Colombian land defenders: ‘They’re killing us one by one’

first_imgTheir fears are well-founded: Colombia is the second-most deadly place in the world for environmental leaders and land defenders.Rural resident leaders in the community of Carmen del Darien say that now their lives are under imminent threat because of their work to defend local land from palm oil and cattle ranching.In this intimate look into the lives and struggles of environmental activists and community members in Carmen del Darien, Mongabay reports from ground zero in the global grassroots battle to fend off the reach of powerful agribusiness interests. CARMEN DEL DARIEN, Colombia – Community leaders in Colombia’s western Chocó are calling on the government to provide security after receiving ongoing threats from individuals they accuse of working for local and national industrial agricultural business owners. They say those business interests are occupying and invading their land, and they refuse to stay silent despite recent violence in the area.In November and December 2017, two land defenders in nearby communities were allegedly killed by paramilitary hitmen within about ten days of each other: Mario Castaño and Hernan Bedoya.Following deaths of Castaño and Bedoya, representatives from the region traveled to the capital city of Bogotá this past December with the Colombian human rights group Inter-church Commission for Justice and Peace in Colombia (CIJP). Their aim was to denounce widely-circulated threats against other leading land defenders, much like a recent report co-published by The Guardian and Global Witness, part of an effort to document every single such murder around the world. The report noted that 32 environmental and land defenders were murdered in 2017 alone in Colombia, second only to Brazil.Particularly in western Chocó’s municipalities of Carmen del Darién and Riosucio, violent pressure of all kinds continue to increase.On January 28, the Colombian Ombudsman issued an early warning for the “imminent risk” posed to 32,000 people due to armed confrontation between ELN guerrilla and Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC), a neo-paramilitary group. The report said both illegal armed groups have taken advantage of the demobilization of the FARC guerrillas to consolidate territorial control in the region that is inhabited by six indigenous communities and 12 collective Afro-Colombian territories.Additionally, the report called on the military, police and local government entities to provide “protection mechanisms” for threatened community leaders in the region.According to CIPJ, cattle ranchers and palm oil and banana growers have counted on the support of the AGC to intimidate, threaten and kill the community leaders who are defending their land from the expansion of agribusiness and commercial logging interests in the region. Chocó is where almost half of all the forest cover loss in Colombia from mining activities happens.A representative of CIPJ who works in the area but asked not to be named for security reasons said that agribusiness concerns in the area are sending proxy growers into collective territory with the aim of invading land claimants’ farms. According to the CIPJ staffer, the goal is to “expand the agricultural frontier and extract wood” at the largely undeveloped entryway to the remote, roadless rainforests of the Darién Gap.Map of the Darién Gap and the break in the Pan-American Highway between Yaviza, Panama and Turbo, Colombia. Map by CMG Lee and OpenStreetMap contributors.The Darién Gap national park is a 60-mile stretch of  tropical rainforest, marshland and mountains that runs between Colombia and Panama. It is an unfinished gap in the Pan-American Highway that will someday connect North and South America.Security measuresBack in Carmen del Darién, Maria Chaverra is one of the names that the CIPJ and other members of the community have said was singled out as a target by paramilitary hitmen and industrial agriculturalists. At 67 years-old, Chaverra is an outspoken leader and advocate for the land rights of the displaced campesinos of Curvaradó. CIPJ refers to her as a “matriarch of the community.”As explained by her son Wilson Martinez, “There’s no one else like [Chaverra]…we go where the old woman tells us, we all respect her and follow her word.”last_img

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