Dying while defending life:

The ignored struggle of environmental leaders in Colombia

By Carolina Ocampo-Ariza, Iván Beltrán and Angelica Castro

June 13th 2021

The steep increase in the number of social leaders killed in Colombia since 2016 is a terrifying situation that today, five years later, continues to worsen with insufficient attention from the national government. The activism of many of these leaders was focused on protecting the environment, protesting against extractive and agroindustrial activities and pioneering the substitution of illicit crops. This is a battle against the activities that put at risk the biodiversity, the quality of water and air, and therefore the viability of the territory for the permanence of rural communities.

It is worth highlighting the alarming figures reported by Global Witness, according to which in 2019 a total of 212 environmental defenders were killed worldwide in their fight to protect natural and agricultural resources from unscrupulous megaprojects and organized crime. That is an average of three environmentalists killed every week in 2019(1). Of this number, 64 environmental leaders were assassinated in Colombia, leaving the country in the sad and shameful first place as the most lethal country for defending the environment. The leaders were assassinated while carrying out a vital struggle aimed at seeking a change that would guarantee their lives in the territory. 

But, what happened in 2020? Sadly, the assassinations and persecutions continued. This was one of the harshest years for leaders in Colombia. The Indepaz Institute reported a total of 310 social leaders assassinated in 2020 alone(2).Of this daunting number, 88 were environmental leaders according to our research. To date, the national government has not acknowledged these numbers, there have been no thorough investigations leading to the truth, and no reparations have been made to the families. Moreover, there is absolutely no official consideration of the possibility of building an agenda for the protection of the environmental leaders or any social leadership activity. 

And what are the prospects for 2021? So far this year the situation has only worsened. Indepaz is keeping a detailed count of the number of murdered social leaders (including environmental, civic, indigenous and other leaders), and by June 6th, 67 leaders had been murdered so far. This means that approximately 3 social leaders have been killed every week, a reality that coincides with that of 2019. It is difficult to imagine what magnitude these figures and the current situation must reach, in order for the civil society and the national government to lead a real and drastic change in our legislation and behaviour ensuring the right of life for social and environmental leaders.

Environmental leaders killed in Colombia between 2016-2020. The top left panel highlights the most affected departments in the country. The bottom left panel shows the percentage of cases depending on the categories that will be discussed in this and future articles.

The unwillingness of the national government to recognize the relevance of social leaders and of the country's natural and agricultural resources is astonishingly clear. Focused on the country's economic development, the sustainability goals set in recent years by the national government ignore the country's rural reality and make no mention whatsoever of the economic investment needed to simultaneously meet environmental and social needs. For example, the promise to plant 369 million trees in the country by 2022 - reduced to 180 million in 2020 - has not been achieved, nor is there any clarityon what areas are being reforested, which plant species are being used and how - or if - local communities are being involved in this work. The answers from the Ministry of the Environment on what has been done so far in this regard and plans for the future are vague

and delayed(3). Such inconsistencies force environmental leaders to put their lives at risk in the fight to have their issues heard in a serious and responsive manner. And despite the obligation of national institutions to protect their social rights and environmental struggles, they continue to be assassinated. This situation is exacerbated by the constant approval of licences for extractive projects in protected areas such as the paramos.

The government must promote strong actions and legislation to mitigate current environmental damage, including deforestation and the increase of illegal road projects in protected areas. There is an urgent need to deepen issues of water use and protection, the clear establishment and sustainable management of agricultural borders, the fulfilment of agreements for the substitution of illicit crops, and an end to financing mechanisms for the purchase and expropriation of peasant lands by large landowners. All of this is only possible with administrative and legal control, putting pressure on government officials for non-compliance with environmental goals and laws that have an impact on land and environmental issues. 

It is a fact that military intervention has a dissuasive effect, but heavily militarised areas such as Cauca and Catatumbo, show a large number of assassinations of leaders without any positive effect on the quality of life or the perception of security of their inhabitants. As has already been mentioned by numerous social organisations, militarisation is far from being the means to structurally and fundamentally transform the country's security problems.

As citizens we are obliged to continue exerting pressure on the national government, as well as on national control bodies and national and international vigilance, to prevent institutional weakness from continuing to cost us lives. It is in our hands to demand from the current and incoming governments a solid plan to put an end to the persecution and assassination of social and environmental leaders, and that the murders already perpetrated do not go unpunished. This governmental responsibility must be backed up with actions, such as ratifying adherence to the Escazú agreement, which seeks to guarantee the public and safe participation of the civilian population in environmental matters, as well as enabling open and transparent access to information on environmental issues in Latin America and the Caribbean.

There is also an urgent need for explicit and quantitative information on the amount of resources handled in environmental impact projects. Similarly, there must be control over the damage mitigation plans from a scientific, practical and social point of view, along with details of institutional decisions on whether or not to approve projects that have an impact on the environment. Such information should be public and easily accessible, without guardianship and long waits.

It is in our hands to make conscious, pro-environmental decisions, to ensure that our daily actions are consistent with urgent environmental causes. But above all, it is our conscious vote which will make it possible for these demands to be heard and attended by incoming governments. Our greatest challenge, but also our greatest opportunity as citizens, will be to make electoral decisions that reflect the righteousness and transparency of candidates as a guarantor of respect for the lives of environmental leaders and the sustainable management of our resources.

Colombia's economy is and will inevitably be linked to environmental and ecological resources, as they are our greatest potential and wealth. However, the country's economic development must never imply the loss of lives, or the destruction and privatisation of natural resources that are especially fundamental to Colombia's rural communities. The problems faced by environmental leaders today do not allow us to wait any longer for action. Indifference and ignorance of our reality encourages the armed actors to continue their actions.

Given the seriousness of this problem, this article opens a series of three reports that seek to provide in-depth information on some of the complex activities - grouped into three categories - in which Colombian environmental leaders are immersed.

Images by Cristian Arias, Sisma Mujer, AP and twitter @willj84753699.

# 1: Agriculture and territory: Agro-industry, agrarian reform and land restitution.

# 2: Illicit crops and forests: Substitution of illicit crops and exploitation of forest resources.

# 3: Extractive industries: The price in gold and blood of defending water

With these reports we raise our voices in protest at the crisis facing environmental leaders in Colombia and demand immediate solutions for the protection of their lives. 


Global Witness. (2020) Defending Tomorrow: Climate Crisis and Threats to Land and Environmental Defenders. Version 3. ISBN: 978-1-911606-43-7

Indepaz. (2020) Registro permanente: Líderes sociales y defensores de los derechos humanos asesinados en 2020. Bogotá: Colombia. http://www.indepaz.org.co/lideres/ 

Barrientos, J. P. (2020) La engañosa promesa de reforestación del gobierno de Iván Duque y el perdón. Vorágine: periodismo contracorriente. Available at: https://voragine.co/la-promesa-enganosa-de-reforestacion-del-gobierno-de-ivan-duque/ 

CEPAL (2021). Acuerdo regional sobre el acceso a la información, la participación pública y el acceso a la justicia en asuntos ambientales en América Latina y el Caribe. https://www.cepal.org/es/acuerdodeescazu