A mural of the river says: Save the Magdalena

Stories of Water: A guest blog by Colombian defender Yuvelis Morales

Yuvelis Morales is a young Black Colombian social leader and defender of water, life and territory. She works with the Colombia Free from Fracking Alliance

Yuvelis Morales beside the river holding a paddle and a papaya
Beside the Magdalena River during an initiative with fisherfolk and agricultural producers focusing on food sovereignty {Photo: Yuvelis Morales]

In the Middle Valley of the Magdalena River, Puerto Wilches is a magical place of river-dwelling, amphibious, coastal and Santandereana customs. Yet people here do not seem to be allowed to move beyond a past stained with blood and oil.

Beautiful photo of the river
The Magdalena River, Puerto Wilches, Magdalena Medio [Photo: Yuvelis Morales]

When the Yariguies Indigenous people inhabited this territory and oil surfaced, the greed of settlers – who arrived with the delusions of gods – ended an era of peace and harmony. Extreme violence began, almost as dark as the viscous liquid that emerged from the depths of the land.

Then a few years ago, a mud-green monster appeared with a rotten smell, oozing dirtiness, staining everything it touched and silencing those who were not captivated by its promise of a better life. This was “fracking”. It brought the atrocities of extractivism, an economic model that has left our soils inert, only able to grow monoculture crops sustained by pesticides and agrochemicals. This same model pollutes our waters, leaving us to ask, with irony: how is it possible to live by Colombia’s largest river and not have water that is safe to drink?

Poster shows oil dripping over water and reads: No To Fracking in Puerto Wilches
Poster produced in 2020 calling for NO TO FRACKING IN PUERTO WILCHES, Colombia Free from Fracking Alliance.

I always wondered why people from other places could not drink our water without getting sick. There were more questions than answers. We, who live here, don’t have a choice. It’s not as if we can afford to buy drinking water unless we buy water instead of food. That’s only the beginning of the many inequalities on the long road to climate justice.

We have been marginalized, sexualized, objectified, considered nothing more than a thing so oil operations could get rich and the men involved – most of them, foreigners – have their entertainment.

Many people have been murdered in Puerto Wilches. Our streets have been filled with blood. The river has hidden hundreds of cries. This is how our trade unions were born, fighting violence, and resisting death. Each murder only increased the shocking toll of valued lives lost. People became afraid to speak out because it was, and still is, almost a death sentence.

When I started to get threats, I knew that we women human rights defenders should not have to lose our lives standing up to Colombian and multinational companies. Defending life should not get you killed. We want to continue our struggle, alive and with dignity, not merely surviving.

Yuvelis speaks at a gathering of young women beside the river
Speaking at the Sustainability School beside the San Silvestre wetland, Barrancabermeja in 2023 [Photo: Yuvelis Morales]

It is unfair that women face ideological walls and imposed labels that minimize our actions. We hear nice words about equality. Yet our words are stigmatized.

Yuvelis and two other speakers in front of microphones with Banners behind saying NO TO FRACKING and FRACKING EQUALS DEATH
Press conference in 2021 after filing a bill to prohibit fracking, Congress of Colombia. The signs read NO TO FRACKING and FRACKING =DEATH [Photo: Yuvelis Morales]

I have firsthand experience about what happens to women who refuse to be silent, who speak out against fracking. I faced a classist, racist, sexist, extractivist Colombia, dominated by men in overalls and boots, and others in elegant jackets.

Two years ago, in the middle of the night, armed men arrived at my house, threatening my life and that of my family. So began a series of victimizing situations. I was a young, black woman, 20 years-old, a student of environmental engineering, a leader. As if it were to be expected as a human rights defender in Colombia, I found myself, with a gun pointed at me, fearing that my life was about to end, as my attacker told me that I must stop all this talk about fracking and touched my hair, belittling my existence, acting as if he was the owner of my life and my deepest fears. I was made to feel small, alone. It was terrifying.

The threats continued. So did the stigmatization. I could not return home or hug my family. I had to stay far away from the river that had filled my life.

I left Puerto Wilches, the victim of a society that seemed to care more about the illusion of energy security, while communities faced social insecurity. I went to other cities. But I had to leave the country after dangerous persecution by unidentified armed men during violent repression of the national strike. It hurt that leaving was the only option because in Colombia no one could guarantee protection or relief.

I arrived in France, via the Marianne Initiative, consumed with sadness and shame for not having “endured” the violence. I cried a lot without understanding that I was going through an anxiety crisis, depression, and somatization of emotional pain after a traumatic event.

But I met people who surrounded me in a circle of caring. They were strangers to begin with, women who understood the bitter feeling that hurt my throat, understood because they had experienced it too. Now they are my diaspora family. I began to talk about what I felt. Without shame. Instead, I began to assume my fears and heal my wounds, telling myself: “You are going to return. We daughters of the river always meet in the waters.”

I recovered my voice. I laughed again. I danced, cooked, celebrated my birthday. I made my own decisions. I revived my spirit with the most beautiful act that exists between people: SOLIDARITY.

I did return! I write these words while watching the sun set in this land that has the face of a woman.

A mural of a long-haired woman , the river and a healthy earth
“Mother Water” – painted during a day of mural painting with students in Puerto Wilchis in October 2023. [Photo: Yuvelis Morales]

We have lost a lot since the struggle to stop fracking in Colombia began, but we carry on. For us, this is the freedom of ecosystems. We have prepared strong women and men to stand against the threat that fracking poses. We make our demands with love and roots, today even more strongly than yesterday. We are an alliance among people who seek the care and defense of aquifers. We filed a bill that seeks to prohibit fracking in Colombia. We continue to build, with the firm belief that individual convictions and community support strengthen us, keep us here.

Yuvelis and a group of young people hold banners that say "Alliance Colombia Free of Fracking" and "No to Fracking"
Colombia Free From Fracking Alliance members in Bogota during a global Day of Action against fracking in November 2023. [Photo: Yuvelis Morales]

I dream of a Colombia free of fracking, a world where we are in harmony with water and ecosystems, and where corporate interests that pollute and destroy are no longer prioritized. During the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence, and the days that follow, may we reflect, decide, and act to ensure that the priority is protecting life, protecting the lives of women, girls, and all of us.

Youth paint a beautiful mural of nature on the outside wall of a house
Students in Puerto Wilchis take part in a day of mural painting in October 2023, creating a mural entitled “Biodiverse Territory” at Km 16 [Photo: Yuvelis Morales]

Yuvelis and young people in front of the mural they painted
Yuvelis Morales and students in Puerto Wilchis in October 2023, with their finished mural – “Biodiverse Territory” [Photo: Yuvelis Morales]