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Environmental defenders in Colombia are being killed in alarming numbers

Protecting natural resources makes leaders a target for organized crime.

A treeless ring in a forest, seen from above, with smoke coming from the center.
Aerial view of illegal deforestation at the Natural National Park in La Macarena, Meta Department, Colombia, on September 3, 2020.
Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images

In Colombia, working to protect the environment can put a target on your back — and even cost you your life.

On December 3, Javier Francisco Parra Cubillos, a 47-year-old environmental official representing the Meta region in central Colombia, was fatally shot several times by two assailants on a motorcycle as he was traveling through a local municipality.

Parra Cubillos, or “Pacho” as he was called, had spent more than 20 years working for Cormacarena, an agency focused on the sustainable development of La Macarena, a small town 275 kilometers south of the Colombian capital, Bogotá.

For decades, the Colombian government’s war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — a Marxist guerrilla group that waged an armed insurgency in the country for over 50 years, fueled in large part by revenue from the drug trade — made La Macarena a perilous location to visit. But the government’s 2016 peace agreement with the FARC opened up the region to a flood of visitors. Pacho had dedicated his life to protecting the area’s natural resources.

But that work put him in direct conflict with those who want to use the land for other purposes, such as drug cultivation and resource extraction. And he’s not alone: In a July 2020 report, the international human rights watchdog group Global Witness confirmed that 64 land and environmental defenders were killed in Colombia in 2019, making it the deadliest country to be an environmental leader that year.

Colombia Attorney General Fernando Carrillo Flórez called for the prosecution of Pacho’s murderers, blaming the violence toward environmental leaders on organized gangs.

“The defense of the environment and the wealth of forests and jungles has made our environmental leaders a target of criminal mafias,” he tweeted on December 3. “We condemn the murder of Javier Parra, coordinator of Cormacarena, Meta. His murderers must be prosecuted.”

But the problem isn’t confined to Colombia. Around the world, from Brazil to India to Burkina Faso, environmental officials and activists regularly face the threat of being murdered, falsely accused of committing crimes, or harassed for standing up for the environment. According to Global Witness, 212 environmental leaders were killed around the world in 2019 — the deadliest year on record.

A chart showing the total number of land and environmental defenders killed in 2019 by country. Global Witness

But over half of those deaths occurred in just two countries: Colombia and the Philippines, with Colombia far outpacing all others.

The problem is even more pronounced for indigenous environment and land defenders. Despite only making up 5 percent of the world’s population, Global Witness found that 40 percent of defenders murdered in 2019 came from indigenous communities.

A similar trend exists in Colombia, where indigenous people and other racial minorities have suffered centuries of discrimination and lack of attention from the central government. “In terms of victimization, indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations suffer disproportionately to their percentages of the population,” Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center, told me.

How did it get so bad in Colombia?

Land disputes were a major factor in Colombia’s five-decade-long civil war.

As Amanda Taub explained for Vox in 2014, “In the early 1960s, the FARC and other leftist guerrilla groups formed as a rural insurgency that claimed to represent the interests of Colombia’s poor against the landed elite.” Land reform to address social and economic inequality was one of the FARC’s key demands.

But, as Taub noted, “The elite responded by organizing private ‘self-defense’ organizations to oppose the rebels” — and to defend the wealthy landowners — “which soon transformed into right-wing paramilitary groups. That became the civil war that has lasted ever since, albeit in sometimes very different forms.”

In the past 20 or so years, new disputes over land have also emerged due to drug trafficking and industries dependent on raw materials like mining. Environmental leaders and land defenders are often on the front lines protecting resource-rich areas from exploitation, which exposes them to danger.

In 2016, the Colombian government and the FARC signed a peace agreement to end the 52-year conflict, winning then-President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize. But the deal hasn’t exactly been the resounding success many hoped it would be, and there has been an increase in violence in many parts of the country.

Daniel Cano Insuasty is a Colombia-based political relations coordinator for the Colombia Barometer Initiative of the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame, which monitors the 2016 peace agreement. He told me the peace agreement “wasn’t comprehensive enough to include all the different illegal armed groups in Colombia.” So, he explained, the increase in violence across the country “is something expected.”

The interests of these armed groups, Cano Insuasty said, is focused on illegal drugs — which is directly in conflict with the interests of land defenders like Pacho, who advocate for sustainability and the protection of forests.

The peace agreement also saw an increase in social leadership on environmental issues, which led to increased visibility. “Pacho was a very public figure,” Cano Insuasty said, which made him a target for armed groups.

The Colombian government blames paramilitary forces including the National Liberation Army (ELN), ex-FARC members who do not support the peace agreement, and criminal gangs for the violence. These groups are fighting for control over areas with heavy drug trafficking and illegal mining. These areas often overlap with areas rich in natural resources, which land and environmental defenders have been killed trying to protect.

But experts say the government’s absence from areas it secured from the FARC is also to blame. “That vacuum of power became the focus of a struggle for control of territory between a variety of criminal groups, including the ELN,” Arnson at the Wilson Center told me. “The killings are a reflection of the lack of a state presence.”

So why doesn’t the Colombian government just send more police or troops to protect the land defenders? It’s complicated.

One problem, Arnson noted, is that Colombia’s armed forces are divided over what to do to further secure areas facing violence. Another is that Colombia’s rugged terrain is very challenging to protect, which Arnson said is “one of the reasons why historically the state has had such weak control.”

The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the problem, placing environmental defenders at even greater risk, Chris Madden, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, told me. He said many defenders and organizers have told the organization that during the pandemic, the government has pulled back on its responsibilities to secure the region while simultaneously allowing further extraction of natural resources.

What’s more, “the coronavirus lockdown appears to have worsened the situation. We did get reports where people were attacked because they were known to be in a location because of lockdown,” Madden said.

There is a way forward

Experts say the government needs to do more to punish perpetrators and to tackle the root causes driving this violence.

When environmental defenders are killed in Colombia, the courts rarely deliver justice. According to a special report by the UN Human Rights Council, almost 90 percent of murders of human rights activists in the country do not lead to a conviction.

“There’s also the impunity issue, so these murders need to be investigated. And when people are found guilty in the legal system, they should be prosecuted based on that,” Global Witness’s Madden said.

But it isn’t as simple as beefing up security and setting up courts to prosecute crimes against defenders. Arnson said that protecting rural areas requires “basic services, health care, education, and a judicial presence as well, not just a security presence — which take a long time to build up.”

“Many specialists and international analysts agree the Colombian peace agreement is the most comprehensive in the world,” Cano Insuasty said. “90 percent of the agreement is focused on social development programs, which is different than others in the world which focus on disarmament or demobilization.”

The way forward, he said, is to have a government with the political commitment and the resources necessary to actually achieve Colombia’s ambitious program of rural transformation.

But, as Arnson noted, “Even if that was going to be challenging before Covid, it’s even more challenging [now] in the face of the sharp economic decline [and] the rise in unemployment.”