How killings of activists impact Colombia’s environmental protection

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PUERTO GUZMAN, COLOMBIA, Nov. 11 (Reuters) – One night last February, darkness fell over Colombia’s southern Putumayo department, and gunshots rang through the sky, shattering the peaceful twilight.

The villagers who were participating in the rally scattered and fled. Reidy Mendoza watched in horror nearby as her teenage son rushed to save his 5-year-old brother, who fled when the gunfire started.

“Hit the floor!” Mendoza shouted as bullets pounded into the building. But it was too late. One of them hit her eldest son in the leg.

Mendoza, a former guerrilla fighter from the now-disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), dragged his children back inside his home.

“I started screaming like a crazy woman, ‘Help me, Jorge!’” Mendoza told Reuters. “I didn’t know they had already killed him.”

Her husband, Jorge Santofimio, an environmental activist who ran a network of nurseries across Colombia’s Amazon region, was shot several times in the abdomen at close range, according to at least three witnesses and the Colombian attorney general’s office. He died instantly. His murder remains unsolved.

In response to questions from Reuters about Santofimio’s death and other killings, the Environment Ministry said conservationists are often targeted because their work poses a threat of illegal activity, and that environmental projects are “This may be affected by the risks of

Between 2012 and 2022, at least 1,910 environmentalists were killed around the world for their work defending nature from business and criminal interests, according to British advocacy group Global Witness. Colombia had the highest number of deaths last year, with 60 people killed.

Colombia’s government is committed to protecting environmental activists, Environment Minister Susana Mohamad said in an interview with Reuters this month, calling each killing a tragedy.

“In the past they were stigmatized,” said Muhammad, who took office in August 2022 as part of Colombia’s first left-wing national government. She said environmental activists have often been portrayed as obstacles to development.

“No one deserves to die to save life,” she said.

Reuters investigated the aftermath of Santofimio’s shooting and the killings of two other environmental activists, one in 2020 and one in 2021, and the impact on efforts to conserve and restore rainforests and protect wildlife. evaluated. activists, scientists, financiers, advocacy groups, and government departments.

In interviews with Reuters, these people detailed how the attacks threw conservation projects into limbo, with conservationists withdrawing from environmental efforts fearing more violence. Security issues also caused delays in the disbursement of funds, it said.

Municipal data published by local environmental authorities and the Colombian Institute of Meteorology (IDEAM) also showed that deforestation at the local level was worse than the national trend in the year following each killing.

Environmentalists said the suspension of conservation projects would tip the balance toward deforestation and destruction.

“They continue to cut down trees without rest,” said Armando Arroca, now head of Santofimio’s nursery network. “They continue to mine.” Mr. Aloka did not specify who he was referring to.

Santofimio’s murder halted the conservation project he had worked so hard on. Funding was delayed, nurseries were forced to close, and staff abandoned important tasks such as gathering seeds and planting seedlings in the jungle.

From rebel to environmental activist

Santofimio, like his wife, is a former FARC rebel. The group had relied on Colombia’s lush jungles for safety during their fight against the government, but after a 2016 peace deal, Santofimio turned to defending its former homeland and expanded its operations across the Colombian Amazon. He led a network of nurseries, including one run by Comcom, which he called Settlement. House.

Santofimio, known as Giorgillo by his friends, had received multiple threats, he told Reuters in August 2021, without disclosing who had made the threats.

“Here you don’t get killed just because you’re a peace signer,” he said six months before his death. “They will kill you because they want to make peace.”

Duverney Lopez, chairman of the ComCom cooperative, founded by former FARC fighters, told Reuters in June that his killing was aimed at terrorizing the community. He said there was a good chance the attackers would be more careful in killing Santofimio as he rode his motorbike through the area.

“There are stakeholders who don’t want us to stay here,” Lopez said, declining to identify who was behind the attack, citing security concerns.

Colombia is struggling to end nearly 60 years of conflict between the state, left-wing guerrillas and criminal groups descended from right-wing militias, which have left at least 450,000 people dead.

The 2016 peace agreement with the FARC came with environmental costs, opening up areas previously controlled by the FARC to cattle ranching, illegal gold mining, and growing drug crops such as coca, the main ingredient in cocaine, and deforestation. Destruction skyrocketed.

“It’s no coincidence that the main attacks against environmental activists are carried out in coca locations,” said Kevin Murakami, director of international narcotics and law enforcement at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá.

Successive governments have blamed Colombian armed groups, including the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, founded by Marxist clerics in 1964, and the criminal organization Clan del Golfo, for the killings of environmentalists. . Reuters was unable to reach these organizations for comment.

The tree nursery has closed.

Mr. Santofimio was working with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to build a network of nurseries in the states of Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta, and Guaviare. Under his leadership, the network expanded to more than a dozen nurseries and aimed to grow up to 1 million trees in two years.

Comcom members said that after the killing, UNDP’s disbursement of funds worth $149,000 (the equivalent of a prince in Colombia) was delayed by six months. UNDP said in a statement that the setback was due to administrative delays caused by Santofimio’s death.

Elsewhere in Putumayo, a nursery capable of growing 150,000 trees a year was closed due to fear among workers and Mr. Santofimio’s lack of leadership, a project leader told Reuters on condition of anonymity. .

Progress has stalled in other regions as well, Aloka said.

Aloka said the network’s total tree production over two years was about 250,000 trees, only a quarter of Santofimio’s goal.

bulletproof vest

Two years before Santofimio’s murder, one morning in December 2020, Javier Franco Parra, a forest ranger working in the town of La Macarena, fired several shots at a gunman through an open window. It was. He died awaiting medical evacuation.

“Mr. Francisco couldn’t take it anymore,” said Andres Felipe García, then head of the local environmental regulator Colmacarena, where Mr. Parra worked.

Colombia’s attorney general’s office said the killing was ordered by a faction of former FARC rebels who reject the peace deal. Prosecutors said in a statement that rebels tried to extort more than $14,000 a month from Parra and Colmacarena for access to a nearby reserve, and when the money was not paid, the rebels He added that the sect had ordered Parra’s murder. Two people were charged in this case.

Reuters was unable to reach the suspects, their lawyers or FARC dissidents for comment.

Garcia said both the local forestry department and the state forest service have withdrawn their personnel from the area. Parra’s killings have ‘stopped’ [conservation] For example, work is being done with the same energy as before,” he added.

Seventeen National Park Service (PNN) rangers have been killed since 1991, PNN director Luis Martinez told Reuters.

“I have rangers who took protective measures. Bodyguards, bulletproof vests, etc. had to be moved from one location to another,” Martinez said. “There have been cases of rangers defecting.”

Martinez said efforts to restore Meta’s two national parks, including La Macarena, are three years behind schedule. The effort is being funded in part by his 35 million euro ($37.5 million) package from German state bank KfW.

KfW told Reuters that implementation of the project was “significantly delayed”, adding that security issues, as well as the coronavirus pandemic and changes in staffing levels, were causing setbacks.

Environmental group World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also told Reuters it was struggling with a proposed $1 million, five-year project in the city of La Macarena, citing safety concerns.

Security issues disrupt projects across Colombia. USAID’s Amazonia Mia environmental project has changed the location of a few projects after local communities warned about safety concerns in the originally planned areas, group director Roberto Gómez told Reuters. Told.

Deforestation is becoming more serious

Government data showed an increase in deforestation in municipalities affected by three murders by environmentalists compared to national levels.

After Parra’s murder, deforestation in the city of La Macarena increased by 14% in 2020 to just over 13,000 hectares, almost double the national rate for the same year. Garcia said most of the destruction occurred in the weeks after Parra was shot in December.

Similarly, in Putumayo in 2022, due in part to the wetter La Niña phenomenon, deforestation in Puerto Guzmán, where Santo Fimio’s project is based, is expected to increase despite a 29% decrease in deforestation across Colombia compared to 2021. The area increased by 0.6% to 4,645 hectares. According to IDEAM, this is the highest level among the 13 municipalities in Putumayo state.

The third case investigated by Reuters was that of conservationist Gonzalo Cardona, who was killed in 2021 while working with bird conservation group ProAves to protect the endangered Yellow-bellied Parrot. No one has been charged in the incident. “This was a huge blow,” said Sara Inés Lara, executive director of ProAves, who resigned after four park rangers deemed it too dangerous and needed to spend more on security. he added.

Santofimio’s colleagues are slowly getting back on their feet.

At the nursery, where work ceased after Santofimio’s murder, seedlings bask in dappled sunlight under a protective net. Right before Santofimio’s death, the nursery had the capacity to grow 30,000 trees a year, and now the nursery can produce 100,000 trees a year, Lopez said.

Walking among rows of young plants, López reflected on Santofimio’s legacy.

“This is a victory over death for Georgillo,” he said.

Reporting: Oliver Griffin Editing: Julia Simms Cobb, Katie Daigle, Claudia Parsons

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Oliver reports on energy, environment and general news from Bogotá, Colombia. He has a special interest in reporting on rampant oil crime in Colombia, where hydrocarbon theft driven by drug trafficking has caused widespread pollution. He previously worked at Dow Jones Newswires in Barcelona, ​​where he covered oil and mining. Contact: +573045838931

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