environment.
On Monday, August 3 please join us for a presentation by Steve Cagan and Mary Kelsey about their book The Price of Gold: The Cost of Mechanized Mining in Chocó, Colombia. The event will be moderated by WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli.
Steve Cagan has been working closely with the Catholic Diocese of Quibdó, federations of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, and Colombian and international NGOs in Chocó, Colombia since 2003. His photographs and writing on issues facing the communities there have been exhibited and widely used in publications on social and environmental consequences of gold mining on four continents. Since the mid-1970s, he has been practicing what he prefers to call activist photography. He’s most concerned with exploring strength and dignity in everyday struggles of grassroots people resisting pressures and problems.
Mary Kelsey has exhibited paintings in New York and other cities, and published drawings and paintings with academic, environmental and other organizations in the United States, Honduras, Guatemala, and Colombia. Her art addresses the interface of cultural and natural systems. She was awarded a Fulbright research grant in Costa Rica for her project, “Drawings and photographs: communities, rain forest conservation and sustainable development,” and subsequently returned as a USIA cultural advisor to Honduras, where she worked with teachers and local artists to create the first illustrated school primer in the Miskito language.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli is the Director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), where she advocates for the human and territorial rights of Colombia’s Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, among others. She fell in love with Colombia due to the abundant natural beauty of the Pacific region in 1999. Since then, she’s worked in partnership with ethnic activists to advance peace, protect their rights and preserve their biodiverse areas.
The event will be conducted in English, with Spanish translation available.