It has been an exciting year and a half accompanying human rights defenders in Colombia with the eyes of the world focused on the country emerging out of decades of violent conflict. With the peace negotiations between the government and the FARC reaching the furthest any attempted negotiation has reached in the past, there is a tense excitement in the air as the country prepares to transition to peace after over 60 years in conflict.
Unfortunately, despite the progress made at the negotiation table human rights defenders are still being systematically threatened, stigmatised and attacked for speaking out against corruption and human rights violations, a fact that marks the dissonance between the governments public discourse of peace and development and the reality on the ground.
I have spent the majority of the past year and a half in the petrol capital of Colombia, Barrancabermeja. A city whose temperature rarely falls below 40 degrees, Barranca occupies a strategic position on the Magdalena river, a stopping point for a lot of national and international trade, both legal and illegal. Because of this, the largest oil refinery in the country and other heavy economic interests, the city remains a centre of the armed, political and social conflict raging in Colombia.
I have had the opportunity to accompany a range of human rights defenders, ranging from a collective of female lawyers, to local human rights NGOs, campesino organisations and activists. It is hugely inspiring to work with people who have sacrificed so much to remain in their challenging and often hugely frustrating line of work. They are unbelievably committed, professional and dedicated, often working 7 day weeks with little time to spend with their families. The human rights defenders we accompany in Colombia are at the heart of encouraging civil society to participate as best they can in the peace process, coming up with local peace-building proposals and taking ownership of the country’s transition from war to peace. Without this work, true and lasting peace in Colombia is unlikely.
The past year and a half has been hugely varied and turbulent with accompaniments ranging from days sitting in court hearing listening to the testimonies of perpetrators of extrajudicial killings accompanying the lawyers who represent the victims and their families, to long walks through the Colombian countryside alongside organisations taking part in verification commissions monitoring violations of international humanitarian law.
A particular highlight for me was a trip with the ACVC (the campesino association from the Cimitarra river valley) to the Serranía de San Lucas, a huge expanse of Virgin forest in the Nordeste antioqueño region which sits on top of a gold mine. There is huge interest in the area from multinational mining companies which puts the immense biodiversity of the region and the lives of thousands of campesinos at risk. The ACVC organised a month long characterisation of the region to produce a report which would be presented to the government to show the importance of conserving the biodiversity of the area. Inviting experts from various universities around the country the initiative succeeded in proving the thousands of species of flora and fauna living in the area which prompted the government to grant social organisations 2 years within which no mining titles will be granted to give them time to work out the best way to protect the area. We spent five days trekking on horseback to the surrounded communities where members of the ACVC explained the initiative and the importance of conserving the delicate ecosystems they live in. Amidst a raging conflict, common ground that unites people in a peace-building effort is difficult to find. Despite the complexity of the Colombian conflict, one who’s roots lay in unequal land distribution and use and who’s impacts are heavily felt in the campesino population, this initiative brings Colombians together in a common struggle to defend their land for generations to come.
When we are not accompanying human rights defenders physically, we are meeting with local and national authorities and drawing together the information we receive from a variety of sources to be able to analyse the security situation for the people we work with in the areas they work. This work is fascinating but challenging and seemingly never-ending! The rhythm of life in PBI is extremely fast paced and often completely exhausting. However, surrounded by similar-minded people from all over the world I have felt supported and motivated to keep learning and to contribute as best I can to PBI Colombia´s important work in the country that is now over 20 years in the making.
I feel hugely privileged to have been given the opportunity to work alongside the Colombian human rights defenders who are at the forefront of demanding change in their country. Their voices are important reminders of the bravery needed to confront injustice and to fight for improvement. Standing in solidarity with these inspiring people is humbling and being part of their dignified struggle is a real honour. Although many challenges lay ahead of this country before human rights defenders can work with the guarantees they deserve, the positivity and dedication of the Colombians we work with is infectious and inspires me to keep fighting with the promise of a better future ahead.