Colombia: the world’s deadliest country for environmentalists in 2020

For a second consecutive year, the South American nation saw the highest number of killings of environmental defenders, with 65 murdered, according to Global Witness

For the second year running, Colombia has topped the list of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmentalists: 65 environmental activists were killed in the South American nation in 2020, a year marked by the coronavirus pandemic. Worldwide, violence against environmental defenders claimed the lives of 227 people last year – the highest number on record – compared to 212 in 2019. After Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines complete the top three on the black list compiled each year by environmental and human rights NGO Global Witness.

Although the Colombian government reached a peace agreement with the former combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) almost five years ago, parts of the country are still embroiled in violence. Flanked by two oceans, Colombia is home to half of the Andean moorland on the planet and 30% of its land area is blanketed by rainforest, making it one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Environmentalists working in Colombia have spoken out against the campaign of violence they are being subjected to and the impunity of those committing crimes against activists, something the government of Colombian President Iván Duque has been powerless to prevent. “There is a link between armed violence and the economic development model, and this has made Colombia the country where the highest number of environmental leaders are killed. There is no possibility of accessing the justice system and when we do it is slow and inefficient,” environmental activist Francia Márquez, who is running in the 2022 presidential elections, told EL PAÍS last February.

In many of the most remote areas, paramilitary and criminal groups have increased their control through violence against rural communities
Global Witness report

The annual Global Witness report reserves especially harsh criticism for Colombia, where the NGO states that attacks against environmentalists and social leaders take place across the entire country and represent “endemic violence” nationwide in spite of the peace agreements signed in 2016. The report attributes the situation to a “lamentable implementation” of the peace process on the part of the government. “In many of the most remote areas, paramilitary and criminal groups have increased their control through violence against rural communities and a lack of state action to protect them. Those seeking to protect their land and environment are increasingly being caught up in the crosshairs of this violence – with those protecting indigenous land particularly at risk,” the report states. As many as 17 murders were carried out within the framework of programs set up to promote a transition among farmers from the cultivation of coca plants to legal crops, one of the points laid out in the peace accords.

Global Witness highlights that Colombian indigenous communities are the worst affected by violence, a situation that has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. “Official lockdowns led to defenders being targeted in their homes, and government protection measures were cut,” the report states. Colombian independent think-tank Fundación Ideas para la Paz (Ideas for Peace Foundation) had already warned in a report in April 2020 that to the challenges already posed by Covid-19, “we must add the risks generated by threats against National Parks workers in the Amazonía region by dissident factions of the FARC.”

Despite the number of killings of environmental activists – at a rate of more than one per week – Duque’s government has attempted to portray itself to the world as a defender of the natural world. In 2020, Colombia was selected to host World Environment Day, an annual event promoted by the United Nations that was held virtually in September. Duque highlighted his administration’s fight against deforestation and assured delegates that it included “the defense of the environment as a national security issue,” with 22,000 members of the armed forces deployed to that end. However, according to official figures, Colombia lost 171,685 hectares of forest in 2020, 8% more than in 2019. The majority was in the Amazonía region in the south of the country.

Colombia lost 171,685 hectares of forest in 2020, 8% more than in 2019

Mexico was the second deadliest country in the world for environmental activists in 2020 with 30 murders, a 67% rise over 2019. The Global Witness report indicates that almost a third of these attacks were linked to logging and that half of all crimes committed against environmental defenders were directed against indigenous communities. Furthermore, the report underlines that the level of impunity in such cases “remains surprisingly high: as many as 95% of these killings do not give rise to prosecutions.”

Latin America remains the world’s most dangerous continent for environmental activists. Last year there were 20 murders of defenders in Brazil, 17 in Honduras, 13 in Guatemala, 12 in Nicaragua and six in Peru. The Global Witness report states that in Brazil and Peru, almost 75% of all recorded attacks against environmentalists occurred in the Amazon rainforest regions of both countries.

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