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Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders

Yuly Velásquez (center in tan vest) president of a local fishers association and a clean-water advocate, meets with its members on a tributary of the Magdalena River. She has been attacked three times in the past two years for her environmental work.
Nathalia Angarita for NPR
Yuly Velásquez (center in tan vest) president of a local fishers association and a clean-water advocate, meets with its members on a tributary of the Magdalena River. She has been attacked three times in the past two years for her environmental work.

BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia — For sounding the alarm about water pollution in and around this industrial city in northern Colombia, Yuly Velásquez seems to have a target on her back: Over the past two years, she has survived three assassination attempts.

In January 2021, gunmen shot up her house as Velásquez along with her husband and two children were sleeping inside. Months later, assailants fired on her boat, but Velásquez escaped. And in yet another attack last year, a bullet meant for Velásquez struck one of her bodyguards in the face.

"The bullet went through his cheek," Velásquez says. "It was a miracle that he survived."

Many Colombian environmentalists have not been as lucky. A report published in September by the London-based advocacy group Global Witness ranks Colombia as the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders and those defending land rights for Indigenous and other local community groups. Of the 177 green activists killed around the world last year, the report says, 60 were murdered in Colombia.

Velásquez never goes anywhere in Barrancabermeja without her two pistol-packing escorts who were assigned to her by the Colombian government after she began receiving threats for her environmental work.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
Velásquez never goes anywhere in Barrancabermeja without her two pistol-packing escorts who were assigned to her by the Colombian government after she began receiving threats for her environmental work.
Oswaldo Beltrán (left) said armed intruders burst into his home while he was gone, tied up his wife and threatened to chops his sons fingers off unless he told them of his father's whereabouts. But he continues to work with Velásquez in the fishers association.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
Oswaldo Beltrán (left) said armed intruders burst into his home while he was gone, tied up his wife and threatened to chops his sons fingers off unless he told them of his father's whereabouts. But he continues to work with Velásquez in the fishers association.
A member of the fishers association cleans a fish as Velásquez looks on. She says contamination from Barrancabermeja's oil refinery and petrochemical plants is causing fish kills in nearby rivers and lagoons.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
A member of the fishers association cleans a fish as Velásquez looks on. She says contamination from Barrancabermeja's oil refinery and petrochemical plants is causing fish kills in nearby rivers and lagoons.

"It's really a shameful statistic for the country," Susana Muhamad, Colombia's environment minister, said in a statement when the report was released. She did not respond to NPR's requests for an interview.

Nearly nine out of 10 of the killings recorded last year occurred in Latin America, with Brazil ranking as the second most deadly country, with 34 fatalities.

Laura Furones, a Global Witness senior adviser, tells NPR that collecting data is more difficult in places like China and Africa that have authoritarian leaders and weak civil societies. As a result, she says, the killings of green activists in those parts of the world may be underreported.

In Latin America, by contrast, environmental groups are especially active and outspoken.

"Latin America has a pretty strong civil society and Indigenous groups," Furones says. "They are being attacked more because they are fighting more actively to defend their land and their resources. This is why they are being killed. They are not prepared to stop their work."

With the Amazon jungle and three Andean mountain ranges, Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, ranking "first in bird and orchid species diversity and second in plants, butterflies, freshwater fishes and amphibians," according to the Convention on Global Biodiversity. However, the government has never fully controlled remote areas of the country, which have been occupied by drug traffickers and Marxist guerrillas.

Overall, security has improved in the wake of a 2016 peace treaty that disarmed the country's largest guerrilla army. But in many cases rebels have been replaced by cocaine smugglers and criminal gangs involved in illegal logging, gold mining and land seizures. These groups often target activists who get in their way,

In other cases, the culprits are corrupt politicians or shady business owners promoting agro-industry and development schemes, says Angela Olaya, a security analyst with Conflict Responses Foundation in Bogotá, the Colombian capital.

Furones says successful prosecutions are rare.

"There's a huge problem of impunity," she says. "Most of the cases of killings end up with no one being tried, let alone put in jail."

Velásquez washes a fish caught on a Magdalena River tributary. Due to oil pollution, fishing is prohibited along some tributaries near Barrancabermeja.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
Velásquez washes a fish caught on a Magdalena River tributary. Due to oil pollution, fishing is prohibited along some tributaries near Barrancabermeja.
Fish in a spillway on a tributary of the Magdalena River. Velásquez heads a fishers association but spends much of her time working to denounce and prevent water pollution.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
Fish in a spillway on a tributary of the Magdalena River. Velásquez heads a fishers association but spends much of her time working to denounce and prevent water pollution.
A heron resting on a tree branch on a polluted tributary of the Magdalena River.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
A heron resting on a tree branch on a polluted tributary of the Magdalena River.

Velásquez, 38, grew up on the Magdalena River, which cuts through the middle of Colombia and past Barrancabermeja. The city is home to two large oil refineries and petrochemical plants that dump wastewater into the river. Velásquez heads an association of fishers and is constantly sounding the alarm about water pollution that kills fish and drives away herons, kingfishers and other birds.

On a recent morning, Velásquez boarded a small boat and motored up a Magdalena tributary, where the water suddenly turned an unnatural greenish shade and was dotted with oil stains. She stopped to take water samples, which she says often turn up positive for ammonia and other chemicals.

Velásquez says the threats against her began about three years ago, after she denounced irregularities in the awarding of a lucrative city contract for cleaning up rivers and lagoons near Barrancabermeja. So far, no one has been arrested for the attacks.

"Anytime activists start helping communities, easiest way to stop them is to hire illegal groups to kill them," Velásquez says. "That makes people afraid to keep on fighting" for the environment.

Olaya, the security analyst, says that many go into exile or spend so much time and energy protecting themselves that they must cut back on their environmental work.

A fisherman throws his net in the Rosario river, contaminated by oil, in Barrancabermeja, Colombia.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
A fisherman throws his net in the Rosario river, contaminated by oil, in Barrancabermeja, Colombia.
Velásquez and other members of the fishers association are constantly monitoring river water for the presence of chemical pollutants.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
Velásquez and other members of the fishers association are constantly monitoring river water for the presence of chemical pollutants.
Velásquez collects a water sample on a polluted tributary of the Magdalena River.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
Velásquez collects a water sample on a polluted tributary of the Magdalena River.

A Reuters investigation into the killings of three environmentalists in southern Colombia in 2020 and 2021 found that their murders prompted fellow conservationists to abandon projects over fears of more violence — and that deforestation in the areas where they had been working increased.

More common than killings are death threats and other forms of intimidation.

Jorge Díaz, helping Velásquez take water samples, says that in May, he and several other green activists who had clashed with local cattle ranchers were forced by armed bandits to leave their home village of Bocas del Rosario on the Magdalena River. He says environmental work in the village has stopped.

Oswaldo Beltrán, who works with Velásquez in the fishers association, recalls how, when he was traveling at one point, armed men burst into his home, tied up his wife and threatened to chop off his son's fingers unless they revealed his whereabouts.

"Mother Nature is dying. Animals are being displaced. The monkeys are disappearing. There is massive deforestation," Beltrán says. "But when we protest about this, we get threatened."

One of Velásquez's colleagues in the fishers association uses a machete to clear brush from the banks of a Magdalena River tributary.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
One of Velásquez's colleagues in the fishers association uses a machete to clear brush from the banks of a Magdalena River tributary.
Oil stains on a tributary of the Magdalena River near Barrancabermeja, which is home to oil refineries and petrochemical plants that dump wastewater into the river.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
Oil stains on a tributary of the Magdalena River near Barrancabermeja, which is home to oil refineries and petrochemical plants that dump wastewater into the river.
To help protect Velásquez, police agents on motorcycles stop by her house several times per day.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
To help protect Velásquez, police agents on motorcycles stop by her house several times per day.

In her statement, Muhamad, the environment minister, pointed out that the Colombian government set up a program last year to allow authorities to respond more quickly when activists are threatened. It also signed an international treaty in 2018, known as the Escazú Agreement, that includes a provision to better protect the rights of environmental defenders — however, it has yet to be ratified by the country's highest court.

And on the ground, things are only getting worse, according to Global Witness. The 60 killings it registered last year were nearly twice the number for 2021.

As a stopgap, the government is providing Velásquez with an armored SUV and two pistol-packing escorts. Police stop by her house several times per day.

Even so, Johnny Ramírez, who sought Velásquez's help when a natural gas leak contaminated drinking water in his Barrancabermeja neighborhood, worries for her safety. He says her enemies consider her a loudmouth who must be silenced.

Velásquez poses near the oil refinery complex in Barrancabermeja.
/ Nathalia Angarita for NPR
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Nathalia Angarita for NPR
Velásquez poses near the oil refinery complex in Barrancabermeja.

Velásquez insists that's not going to happen.

"Despite the threats and killings, the fight goes on," she says. "Because if we don't do this, who will?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Otis