Colombia: most dangerous country for ecologists

Colombia recorded the world's highest number of killings of environmental defenders in 2022, with 60 individuals murdered, according to a report released on Sept. 12 by activist group Global Witness. The organization, which has been documenting environmental defender deaths since 2012, found that the number of environmental defenders slain in Colombia nearly doubled in 2022, compared to the previous year. These killings have pushed Colombia's environmental defender death toll to 382 since 2012.

The report also highlighted the challenges in ensuring justice for these killings. An analysis conducted by the Colombian civil society network Programa Somos Defensores indicates a significant backlog of unresolved cases, with a mere 5.2% of cases involving the killing of environmental and human rights defenders having been resolved by the courts.

The report further pointed out how bogus criminal charges have been used to silence environmental defenders. For instance, Teófilo Acuña, a Colombian advocate for small-scale peasants who was murdered in 2022, was reported to have been beaten and arbitrarily arrested in 2007 as part of a legal case that was later dismissed. The report says that he was arbitrarily detained again in 2020 "on fabricated charges of aggravated rebellion."

Despite these challenges, the report celebrated left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro's victory in Colombia's 2022 presidential elections. Petro has made promises regarding social transformation and improved protection for defenders. This commitment marks a departure from the previous administration of former President Ivan Duque, who faced fines and house arrest in June 2022 for failing to comply with a court ruling directing him to protect Los Nevados National Park.

In 2022, Amnesty International sounded alarm over the deaths of 20 human rights defenders and four journalists in Colombia that year.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has also raised concerns about the environmental impact of Colombia's prolonged conflict between the government and guerilla groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Although FARC and the government negotiated a peace agreement in 2016, according to UNEP the conflict allowed armed groups and criminal organizations to gain control over significant parts of the country, leading to environmental degradation as a result of deforestation and illicit mineral extraction.

From Jurist, Sept. 15. Used with permission.

Global Witness has documented record numbers of environmental defenders slain worldwide in recent years. Colombia has witnessed a wave of assassinations of social leaders over the same years, mostly at the hands of right-wing paramilitary groups.