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.”
Today, on the Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we celebrate all women human rights defenders, especially those who face constant aggression and threats because of their leadership in addition to a wide range of violence related to the fact that they are women. Eradicating violence against women and girls is essential. They are key to peacebuilding, protecting the environment, and eradicating violence; all issues that are essential to dignify life and enjoy more just societies. We interviewed five women, with whom we have walked over the years. On this 25 November, we invite you to get to know these women as examples of strength and resilience.
From a safe distance, Isla Calavera (Skull Island) looked tranquil on that sunny August morning. Located one kilometer from the downtown of the port city of Buenaventura, Isla Calavera—officially named “Isla Pájaros” (Bird Island) due to its diversity of birds—seems like a peaceful place, surrounded by the rolling waves of the San Antonio Estuary. However, while we waited for the Search Unit for Disappeared People (UBPD) to arrive in the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, J, one of the spaces founding leaders, reminisced and he reminded us why people from the neighborhood call it “Skull Island.” For decades, of the thousands of disappeared people from Buenaventura, many bodies were dumped in its waters, the families continue to look for them today.
J told us how violence persists in Buenaventura, about the inter-urban displacement and the cases of enforced disappearance that have transformed several parts of the city into clandestine mass graves, including the San Antonio Estuary, known to be one of the port city’s “water graves,” as it was used by armed groups to disappear victims. He also talked about the perseverance of the communities and organizations of victims of enforced disappearance who have resisted the violence alongside human rights organizations like the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation (FNEB) and the Inter-church Commission de Justice and Peace (JyP) who, together with others, in December 2021achieved the implementation of precautionary measures for the San Antonio Estuary. In addition to disappeared people, the estuary is also home to business projects that seek to expand the Buenaventura port. The precautionary measures granted by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), prohibit any intervention in the estuary, in particular dredging and civil works as these represent the serious risk of causing irreparable damages in the locations where the disappeared bodies lie. Even though the measures where renewed this past September time is ticking. Victims continue to wait for answers on the resting places of their loved ones and majorpolitical pressure continues to push to reinitiate the dredging projects.
With the promise of establishing substantial changes in Colombia, based on social and environmental justice and a transformation of the security policy, recently inauguratedPresident Gustavo Petro, faces serious challenges at a time of increasingsociopolitical violence. According to 500 Colombian human rights organizations, the outgoing Iván Duque administration left a legacy of “hunger and war,” which became systematic human rights violations, increased violence against leaders and human rights defenders, a reactivation of the armed conflict, an expansion of paramilitary and other armed groups, as well as the expansion of illicit use crops and cocaine production in the country. 
In this context, the new president stated that he will prioritize social dialogue as a pillar to resolve the armed conflict, which has persisted over six decades in Colombia. He also highlighted the need to protect to communities and human rights to overcome the country’s historic inequalities. The Petro administration has declared that “Total Peace,”a law recently approved by Congress, will be a cornerstone of his policy to disarm all illegal armed structures, open negotiations with armed groups, bring criminal organizations before the justice system, and definitively end the conflict.The “Total Peace” policy includes several proposals from “Somos Génesis,” a network of over 180 ethnic-territorial communities,victims of the armed conflict, and who, since 2020, have been calling for the signature of Global Humanitarian Agreements and dialogue with the armed actors, allowing them to live in peace in their territory. Unfortunately, these petitions were not addressed by the prior administration.
In mid-October PBI organised an advocacy tour in the United States with a clear message that peacebuilding and the protection of human rights in Colombia must be grounded in local territories. The tour was organised alongside human rights defender Astrid Torres, member of the Corporation for Judicial Freedom (CJL), an organisation accompanied by PBI and dedicated to the defence and promotion of human rights in the departments of Antioquia and Chocó.
As part of PBI’s accompaniment and support, one of the strategies we employ is the organisation of international tours aimed at mobilising the international community, particularly in the global north, to promote initiatives for the protection of human rights defenders and support the work they carry out in their territories.