It is odd for someone to say that they don’t want development. Yet, the Peace Community of San José de Apartado has been labeled as “anti-development.” Made up of peasants who were displaced and dispossessed in the 1990s by paramilitary actions, the community now represents territorial resistance and protection in a neutral zone amid the armed conflict, And, in fact, in a way it could be said that the community is anti-development, opposing the concept of “extractivist” development. A development that encourages a draining of the river and depleting natural resources at the expense of the environment. This article will lay out some of the socio-political, environmental, and systematic impacts and violence that the Peace Community’s life project has resisted, opposed, and denounced to build peaceful collective spaces amid the armed conflict.
The Atrato River starts in the Plateado Hills of the western mountain range in Antioquia. This river, which crosses the departments of Chocó and Antioquia before flowing into the Gulf of Urabá, is one of the region’s most abundant rivers and an irrefutable source of life. It is also one of the areas hardest hit by the armed conflict. In particular, the Bajo Atrato, and the Urabá subregion have registered around 429,820 victims of forced displacement, dispossession, and selective murders, among other serious human rights violations.
The actions of the banana, palm oil, and mining industries, tied to armed actors, have contributed to a dispossession of ethnic communities from their lands amid grave state omissions relative to protection guarantees. Dispossession suffered by the communities of the Bajo Atrato has a common denominator, a violation of their ancestral rights and environmental impacts on their lands. Additionally, there has been violence against men and women land claimant leaders, like Mario Castaño, murdered five years ago, on 26 November 2017, on his farm in the Larga and Tumaradó river basins (Bajo Atrato).
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.”
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.
Operations Genesis and Cacarica: In the face of terror, a resistance story
The Bajo Atrato region, in northeastern Colombian, has been particularly hard hit by violence and the armed conflict. According to the Victims Unit, the registry for this area includes close to 429,820 victims of forced displacement, dispossession, selective murders, and other victimizing acts. One of the cruelest events that marked forever the history of the Atrato River’s Afro-Colombian communities occurred in the Cacarica river basin. Between the 24 and 27 of February 1997, Operation Genesis was executed. It was an offensive led by General Rito Alejo del Río, then commander of the Army’s 17th Brigade, in coordination with the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (Elmer Cárdenas Bloc) paramilitary group, and under the pretext of taking back control from the FARC-EP guerrillas. In parallel and through joint operations with Military Troops, the paramilitary group called the Peasant Self-defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), initiated Operation Cacarica, crossing the Atrato River until they invaded the Salaquí, Truandó, and Perancho river basins.