The Escazú Agreement was recently ratified in Colombia, following three years where the legislation was blocked by the government of Iván Duque. This is an important milestone in the protection of the rights of women environmental defenders in what remains by far the most dangerous country in the world for the defense of the environment.
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.”
Yuli herself has suffered numerous attacks as a result of her work alongside the fishing communities protecting the water sources of the oil-producing city of Barrancabermeja. In particular she has been targetted for her advocacy for the protection of the San Silvestre wetlands, which supply fresh water to some 300,000 inhabitants of Magdalena Medio, including Barrancabermeja. According to reports by the riverside and fishing communities, the San Silvestre wetlands is heavily contaminated as a result of oil spills, hydrocarbon residues and heavy metals. This has led to a loss of biodiversity, health problems among residents, and serious damage to the area’s main economic and food source. Yuli has also reported allegations of corruption in the management of public resources between the Colombian oil company Ecopetrol, the Regional Autonomous Corporation (CAR) and external contractors. According to the fishing communities, these entities have allegedly diverted millions of dollars in funds which were destined for the environmental recovery and clean-up of the San Silvestre wetlands, yet no visible results or improvements have been made evident.
Since Yuli Velásquez began as a environmental water defender and has denounced those who causing harm to the area, she has been the victim of multiple threats including three attempts on her life. In January 2021, armed men shot at her house, resulting in her being forcibly displaced. In May 2022, she and other members of Fedepesán were attacked by armed men while monitoring environmental damage in the San Silvestre wetlands. On 5 July, the environmental defender suffered a further assassination attempt that left her National Protection Unit bodyguard wounded. This happened only a few days after Fedepesán, accompanied by Credhos and PBI, had carried out a verification mission to document reported environmental damage in the wetlands, where they found crude oil spills. A few weeks later, on 25 July, three armed men forced their way into the house of Ludmila Gutiérrez, a fisherwoman and leader of Fedepesán, holding her capture and threatening her in front of her eight-year-old son. As recently as two months ago, Yuli was once again threatened in a pamphlet issued by the paramilitary group Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC). These attacks have taken place within a territorial context in which Credhos has warned of the intensified presence of the AGC, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and post-Farc groups in the area, in a region which is already highly militarised.
Despite the threats and attacks, Yuli Velásquez knows she must continue to fight for the protection of water sources “which are increasingly being attacked by megaprojects that only serve to benefit large companies” is ongoing. The ratification of the Escazú Agreement is welcome progress for environmentalists, says Yuli, nevertheless: “it can’t just remain an agreement on paper, but the implementation must be visible in the communities and territories”. For that to be achieved, there is still a lot of work to do. In the meantime, Yuli remains steadfast in her demand for the rights of fishing communities, guardians of water, work which she carries out in memory of her murdered colleagues.
 Notably, Afro-Colombian environmental leaders Yuvelis Natalia Morales and Carolina Agón, both from the municipality of Puerto Wilches (Magdalena Medio), have been forcibly displaced due to the intensity of threats and attacks made against their lives. They are at risk due to their leadership of anti-fracking campaigns, for reporting the activities of extractivist companies, and their defence of their communities’ rights to a healthy environment.