By: Antonia Quintero, Spring 2021 Communications and Colombia Intern
*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.