The Atrato River starts in the Plateado Hills of the western mountain range in Antioquia. This river, which crosses the departments of Chocó and Antioquia before flowing into the Gulf of Urabá, is one of the region’s most abundant rivers and an irrefutable source of life. It is also one of the areas hardest hit by the armed conflict. In particular, the Bajo Atrato, and the Urabá subregion have registered around 429,820 victims of forced displacement, dispossession, and selective murders, among other serious human rights violations.
The actions of the banana, palm oil, and mining industries, tied to armed actors, have contributed to a dispossession of ethnic communities from their lands amid grave state omissions relative to protection guarantees. Dispossession suffered by the communities of the Bajo Atrato has a common denominator, a violation of their ancestral rights and environmental impacts on their lands. Additionally, there has been violence against men and women land claimant leaders, like Mario Castaño, murdered five years ago, on 26 November 2017, on his farm in the Larga and Tumaradó river basins (Bajo Atrato).
On 4 November 2022, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) recognized the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) as a collective victim with a special intervention role in Case 08, the opening of which was announced in late August of this year. This case before the Colombian transitional justice system investigates crimes committed by members of the state security forces and other state agents, in association with paramilitary groups or third party civilians in the context of the armed conflict. Since 1987, when CREDHOS began its work to defend and protect human rights in the city of Barrancabermeja, the organization has documented, in detail, 16 cases of extrajudicial executions against its members, perpetrated by paramilitary groups with the connivance of Colombian state agents, in addition to10 cases of forced displacement, four assassination attempts, and arbitrary arrests. “Today Like Yesterday: Report on the victimization of human rights defenders in the Magdalena Medio region in the context of the armed conflict (1987-2016) -CREDHOS Case” is the title of the report filed by the organization before the JEP, which details the incidents affecting over 80 members between 1987 and 2016. And, indeed, “today like yesterday” serious attacks continue against the emblematic organization based in Barrancabermeja: on 27 October of this year CREDHOS was declared a military target after publicly denouncing the authorities’ lack of response to escalating violence in Barrancabermeja. CREDHOS also called for answers relative to alleged ties between state authorities and the Gaitan Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) paramilitary group.
The Escazú Agreement contains specific sections focused on environmentalists, promotes the protection of environmental leaders, provides increased access to environmental-related information, and increased mechanisms to ensure the effective participation of civil society. These mechanisms are crucial in a country where, in the last decade alone, 322 environmental defenders have been assassinated.2021 was the most lethal year for those defending the land and the environment, during which 33 people were killed.
Of particular concern is the intensification of attacks against environmentalists in the region of Magdalena Medio, particularly the attacks against women environmental defenders who are defending water and life. It is increasingly the case that attacks against women environmental leaders in the region occur while they are carrying out their work denouncing the oil industry and its links with armed structures, in addition to corruption involving local public officials.
One of the most serious cases involves the sustained attacks on environmental leader Yuli Andrea Velásquez Briceño, president of the Federation of Artisanal, Environmental and Tourist Fishermen of Santander (Fedepesán) and executive director of the National Network of Artisanal Fisherwomen, a network which will be officially inaugurated on November 26, 2022. Yuli introduces herself as an “amphibious being, daughter of a murdered fisherman, born and raised on the banks of the Magdalena River”, Colombia’s main artery. The leader is clear about where her risks come from: “we defend our territory, we bring attention to the pollution being caused by industry, and we oppose the armed groups that have ties to the companies [operating in the area]. When a defender denounces the entities that should guarantee environmental conservation, they begin to receive threats because of the relationships that those entities have with armed actors. In an attempt to silence us, we become victims of systematic attacks.”
Today, on the Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we celebrate all women human rights defenders, especially those who face constant aggression and threats because of their leadership in addition to a wide range of violence related to the fact that they are women. Eradicating violence against women and girls is essential. They are key to peacebuilding, protecting the environment, and eradicating violence; all issues that are essential to dignify life and enjoy more just societies. We interviewed five women, with whom we have walked over the years. On this 25 November, we invite you to get to know these women as examples of strength and resilience.
From a safe distance, Isla Calavera (Skull Island) looked tranquil on that sunny August morning. Located one kilometer from the downtown of the port city of Buenaventura, Isla Calavera—officially named “Isla Pájaros” (Bird Island) due to its diversity of birds—seems like a peaceful place, surrounded by the rolling waves of the San Antonio Estuary. However, while we waited for the Search Unit for Disappeared People (UBPD) to arrive in the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, J, one of the spaces founding leaders, reminisced and he reminded us why people from the neighborhood call it “Skull Island.” For decades, of the thousands of disappeared people from Buenaventura, many bodies were dumped in its waters, the families continue to look for them today.
J told us how violence persists in Buenaventura, about the inter-urban displacement and the cases of enforced disappearance that have transformed several parts of the city into clandestine mass graves, including the San Antonio Estuary, known to be one of the port city’s “water graves,” as it was used by armed groups to disappear victims. He also talked about the perseverance of the communities and organizations of victims of enforced disappearance who have resisted the violence alongside human rights organizations like the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation (FNEB) and the Inter-church Commission de Justice and Peace (JyP) who, together with others, in December 2021achieved the implementation of precautionary measures for the San Antonio Estuary. In addition to disappeared people, the estuary is also home to business projects that seek to expand the Buenaventura port. The precautionary measures granted by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), prohibit any intervention in the estuary, in particular dredging and civil works as these represent the serious risk of causing irreparable damages in the locations where the disappeared bodies lie. Even though the measures where renewed this past September time is ticking. Victims continue to wait for answers on the resting places of their loved ones and majorpolitical pressure continues to push to reinitiate the dredging projects.