In defence of water and life: the Pajaral marshes

The marshes are bodies of water that are essential to the ecosystem, bodies of water which give life to extraordinary flora and fauna. These natural phenomena also attract economic interests that threaten to damage them, even to make them disappear, as is the case with the rivers and marshes of Magdalena Medio. In this region, full of water and environmental defenders, extractive activities, agribusiness and extensive cattle ranching are advancing, devastating in their path territories inhabited by ancestral communities, in the case of Sur de Bolívar especially Afro-Colombian peoples, peasants and artisanal fishermen.

The Pajaral swamp, located in the municipality of Cantagallo, in the department of Sur de Bolívar, is a paradigmatic example of the environmental damage being suffered by the water basins of Magdalena Medio. This marsh, whose water body has decreased drastically since 2017, is not only fundamental for the ecological balance but also for the more than 300 families who live there and subsist thanks to it. Since 2018, the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (Credhos), an organisation accompanied by PBI since 1995, together with the grassroots organisation Afro-Colombian Federation of Artisanal Fishermen of the Municipality of Cantagallo (Fapamucan), began to fight for the defence, protection and recovery of this marsh. In an interview with Juan Camilo Delgado Gaona, environmental engineer of Credhos, and Manuel Camilo Ayala Sandoval, lawyer of the defence organisation, we delve into the process of resistance and defence of the Pajaral marsh.

“I will always remember that December 2018. We were at the New Year’s Eve party and, at that moment, we received a request from Gabriel Torres. He is a human rights defender and the promoter of CREDHOS in the municipality of Cantagallo”. On 22 December 2018, the first visit was made to the indicated area to verify the situation. What they were able to observe and what the fishermen of the area reported was worrying: deforestation activities with heavy machinery were evident, which had caused the disappearance of the natural barrier between the marsh and the Cimitarra River. The consequence has been the creation of water channels between the river (Cimitarra) and the swamp, which is causing enormous damage to the ecosystem. The cause of these activities was the attempt to expand African palm monoculture and cattle ranching. However, it seems that this is not the only objective: “One of the situations that worries us most is that we are seeing systematic damage that may be linked to the advance of the hydrocarbon industry, precisely to the activity of Ecopetrol. There have been some exploration studies and they have perceived that there are possible areas where there could be oil wells”, explains the team of human rights defenders.

Today, the swamp, as evidenced in the various Credhos reports, has suffered a reduction of more than 70%. The water mirror used to be more than five metres high, while today, the centre of the swamp is no higher than one metre. It should be noted that the Pajaral marsh is part of a forest reserve protected by law. “Everything that is protected by the Second Colombian Law cannot be included in the titling of land for private persons, until an exception is established,” the defenders emphasise.

Although the fishermen, through the Afro-Colombian Federation of Artisanal Fishermen of Cantagallo (FAPAMUCAN), had already denounced the situation long before Credhos’ approach, the competent environmental entities did not take any measures to mitigate the impacts. FAPAMUCAN is made up of twelve associations, half of which are recognised by the Ministry of the Interior as Afro-Colombian organisations, and the other half are in the process of being recognised. With the support of Credhos, they decided to initiate a legal process. “When we did the documentary review, we decided to file a popular action to try to get the Republic to order the protection of the Pajaral swamp through the courts and through this constitutional action,” Ayala emphasises. Specifically, the lawsuit was filed against the mayor’s office of Cantagallo on behalf of the municipality and against the Corporación Autónoma Regional del Sur de Bolívar (CSB), the environmental authority of southern Bolívar, for failure to perform its duties. In March 2019, Cartagena’s Administrative Court 002 accepted the popular action.

At the request of FAPAMUCAN, the CSB had already entered the area in 2018 and issued a warning regarding what was observed in the swamp. However, no major action was taken to remedy the damage. On the contrary, in 2019, as part of the popular action process, the CSB was again asked to take action, but was slow to comply. The defence team says that, “we lasted two and a half years, which is known as the evidentiary period, as plaintiffs we presented our evidence, but the CSB did not comply with the order given by the judge in 2019. The CSB had to carry out an in-depth study, an inventory of the damage, in order to be able to make a decision on how to begin the work of recovering the swamp. We did not know about this report until February 2022, and what we found was that the CSB, instead of an in-depth study with its own means and so on, practically plagiarised or made a fraud with the documents or reports that Credhos had produced”. Unfortunately, with the incomplete report submitted by the CSB, the court closed the evidentiary period.

In addition to the popular action, Credhos has issued a series of urgent actions for floods that have been caused by these environmental affectations. Likewise, in November 2020 they requested precautionary measures, which were recently approved at the beginning of 2022. Delgado explains that this approval means that a demarcation of the swamp will have to be made, fences will have to be erected to indicate that a legal process is being carried out and that it is an area of special ecological protection, which means that it cannot be used for economic activities such as the expansion of African palm and extensive cattle ranching.

Credhos is trying to recover the Pajaral swamp, also through international advocacy. As a result, they have been able to publicise the situation in different places, including universities in Mexico, Brazil and Germany. Delgado also says: “We have managed to intervene with the United Nations rapporteur for drinking water and sanitation through the work that PBI has done”.

The defence of the environment is fundamental and necessary, however, in Colombia the security conditions necessary to carry out this work are not being met. It is worth remembering that Global Witness has ranked Colombia as the most dangerous country for the defence of the environment for two consecutive years.1 A concrete example of this is the countless threatening pamphlets distributed by armed actors and aimed directly at organisations that PBI accompanies. In February 2022, Ramón Abril, a member of the board of directors of Credhos, was threatened in a pamphlet from the paramilitary heir group Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC)2. But this is not the only case; on the contrary, the threats are constant. Environmental defenders who speak out in defence of water and against fracking are at serious risk. The epicentre of anti-fracking resistance is in Puerto Wilches, a municipality bordering Cantagallo, where people like Carolina Angón, a human rights promoter with Credhos,3 and Yuvelis Morales, a defender with the AguaWil Committee, emblematic voices in defence of water, have had to move from their homes due to serious death threats and direct attacks against them4.

Despite the high risk, the resilience of human rights organisations such as Credhos is constant. They continue to defend environmental and human rights in order to achieve a balance between nature and the needs of communities, without harming either. Ayala concludes: “Hopefully the ruling will be favourable to the interests of the fishermen and we can move forward in this process, because in addition to what we have foreseen is going to happen with the urgent actions in relation to all these wetland marshes, if Pajaral and the popular action reach a point where we achieve an important victory, this will also allow a precedent to protect the other marshes”.

1) Global Witness: Última línea de defensa, 13 de septiembre 2021

2) Caracol Radio: Investigan presuntas amenazas a líderes en el Magdalena Medio, 07 de febrero 2022

3) Youtube CREDHOS: Carolina Agón, 08 de marzo 2022

4) La Vanguardia: Mujeres activistas ambientales fueron desplazadas de Puerto Wilches, 15 de marzo 2022

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