Solidarity with community struggles to defend the environment in Putumayo

With the dawn comes rain, which is normal in Putumayo, or at least that is what they tell us about the rainy season in this beautiful department at the edges of the Amazon region. We thought the flight would be delayed, but it arrives early, bringing Rodrigo, an Amnesty International researcher, who has travelled from Mexico to visit different regions of Colombia, starting with the “La Perla Amazónica” Campesino  Reserve Zone. As part of his current research work on environmental defenders and self-protection measures, he will meet with the Nasa Indigenous People in this department so that he can learn about their current security situation and their struggle for the defence of their land, as well as protection measures to counteract the threats they receive.

As reported by different civil society human rights coordination groups and the media, killings of environmental defenders[1], and of human rights defenders, continue to increase in Colombia, which is a matter of serious concern[2]. That is why it continues to be important to raise awareness of the high-risk situation for the civilian population and the struggles of people and communities to defend their lands from the presence and control of legal and illegal armed groups, and also from the installation and expansion of extractive companies.

Rio Putumayo desde Bajo Cuembi
The Putumayo river crosses the Campesino Reserve Area “La Perla Amazónica”

In this part of Putumayo, an oil company has been disturbing the daily lives of small-scale farmers[3]. This is particularly the case here, given the fact that the company co-exists with illegal armed actors who wish to control the land and threaten the inhabitants of the Small-Scale Farming Reserve Area.

These problems are also well-known and experienced by the 36 Nasa communities in Putumayo[4], who continue to struggle for their ancestral territorial rights through legally-recognised indigenous territories (Resguardos): currently there are only 9 Resguardos protected and recognised that group together 13 communities. These communities are united in peaceful struggle[5]  to stay in their territory, but this struggle has a high price due to the numerous economic interests that exist in these territories.


These processes to defend the territory and traditional cultures of small-scale farmers, on the one hand, and indigenous Nasa traditions on the other, are accompanied by the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz), who have asked us to accompany them on their visit to the region. Putumayo is a department where the reconfiguration of the armed conflict[6], illegal armed actors[7] and lack of compliance with the Peace Agreement[8] have all had a huge impact, and there is therefore a need to raise awareness of and accompany local civil society processes for resistance and peace building.

Reunión Adispa 3_blog
Amnesty Internacional’s visit started with different reuniones where leaders of the Putumayo department participated and expressed the current situation they are facing

We begin the visit by meeting with representatives from the Association for Comprehensive Sustainable Development (Asociación de Desarrollo Integral Sostenible – ADISPA) which is the representative organisation of the La Perla Amazónica – Campesino Reserva Zone (Zona de Reserva Campesina Perla Amazónica – ZRCPA). The representatives describe some of the challenges they face as a community due to oil exploitation carried out by the British company Amerisur Exploración Colombia LTDA, in part of the ZRCPA and its possible expansion to more areas of the ZRCPA which will affect the communities even more[9]. They inform us that it is the water that is most badly contaminated, and one female leader tells us: “we can no longer drink water from the stream, nobody is responding to the impact of this and we are suffering, because taking water away from us is taking away our fundamental resource!” The ZRCPA was created in 2000[10] and since then they have been struggling to defend the Reserve and for it to be officially recognised, so that the communities can continue to live on their lands, enjoying their work on the land and without fearing for their health or their survival. “In spite of everything, there is a ‘healthy’ environment in the countryside, the different communities work together, and that is why small-scale farmers love their land and want to defend it”, highlights one leader.

Campesino Reserve Zone

In the afternoon we meet with different representatives, men and women from the Nasa People’s Regional Council (Consejería Regional Nasa). They describe to Rodrigo the environmental effects of the extractive companies in their territories which affect the harmony in which they live: environmental effects[11], such as how the destruction of sacred and medicinal plants generate imbalances in the spirituality and social fabric of the communities. They have a number of needs, such as improvements in access to health and education, however, they emphasise the urgency of defending their territory first and foremost because “how can we talk about education and health without having territories where we can carry out our life projects?”

During the following days we visit different areas of the ZRCPA so that we can see the different situations; the first day we accompany the CIJP and Rodrigo to the communities affected by the presence of the oil company.

Different part of the ZRCPA were visited in order to see the damages

The contamination of the water and wetlands is notorious, and the landscape is no longer the same as before … The inhabitants continue to demand their rights, repair and restore the damage (including through reforestation, purifying or cleaning the waters, among others) but until now, no attention has been paid, and nor has there been any response, clarifying the responsibility for the negative effects. There is a feeling of sadness in the people’s expressions and in the air itself, some people feel angry but everyone hopes that this will be resolved, because as one leader told us: “if the company expands, in 20 years’ time we will no longer be here”.

Reunión en Achapos_blog

After we visit this part of the ZRCPA, we have many questions and doubts about the definition and interpretation of the concepts of investment and development. This is reinforced for us the very next day, when we visit another part of the ZRCPA, an area which is not yet being affected by the company but which is in its sights for exploration and possible expansion, which leads to fears among the inhabitants who continue to ask that their right to their way of life in a healthy environment is respected and that “the dignified work of small-scale farmers is valued”.

During this visit a leader tells us that, in spite of everything, he still has hope that the situation can improve, and that their territory will be recognised. “They have to respect the cultural traditions of the communities, the good use of the land and water, and dignified work on the land”. Another leader highlights, “we need guarantees for the fair trade of the products we cultivate here in the Reserve, and for improvements in the communications system, because there is no signal in many areas and this affects our possibilities for trade”.

These are basic demands for a small-scale farmer in love with his land and nature, who continues to struggle for recognition and for peace in his territory.

Nathalie Bienfait

Carlos y yo_blog

[1] El Tiempo: Defensa del medioambiente es motivo de más de mil ataques en A. Latina, 24 April 2019

[2] UN: Alarma por los continuos asesinatos a defensores de derechos humanos en Colombia, 10 May 2019

[3] See Cijp: Fallas en operaciones de petrolera Amerisur podría generar afectaciones ambiental en la Amazonia, 18 March 2016 ; Cijp: Empresa Británica Amerisur continúa afectando ambientalmente ZRC, 24 April 2016 ; Cijp: Consorcio Vetra C&C desconoce figura de ZRCPA como actor determinante del ordenamiento territorial, 1 February 2019

[4] It is important to note that the Consejería Regional del Pueblo Nasa is composed of 38 communities, 36 in Putumayo and 2 in Nariño.

[5] Cijp: Pronunciamiento Público- Inicia movilización de Pueblos Nasa en Putumayo, 3 April 2019

[6] El Espectador: Putumayo, a merced de una nueva ola de violencia, 21 December 2017 ; El Colombiano: Disidencias y narcotráfico responsables de la violencia en Putumayo, 16 April 2019

[7] Cijp: Incremento de acciones de estructuras armadas en Medio y Bajo Putumayo, 12 February 2017

[8] Cijp: Organizaciones de Putumayo denuncian incumplientos en erradicación voluntaria, 30 January 2019

[9] Cijp: Consorcio Vetra C&C desconoce figura de ZRCPA como actor determinante del ordenamiento territorial, 1 February 2019

[10] Zona de Reserva Campesina de La Perla Amazónica, 21 January 2012

[11] Cijp: Desconocimiento de autonomía territorial de pueblos indígenas Nasa, impacto socioambiental y ausencia de garantías de protección a la vida e integridad de la población rural en Putumayo, 22 March 2019

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