Defending Colombia’s Amazon is a high-risk job – as our journalists know
OPINION: Colombia promised to protect life. Safeguarding those who resist and expose wrongdoing must be a priority
Colombia is a land with a long history of violence and environmental destruction. Environmental leaders have been systematically murdered in the country for decades. According to reporting by Global Witness and Diálogo Chino, between 2009 and 2022, Colombia was the country with the second highest number of environmental defenders killed in the world: at least 357.
These numbers are unlikely to decrease while the current dynamics of violence and environmental destruction continue, despite official statements that action will be taken to change them.
The killing of environmental defenders in Colombia is a direct consequence of the persistence of a long-lasting and wider conflict the country has been experiencing for decades – a conflict that was not fully resolved with the signing of the peace accords with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People’s Army) in 2016, and which means the Colombian state is unable to be present in large parts of the country.
The absence of the state translates into the inoperability of the army, security forces and the justice system in territories where violence against environmental defenders and other social leaders is rampant. There, the persistence of illegal economies linked to drug trafficking and illegal mining run by non-state actors, including ELN guerrillas, FARC dissidents, paramilitaries and drug cartels means that affected communities suffer violence with impunity.
As a result, the activity of armed groups engaged in illegal exploitation of natural resources – such as gold and mineral extraction, illegal fishing, deforestation, and land grabbing – are imposing their law by force of arms. And the environmental activists who continue to work to protect the territory from exploitation are paying a high price for their travails.
The Colombian government has taken some measures in recent years to protect environmental activists, such as the signing of the Escazú Agreement, a landmark regional treaty for environmental defenders, or the creation of a National Protection Unit to provide security for activists at risk of assassination. But on-the-ground violence persists and proliferates.
The killing of activists serves as a deterrent against resistance, and has created a climate of fear for those trying to protect their communities and the environment. A report by the Colombian Commission of Jurists, which stated that 131 environmental activists were killed in Colombia between 1 January 2016 and 31 October 2019, also noted that the vast majority of these murders were not investigated or punished. The most affected departments (administrative areas) were Cauca and Valle del Cauca, with 35 and 31 murders respectively, but the situation is untenable elsewhere too, such as in parts of Putumayo and Nariño.
The risks of territorial reporting
The figures are likely to be underreported significantly. Aside from physical difficulties accessing territories controlled by non-state actors, one of the main obstacles to reporting on the Colombian Amazon – which covers 35% of the country – is threats made to the life of journalists. Some investigative work carried out in departments of the Colombian Amazon highlighting injustices and illegalities is slowed down or silenced by the prevailing situation of harassment and intimidation, El País has reported.
José Cote, a Colombian editor and journalist specialised in covering the Amazon, told openDemocracy: “When doing field work in Colombia, we journalists face many dangers, but I would like to talk about one we rarely consider. Many sources have told me: ‘You come here, do the investigation and leave, and we are the ones who have to face the consequences of what you do.’ Most of the time, no matter how discreet you are, in small communities or rural areas everyone knows about the arrival of the journalist and who he or she is interviewing. This situation often endangers the source. The safety of sources is also a journalist’s responsibility.”
A report by the Colombian Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) earlier this year found 218 Colombian journalists had been victims of threats in 2022, the highest annual number recorded in the last 15 years. And in the last three years, five journalists have been murdered.
Jonatan Bock, director of FLIP, says in the report that journalists are “the guardians of the territory, who carry out their work amid a violent context”. “Protecting them should be a priority for the state,” he adds.
The Amazon is one of the most silenced regions, according to FLIP. Insecurity and lack of resources mean local and community media, and networks of indigenous communicators, do not report in depth on the seriousness of the events occurring in regions such as Putumayo, according to the FLIP report Cartographies of Information. “In Putumayo,” say the report’s authors, “70% of the population lives in silent municipalities, places where there are no media outlets that produce local news. Only in its capital, Mocoa and Puerto Asís do the inhabitants have a sufficient supply of local information.” In addition, Putumayo has limited internet connectivity, as do the other Amazonian departments, which makes it very difficult to work on the ground.
Too often, environmental leaders and journalists would rather remain silent than risk their lives and the lives of their families and communities
Colombian environmentalist Óscar Sampayo and his companions, quoted in the blog Ethic, describe their receipt of death threats: “We receive pamphlets or letterheads from these narco-paramilitary forces where they mention that we are an obstacle to development, that we are preventing… companies from carrying out and executing their work. That is why many of us have decided to leave the territory so that we are not assassinated or to go into exile so that we are not criminalised or prosecuted.”
Reporting from the ground is often too much of a commitment. Too often, environmental leaders and journalists would rather remain silent than risk their lives and those of their families and communities.
“Doing research in Colombia on issues of human rights violations entails many risks,” says José Guarnizo, co-founder and director of the investigative journalism website Voragine, speaking to openDemocracy. “It is no secret to anyone, for example, that there are areas of the country where there is no state, even places where the army does not even reach.
“In those territories it is the illegal armed groups that control the entry and exit of people. And on many occasions we have had to abort missions because there are no security guarantees, as in the case of some areas of Putumayo, Tumaco, Amazonas, just to cite a few examples.”
Members of organised crime groups, including illegal miners and drug traffickers, take advantage of the absence of the state to impose their own law, particularly in the south of the country, in the departments of Nariño, Cauca and Putumayo. To confront them is to risk one’s own life, so it is very difficult to report on what is really happening in the territories they control with impunity. One journalist awarded with an environment reporting grant by openDemocracy’s Latin America sister title democraciaAbierta recently conceded she would not be able to complete her work for security reasons, telling us: “It has been very difficult to drop the visit, but the issue of antipersonnel mines and the escalation of the conflict has led the leaders to recommend that I should not enter for now.” This is something that happens too often.
This situation is well known to the new government of Gustavo Petro – which, in its declared determination to put an end to armed violence through its commitment to the so-called ‘Total Peace’ effort, may in time decide to pay it special attention (though it has not yet). Numbers are eloquent: according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz), at least 189 human rights defenders, including 33 environmental leaders, were killed in 2022.
Dangers of reporting from the Amazon
There are several reasons why journalism in the Amazon is so complex and dangerous, particularly in Colombia. Juanita Rico, an environmental journalist with democraciaAbierta, lists some of them here.
- Access: The Amazon rainforest is vast, remote and difficult to access, which prevents journalists from reaching the territory from which they intend to report, or local journalists from leaving it easily and quickly if necessary.
- Safety: The Colombian Amazon has a very long history of violence and conflict, making it dangerous for journalists, both local and foreign, to work in the region without risking their lives. Many journalists have been targeted by illegal armed groups, who consider them a threat to their operations. As a result, some have been kidnapped, threatened or killed while working in the region. This creates a climate of fear and self-censorship among journalists trying to cover what is happening in the Amazon, which limits the quantity and quality of information disseminated.
- Cultural barriers: Many journalists arriving from cities or abroad find it difficult to communicate with and understand the cultures of the indigenous communities living in the Amazon. Consequently, their reporting, biased by stereotypes, often lacks the depth and understanding necessary to effectively report on the complex issues faced by the communities.
- Legal barriers: In some cases, there are laws and regulations that restrict access to certain areas of the Amazon, preventing journalists from reporting on certain topics.
- Censorship: The Colombian government has a history of censorship and repression of journalists, which often makes it difficult for them to report freely on certain issues in large, high-impact media outlets. Censorship is also exercised by actors who control the same territory and impose the law of silence.
The murders of Dominic Phillips and Bruno Pereira in the western Brazilian Amazon almost a year ago brought to light the problem of safe journalism in the region. Their killings raised international alarm bells, but the problem is not new and the risks of reporting on the region are shared throughout the basin.
The Colombian Amazon rainforest continues to be hit hard by illegal logging, farming, mining and oil extraction. It has virtually no effective tools to stop the devastating environmental and social effects these activities have on the territory and the local communities.
The Colombian state should protect and promote the joint efforts of environmental activism and journalism in this vast region by providing security and access to trouble spots, and combating impunity by effectively prosecuting crimes that involve both murder and ecocide. Reporting freely and safely helps raise awareness of the depth and complexity of these problems, as well as holding criminal actors, and the companies and authorities that cover them, accountable for their actions.
Reporting from the Amazon remains an urgent necessity. The rainforest is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet and is a vital component in the global effort to combat the climate crisis. Journalism and environmentalism must go hand in hand with indigenous and peasant communities, who are a determining factor in the care and survival of the territories and their biodiversity. Without their active protection by the state, the Amazon risks dying.
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