Perhaps the greatest priority we all face is protecting the environment on which our shared future depends.
Jani Silva, Danelly Estupiñan, Joel Rodríguez and María Ciro risk their very lives to respond to this challenge with hope and enormous courage.
Colombia has the second highest bio-diversity in the world, with unique ecosystems that include vast tracts of Amazon rainforest, the lungs of the world. Colombia is also the most dangerous country for people who defend land and the environment that is vital to Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities – and all of us!
Hundreds of defenders have been killed in the last year alone and new assassinations are reported almost daily. Others like Jani, Danelly, Joel and Maria are threatened with death if they continue to speak up. Yet they refuse to be silent.
Their stories, told in their own words in the short videos below, are emblematic of terrifying realities across Colombia.
In a land of gaping inequality and the enduring legacy of colonization and slavery, Indigenous, black and rural campesino leaders are particularly at risk, especially when defending their right to a healthy environment puts them on a collision course with powerful people seeking to exploit its economic potential or the natural resources found there.
Women environment defenders face the added risk of sexual violence against them or their children because their outspoken efforts challenge traditional gender roles as well as economic interests.
Defending human rights and the environment in Colombia should not be a death sentence.
Colombia has laws and institutions that were created to guarantee protection for human rights defenders. President Duque and his government have a duty to uphold those guarantees. They are clearly failing in their responsibility as the already terrifying number of murdered defenders continues to grow.
Read Amnesty International’s report Why Do They Want To Kill Us: The Lack of Safe Space to Defend Human Rights in Colombia
Defenders in Colombia have sent out an SOS to the world with the hashtag #NosEstanMatando – #TheyAreKillingUs. They have appealed to us to raise our voices with theirs to call for urgent action to stop the violence, and protect the rights of entire communities at risk, along with their leaders.
Expressions of concern and calls for change from Canada can play an important role, especially given close ties of trade, investment and cooperation between our two countries.
JANI SILVA: AMAZONIAN ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDER
Jani Silva was born in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. She is a subsistence farmer who has dedicated her life to defending our oxygen and our water.
In 2008, Jani co-founded the Association for the Comprehensive and Sustainable Development of the Amazon Pearl (known as ADISPA), to defend the rights of more than 1,200 other subsistence farmers living in a reserve called the “Perla Amazónica” in a region of incredible biodiversity.
Jani courageously denounced contamination of land and water by the oil company Amerisur. She also speaks out against illegal armed groups who terrorize her community, seeking to take control of their land to exploit its economic potential.
Because of these efforts, Jani has been threatened with a gun pointed at her head. She has been forced to flee her land and go into hiding, amid plans to kill her. For Jani and the members of ADISPA to be able to keep defending our environment without fear of harm, armed groups must be dismantled and brought to justice. Yet the government has failed to take this action.
DANELLY ESTUPINAN: AFRO-COLOMBIAN ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDER
Danelly Estupiñan grew up among mangroves and vibrant Afro-Colombian culture. At 15 years-old, she decided to dedicate her life to defending land and natural resources vital to the survival of Afro-descendant communities from companies and armed groups that wanted to take it over.
Danelly is a defender with a coalition called the Black Communities Process (known as PCN), which coordinates more than 140 organizations working for the rights of black communities. Because of her work, Danelly suffers from constant death threats. Unknown individuals have broken into her home, and due to the constant surveillance and order to kill her, she has had to continuously move homes.
For the threats against Danelly to stop, the Public Prosecutor’s office must urgently proceed to investigate them and bring those responsible to justice. Yet this action has not been taken.
MARIA CIRO: CAMPESINA ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDER
María Ciro was raised in a rural campesina community of subsistence farmers whose survival depended on the cultivation of food crops on their land. She has dedicated her life to defending nature as a living being which we rely upon, not an object to be exploited.
María lives in Catatumbo, a region scarred by relentless armed conflict and militarization, despite the signing of a peace agreement with FARC rebels in 2016. She is active with the Catatumbo Social Integration Committee, an organization that defends community land and human rights, in particular the right to food and a healthy environment.
Because of their work, María and other members of her organization have suffered false accusations by authorities that have led to persecution. María and the other defenders need guarantees of respect for their rights and safety to be able to keep protecting the land and a healthy environment. They are still waiting amidst an ever more dangerous reality.
JOEL CHIPIAJE: SIKUANI INDIGENOUS ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDER
Joel Chipiaje grew up in harsh conditions, forcibly displaced by violence from the life-sustaining water, food and other natural resources of the ancestral land of his Indigenous community, ASEINPOME. Joel heard stories from his father about how armed groups hunted down and killed his people, forcing the survivors to flee their land in terror.
In 2015, Joel and 42 brave Sikuani-Kubeo Indigenous families decided to return to their ancestral land in Meta, a territory known as the agricultural breadbasket of Colombia. The families are now seeking formal recognition that the land is theirs. Meanwhile, they do all they can to protect it.
Because of these efforts, Joel and the ASEINPOME Indigenous community have received threats from people who want to take over the land. They have even burnt down houses in the community. Protection for Joel and his community – and the natural resources they seek to conserve – requires the Colombian government to grant them title to their ancestral lands and to prosecute those who threaten them. This has yet to happen, while persecution continues.