Sylvia Colombo: The Colombian Amazon has the same dramas as the Brazilian one, but solutions are on the agenda


The brutal murder of journalist Dom Phillips and indigenist Bruno Pereira shocked Brazil and gave the issue of crimes committed against nature in the Amazon an international projection. It remains to be seen whether bloodthirsty attacks like these, against journalists and defenders of nature, will in fact have a consequence reflected in more effective public policies. However, a month after their executions, it is inevitable to look at the numbers and see that the Amazon, as well as other ecosystems in Latin America, are increasingly at risk, mainly due to the fact that their protectors have been the target of true policies of death.

After a brief stay in Colombia, I saw that the murder of the duo was also a topic in this country, with which, yes, we share the Amazon. Despite President Jair Bolsonaro repeating to the four winds that the Amazon belongs to Brazilians, it is worth remembering that even geography contradicts him: 60% of it is in Brazil, 13% in Peru, 10% in Colombia, in addition to also spreading through the Bolivia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela.

On the Colombian side, attacks on defenders of nature are the most intense, according to reports by the NGO Global Witness. For at least three years, Colombia has been the country with the most murders, most of them unpunished, against environmentalists, forest guardians and indigenists. There were 195 in the last three years alone.

The most general reasons are similar to those in Brazil. The dead tried, with few resources and with the help of local indigenous people, to defend the region from deforestation, illegal fishing and mining and drug trafficking. The masterminds of the crimes, on both sides of the border, are in a seemingly untouchable nebula that involves the command of these mafias and, not infrequently, they have the protection of conniving and corrupt local authorities.

Other reasons are more private. Here are the ones from Colombia.

For more than five decades, the Colombian Amazon has been better preserved, albeit for a negative reason. The forests were barracks for the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and the place where hundreds of people kidnapped by the guerrillas spent months, sometimes years. This kept even the environmental crime mafias away from the green areas.

With the peace agreement that demobilized the guerrillas in 2016, the area became more exposed, both to criminal factions and to illicit explorers of forest products. The alert reaction came from indigenous people and NGOs, who stood up to protect the forest. And this is the war they are losing, with many of their members murdered.

In addition to the Amazon, Colombia has other territories where nature reigns, covering almost 30% of its territory. Environmentalists have been warning that, during the government of center-right Iván Duque, threats against them have been increasing, as has impunity for those who shoot them. Duque argues that deforestation is necessary to gain space for criminal factions.

He just doesn’t admit that, in this way, he is creating a desert.

Contrary to the peace agreement, but constitutionally obliged to comply with it, President Iván Duque did his best to put obstacles in the way of some of its articles. One of them determined that the dismantling of coca plantations destined to manufacture cocaine should be manual, and therefore slower. Under strong pressure from the administration of former President Donald Trump, Duque returned to apply the rain of chemicals by air to kill crops. The peasants rightly complained, as this method killed not only the coca crops, but also other crops, the forest and themselves and their families.

Specifically in this fight for the government to abandon the use of chemicals in coca plantations, 17 environmentalists have been killed in recent years.

Where there are fewer casualties among defenders of nature, however, are the areas that serve as a route for drug trafficking and among those who oppose the abuses of open-pit mining and those that displace indigenous populations or contaminate their waters, especially in the Amazon region. . Of the 65 deaths in 2021, 34 were related to this topic, which means a 60% increase compared to 2018.

On crimes in Colombia, Ben Leather, director of Global Witness, says: “Until there are no investigations and rulings by governments, we will not know definitively who are the perpetrators of attacks on defenders of nature. Even so, it is very useful to report always, because it gives us an idea of ​​what happens in these areas”.

Like Jair Bolsonaro, Iván Duque also presents himself in international forums as a defender of nature. Between 2019 and 2020, however, 8% of the Colombian Amazon was deforested.

The president-elect of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, says he wants to fight these mafias and change the country’s economic model, so that it is no longer based on extractivism. It is clear that historically rooted illicit interests will be faced with a political opposition that is against this environmental nightmare coming to an end. We must hope that it succeeds in this area, and that not only the defenders of nature, but also nature itself, stop dying.

It would also be vital to find, on the Brazilian side, a suitable partnership to take care of the Amazon.

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