The NGO Global Witness in collaboration with The Guardian lists Colombia as the second most dangerous place for “environmental defenders” with an all time high 37 environmental activists killed in 2016 and 32 more killed in 2017.  Colombia’s recent peace deal with the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People’s Army, has only exacerbated the ongoing violence against environmental activists.
On November 2016, the Colombian government signed into law a peace agreement with the FARC ending a 50 year civil war between the two parties. The peace agreement coupled with the FARC’s disarmament were hailed as as an important first step in returning normalcy to Colombia’s indigenous communities, which have disproportionately suffered from the armed conflict. However, the agreement has not fully returned peace to the region.
Today, more than than half of Colombia’s 102 indigenous groups are at risk for disappearing because of the heavy death tolls they experienced during the 50 year civil war.  Throughout the war, many indigenous communities also lost access to their ancestral lands due to forced displacement and illegal mining in their territories. Indigenous communities now living in or wishing to return to their former lands now face new problems from corporate stakeholders and continued threats from drug gangs reliant on the area’s production of coca leaves .
During the civil war, indigenous and peasant communities were often forced by narco groups and local drug gangs into the production of coca leaves for the manufacturing of cocaine. The FARC is also well known for having funded their guerrilla forces with the sale of cocaine, relying on the work of indigenous and peasant communities.
Following the war, indigenous communities led by activists from the Nasa people launched the Campaign to Liberate Mother Earth to reclaim their ancestral land from corporate and drug-related use and exploitation.  Nasa activists are fighting for their right to peacefully return to live and work in their ancestral lands. Indigenous activists also see this fight as part of their duty to provide environmental protection to their lands and the planet at large.
The U’wa people, another indigenous community in northeastern Colombia, see themselves in a similar vein as “guardians of the forest.”  For hundreds of years, they have served to protect the biodiversity and natural habitat of Amazon’s cloud forests.  Like the Nasa, the livelihood of the U’wa people, has also been threatened by increased natural resource extraction and commercial exploitation of their lands.
During Colombia’s civil war, many of the lands now being sold and used for commercial and extractive enterprises were considered too dangerous to access for both indigenous communities and the business sector. Since the signing of the peace agreement, lands formerly considered off-limits have been increasingly converted into sugar plantations, tourist resorts, mining and oil extraction sites. 
Global Witness reports how areas previously under FARC control are now being taken over by extractive companies and new paramilitary groups with indigenous communities once again being violently targeted and displaced.  Private security forces, paramilitary groups, drug gangs and the state police have all been blamed with the intimidation, attack and murder of environmental activists in Colombia.
The Global Witness’ Defender’s Tracker documented the murder of 17-year old Daniel Felipe Castro who was allegedly shot by state police during a Nasa campaign in May 2017 to reclaim indigenous land from a sugar cane plantation.  Journalists have also been targeted by state police. Efigenia Vásquez, a Kokonuko journalist, was shot twice during a conflict escalation between the police and environmental activists.  Ms. Vásquez was covering an ongoing land occupation of a hot-spring resort inside an indigenous reserve. The police have denied responsibility for the murder of Vázquez prompting Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director General, to denounce the killing and call for a full investigation of the events.  State police in the region have also faced retaliation with three police officers killed during an ambush by unknown parties. 
The government’s response to the ongoing violence of indigenous and environmental activists has been mixed. Luis Murillo, Colombian Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development, says the government is aware of its need to protect environmental defenders.  The government is now working to establish control of former guerilla outposts and has been strategic in setting up police camps in main conflict zones. The Colombian government has also established a novel coca substitution program that allots funds to small farmers to transition from coca leaf cultivation to legal and subsistence crops.  Despite these efforts to reestablish peace, the state’s mandate to protect the private property of new commercial landowners remains a main catalyst behind many of the deadly confrontations between activists and the police.
In their 2016 Defenders of the Earth Report, Global Watch called on the Colombian government to tackle the root of the problem to put an end to the murder and violence against environmental defenders  In particular, Global Watch states that Colombia needs to enforce its laws to put an end to the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for the attacks against environmental activists. Global Watch also calls for Colombia to receive informed consent before granting commercial licenses for any further extractive activities in indigenous lands. Investors are also called upon to reconsider their funding of projects that put the environment and the human rights of indigenous communities at risk.
UNESCO and Global Watch have taken the lead in calling for action to bring justice to the dozens of murdered environmental activists in Colombia. It is imperative that the Colombian government responds by holding those responsible for these deaths accountable for their violent persecution and attacks against Colombia’s environmental defenders. Moreover, Colombia needs to reaffirm their commitment to a free press by actively protecting journalists reporting on environmental issues to prevent the death of more journalists like Efigenia Vásquez.
The Nasa’s and allied groups’ Campaign to Liberate Mother Earth is of crucial importance for the continued existence of Colombia’s indigenous communities and their right to self determination, safety and a clean environment. Their work to reclaim their ancestral lands aims to bring environmental benefits and awareness to the rest of Colombians and should be prioritized as a key element of finally establishing peace. As made clear by the ongoing violence faced by the Nasa and other indigenous groups, Colombia’s peace agreement with the FARC alone will not bring peace to Colombia.
Article written by Manuel GUERRERO