At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, President Iván Duque of Colombia carried out a charm offensive to convince the world he is an environmental champion who would protect his nation’s vast forests. He promised Colombia would be carbon neutral by 2050 and that, by next year, 30 percent of the country’s land and waters would be protected areas.
But back in Colombia, armed gangs are threatening and murdering community leaders and environmental activists who have been trying to protect Colombia’s forest from destruction by mining, lumber and oil companies. Morbidly, Colombia has emerged as the world’s deadliest place for environmentalists and others defending land rights. Global Witness documented at least 65 killings in 2020.
In the Putumayo region, members of the Border Command, an illegal armed group dedicated to controlling drug production along the border with Ecuador, told residents that they have negotiated with Nueva Amerisur, owned by the multinational oil company GeoPark, to ensure that the company’s work would not be impeded and warned the residents not to interfere. The criminal enterprise declared environmental defender and Amnesty International priority case Jani Silva to be persona non grata. Facing the threat of assassination for her work to protect the water sources and forest from oil exploration, she has been forced to continually move to escape these killers.
Such attacks and threats are rising as deforestation in the Colombian Amazon has surged, surpassing 250,000 acres in three of the last four years. Rainforest sheltering a spectacular biodiversity is being razed for cattle ranching and corporate farms, oil palm production, fossil fuel extraction, illegal gold mining and logging. Leaders of local communities, whose water is being poisoned and whose land has been devastated, have provided the last line of defense against this destruction by organizing and bringing attention to the problem through legal action and publicity campaigns.
Mr. Duque has done little to protect them or to pursue and prosecute their attackers. The National Protection Unit, created in 2011 to protect human rights defenders, has in Ms. Silva’s case provided transportation support and, when pressured, some police presence. Though civilian and military authorities claim to be pursuing and disarming illegal armed groups, as pledged under the 2016 peace accords ending a five-decade internal armed conflict with leftist guerrillas, organizations like the Border Command continue to flourish in the Amazon and elsewhere.
Mr. Duque grudgingly signed a regional environmental convention called the Escazú Agreement, which would oblige the government to protect environmental defenders. But he has shown little urgency in getting Congress to ratify the pact, as cattle, mining and infrastructure industries have mounted a disinformation campaign against it.
Colombia’s illegal armed groups have been able to operate so brazenly, in part, because Mr. Duque has effectively abandoned the peace accord signed by his predecessor. His government has undermined the Special Justice for Peace, established to prosecute those responsible for human rights crimes committed during the conflict, and has neglected the commission that was to prosecute and break up the organizations behind attacks against human rights defenders. Colombia’s paramilitaries — precursors to many of the illegal armed groups operating today — committed the vast majority of civilian killings during the country’s bloody internal conflict.
Mr. Duque used the recent arrest of a high-level drug trafficker, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, known as Otoniel, as an opportunity to claim a victory against the illegal groups responsible for attacking environmentalists. Colombia’s experience since the killing of Pablo Escobar, however, cautions against predictions that the decapitation of a powerful cartel will diminish the drug trade or related violence in the long run.
If Mr. Duque truly wants to be the environmental champion he claims, he needs to invest political capital to ensure congressional ratification of the Escazú Agreement, designating the process as urgent, which would force the Congress to not let the agreement languish, as is currently happening. Additionally, he should push for political support and funding for the Special Justice for Peace and the security commission.
Biden administration officials have recognized the importance of environmental defenders, and earlier this month at the climate conference in Glasgow they unveiled a Plan to Conserve Global Forests. But the plan would not be nearly aggressive enough to fight the epidemic of violence facing forest defenders. The U.S. government should revise this strategy to explicitly include protection of environmental defenders as a core objective. Concrete measures should include speaking out publicly when defenders are at risk and imposing sanctions against specific perpetrators, as a group of U.S. lawmakers recently urged.
Jani Silva’s situation is likely to remain precarious. Concrete actions by Colombian and U.S. government officials, however, could send a strong message that she and other environmental defenders have powerful allies who will leverage their influence to end the scourge of threats, attacks and killings against those who protect the earth for us all.