Colombia’s environment’s activists and death threats
Authors: Ryan Ang, Tan Chok Geow Region Head: Tan Chok Geow
Editor: Akshat Daga
Colombia is a country full of culture and resources. For a country that is experiencing an influx of foreign direct investment, Colombia could find itself the talk of the world as the next emerging economy in the next few years. However, the country appears to have made the headlines for the wrong reasons: environmentalists’ death. It is this headline that could potentially leave a bad taste on every investor's tongue. Since 2017, the number of environmentalist deaths has been climbing alarmingly. This phenomenon was driven by desire for resource-rich lands from profit-driven corrupt organisations, weak governance, and emphasis for economic growth. While much have been done by the government, it is fair to say that the issue is deep-rooted and one will wonder when an environmentalist will walk free and unharmed again.
Imagine an environmentalist. For many, environmentalists are the true children of earth who sworn an oath to protect it. Naturally, when articles of environmentalists’ deaths surfaced, they put exclamation marks in everyone’s heads.
In Colombia, environmentalists protect the land, natives and the wildlife from the poaching of more than 40 human rights defenders and community leaders have been killed in the country since January 2020, including a national park ranger and several indigenous rights and environmental advocates, according to Indepaz, a Colombian peace-building non-profit based in Bogota. In the same spectrum, human rights defenders were facing the same regimen, with more than 100 killed last year. Reports suggested that most of these deaths were attributed to private hit-men hired by anonymous acquirers.
This phenomenon is not just in Colombia, but other countries as well. Two monarch butterfly conservationists were killed in Mexico, and a group of armed men killed six indigenous people on a nature reserve in Nicaragua. According to Front Line Defenders, more than 300 human rights leaders were killed last year in 31 countries, and nearly half of those killed were targeted specifically because of their environmental activism. The Philippines, Honduras, Mexico and Brazil all ranked among the deadliest of countries after Colombia, where the slayings of 106 human rights activists were documented in 2019.
Drivers of this phenomenon
A question of profit tops the list of drivers of this phenomenon. The authors of Front Line Defenders, which work to help support and protect human rights leaders at risk around the world, claim that the lands these indigenous people inhabited are often some of the earth’s most well-preserved lands, but are often coveted by powerful economic interests eager to mine gold, harvest timber or extract oil.
Naturally, Colombia has been attracting an influx of international companies into its country to enhance rapid economic growth. According to a newsletter from InvestinColombia, more than 200 foreign companies have arrived in the country in the last 5 years. Some big newcomers include Facebook, Atton and Furukawa. This influx was due to Colombia’s key strategic location, qualified human talent, and strong sectors including tourism, financial and business services, BPO operations and agribusiness. However, an environmentalist would argue otherwise. Major infrastructure projects from national, multinational companies, paramilitary groups and drug cartels have been vying control for the country’s most resource-rich territories to grow and transport illicit drug crops.
In addition, weak law enforcement and overburdened justice systems have also played a huge role in contributing to the rising number of environmentalist deaths over the years. Failure to deal with these cases have consequently led to a culture where those who prey and greed believe they can get away with their doings without justice done to them.
The criminalisation of greed has inevitably led to the loss of natural landscapes and resources, which are homes to the natives as well as the wild life. Climate change comes in as the secondary impact. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the result of deforestation contributes to 10% of all global warming emissions.
What has been done?
The Colombia government has claimed it is committed to protecting human rights leaders by assigning them personal protection units and pursuing investigations. Furthermore in 2017, the signing of the peace agreements with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the beginning of negotiations with the National Liberation Army resulted in a substantial decrease in political killings.
However, despite the signing of the peace agreement, a new phenomenon broke out; incremental killings of social leaders and human rights leaders. The peace agreement bought little optimism as from 2017 to 2019, the number of deaths of environmentalists and these social leaders increased at an alarming rate. In October and November 2019, the country experienced demonstrations following the divisive elections and public opposition to large projects that posed threats to the environment. But some of the protests were met with police brutality and targeted violence against human rights defenders, according to the Global Analysis 2019 Report. It also appears that the government is prioritizing economic growth over pro-environmental policies, as it has continued to embrace mega-development projects and grant major concessions to transnational companies in order to secure such projects.
The government’s inadequacy in dealing with this phenomenon is another point highlighted in the report by Front Line Defenders. Since 2016, the attorney general’s office has made investigations of about 52% of the cases, which objectively, is seen to be a low percentage. An analysis of data for 2017 from the same report claimed that 70% of the killings of social leaders and human rights leaders are still in the preliminary inquiry stage. In other words, minimal progress has been made.
Where do we go from here?
Colombia has sensibly addressed that to address this probing issue, they have to fight a war with multiple fronts. One of them is the ability to erect a single, coordinated policy that addresses the killings of these environmentalists on multiple regions of the country. Another one of them is to minimize corruption and manipulation of those with power on the investigations of these killing cases. However, some cases of corruption are deep-rooted in the institutions and getting rid of it is no easy feat.
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