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 region of Magdalena Medio, home to 6% of Colombia’s armed conflict victims, has historically suffered serious impacts from the extractivist economic model. Today, once again, its environmental leaders and human rights defenders are under serious threat and at risk of displacement. For more than a century, communities have been victims of the expropriation of their lands, the expansion of agribusiness and the exploitation of hydrocarbons, severely affecting the region’s diverse fauna and flora within the countless water sources, rivers and marshes. Oil extraction has caused irreparable environmental damage, and has seriously affected communities’ ancestral fishing economies. Moreover, the enclave economy of the Magdalena Medio region has not generated benefits for the communities that protect it, where communities suffer limited access to clean drinking water and energy services.
Recently, through their constant denouncement of serious human rights violations, human rights and environmental organizations such as the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) have succeeded in getting the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) to turn its attention to the region and to prioritize the investigation of crimes committed by the security forces during the armed conflict. In spite of the importance of this recent decision by the JEP to prioritize the Magdalena Medio region in relation to the severe impacts suffered by the population within the context of the armed conflict, members of CREDHOS and allied organizations such as the Committee for the Defense of Water, Life and Territory (AGUAWIL) and the Federation of Artisanal, Environmental and Tourist Fishermen of Santander (Fedepesán) continue to be exposed to alarmingly high levels of risk. It is essential that these serious allegations are investigated and clarified to ensure true guarantees of non-repetition in one of the regions most affected by the armed conflict.
Continue reading DEATH THREATS PERSIST AGAINST ENVIRONMENTALISTS IN MAGDALENA MEDIO
The 17th of December 2021, social leader Huber Velásquez was murdered in the rural community of La Balsa, township of San José. The incident occurred in “La Batea,” a place that is just a few meters from what was at one point his brother Iván Velásquez’s estuary. Iván was murdered on 2 January 2002 after refusing to participate in a food blockade imposed by the army as a strategy to pressure the Peace Community.
Just like his brother, Huber sympathized with and had a close relationship with the Community, supporting its cacao commercialization. He also belonged to the peasant oversight board in his municipality and at the time of his death was participating in the inspection process for the paving project for the road between Apartadó and the township of San José. This project has generated major protests from the population due to delays in its execution and the damages caused to the surrounding homes and roads, among other issues. This situation led him to make several public complaints against the municipal administration, laying out how they were not taking steps concerning the irregularities.
For years, Huber had been attacked because of his role as a community leader and he underwent an attempt to expel him from his land. However, in recent months, and due to his complaints about the paving project, he had mentioned a significant increase, to the point of receiving death threats from the paramilitaries at his house. It should be noted that in addition to the intensification of violence and reconfiguration of the armed conflict that occurred nationally after the signing of the Peace Agreement, Otoniel’s capture has also marked an increase in the paramilitary presence and actions in the region and the township of San José. This has been reflected in denouncements made by the Peace Community with their public statements, which refer to an increase in practices such as the forced recruitment of minors, death threats, murders, and territorial and social control, all amid a strong presence from the state security forces.
According to data from Indepaz, including Huber, 165 leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered in 2021 and 1,280 since the Peace Agreement’s signature. The Ombuds Office had warned of of systematic human rights violations and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) infringements in its December 2020 Early Alert. Within this complex context of insecurity, the members of the Peace Community have decided to once again show the bravery and dignity with which they have been characterized throughout their history, convening peasants from all corners of San José to firmly condemn Huber’s murder. Thus, early in the morning on 23 December, dozens of people congregated in front of the Community to walk to the home of social leader Huber Velásquez, in a march for life and the defense of the territory.
People of all ages attended: children, youth, adults, and seniors, some on foot and others by mule. Everyone demanded respect for life in honor of the murdered gentleman, but they also marched as one more example of active resistance to those who today continue attempting, in vain, to silence their voices with violence. And they did this by filling the morning with colorful posters of protest, which they showed to neighbors along the way and then placed at the entrance of the house where Huber was murdered.
Despite the pain, there were also words of hope and fraternal solidarity because, as was stated by those who spoke at the event, even though today it is a place of emptiness and desolation, it was always a house inhabited by a smiling family that believes in the possibility of building a more just world, and there is no greater tribute than “continuing this journey to defend life, to fight against the silencing of truth, and for the memory of those who dared to defend the principles of justice and solidarity.”
Uraba Team, PBI Colombia.
Minuto 30: Huber Velásquez, líder campesino que denunció corrupción en Apartadó, fue asesinado, 18 December 2021.
Comunidad de Paz: Una Navidad enlutada. Declaración de la Comunidad de Paz sobre el asesinato de Huber Velásquez, 23 December 2021.
At the end of last year, in the context of Christmas celebrations, PBI-Colombia met with Father Javier Giraldo, a recognized human rights defender and political and spiritual advisor to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. During a coffee break in La Holandita, brigadistas from the PBI team in Urabá took advantage of Father Javier’s visit to talk about Constitutional Court ruling T-342/020 that directly pertains to the Peace Community and, indirectly, to the defense of human rights throughout the country.
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó’s fight for land, as is the case for many peasant, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian communities, is historic and the most central aspect of their existence.
Today, the need to defend land is more important than ever. A consequence of the Peace Agreement between the former guerrilla group, FARC-EP, and the Colombian government has been a commodification of territories that, due to the armed conflict, were on the periphery of the market system. In the case of the Peace Community, this means defending land from mining companies that have come into the area to exploit the wealth of natural resources. There are several valid mining titles in the rural area of San José de Apartadó and the Peace Community has denounced the constant efforts from mining companies to penetrate the region and their attempts to persuade the local population.