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They can’t silence us: The female lawyers who defend Colombia’s environment | Environmental activism
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They can’t silence us: The female lawyers who defend Colombia’s environment | Environmental activism

The collective of women lawyers at a video conference in Bucaramanga

Julia Figueroa is a strong and secure woman who never leaves her home. She travels with two security guards and an armoured vehicle. Her office and home are monitored 24 hours a day. She monitors all devices that could contain sensitive information about her clients.

As the director of the Luis Carlos Prez Lawyers Collective Corporation(CCALCP), threats against her life are a daily occurrence. This all-female legal team provides legal representation for small-scale farmers as well as indigenous communities that have been affected by the armed conflict. Their work includes the defense of displaced peoples and victims state crime, as well defending environmental rights. They also fight mining companies seeking to extract resources, often at cost of the surrounding environment.

In a country NameThis team is the most dangerous for human rights defenders in the world. It faces huge risks, including threats and false accusations of criminal activities, as well as links to illicit armed group.

The CCALCP is rooted in Bucaramangas’ only public university, Santander Industrial University. This is where a group of law student graduates in 2001 formed a bond over a desire for peace and displacement. Santander is located in the north east of Colombia and has a rich cultural heritage as well untapped resources of oil and coal.

The collective of women lawyers at a video conference in Bucaramanga
A group of women lawyers at a Bucaramanga video conference, Julia Figueroa as the screen.Photograph by Nadege Mazars/The Guardian

The idea of a group of human rights lawyers was new to the region at the time. It struggled to get funding and attention. At its peak, the Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), was a powerful force and paramilitary forces were rampant. Initially, the group consisted of both men and women. However, as time passed, the male members slowly dissolved.

Figueroa says that the world outside began to notice things we didn’t have the time or the ability to see. You don’t start performing these different analyses if you put your family and life at risk.

Marisol Figueroa was Julia’s sister and joined the collective in 2011. Since her state-sponsored security was pulled by the government, she said she tries to spend as much time with her family and friends as possible. You never know when you might be leaving this world.

Marisol Figueroa in her office
Marisol Figueroa in the office. Her computer shows an illustration of the Santurbn Pramo, a frosty high-altitude wetland ecosystem that is under threat from mining.Photograph by Nadege Mazars/The Guardian

Marisol left a peaceful life and says that the office’s all-female environment was a welcome change to her previous workplaces. Machismo Sexual harassment and assault were commonplace. She believes that each of us came to this world to give a grain of sand. You can do it in many different ways, I believe. One of those was to learn more about the world of human rights.

The team expanded to the Magdalena Medio area and successfully defended landowners’ displaced families, protected indigenous groups from oil companies, and protected precious ecosystems from the effects of mining.

The Santurbn Pramo is a notable case in the groups files. The pramo is a frosty ecosystem of high-altitude wetland ecosystems that is highly biodiverse. It provides water for almost 2 million people, but is under threat from mining multinationals who want to take its mineral resources.

Since the beginning, mining companies have been trying to exploit the area’s gold and silver resources. In 2017, however, the CCALCP was able to get a ruling at the country’s Constitution Court annulling the delimitation process. This was because it violated the right of the community to participate in environmental matters.

Protest in front of the Canadian embassy in Bogot after a lawsuit was filed against activists by the multinational Eco Oro
Protest outside Canadas Embassy in Bogot calling on Colombia to protect its pramos from being mined.Photograph by EFE News Agency/Alamy

Although Colombia’s pramos are important carbon sinks, they have been granted special constitutional protection. However, they remain vulnerable. Eco Oro Minerals is a Canadian company. sued ColombiaAfter losing its mining title at Santurbn in a dispute that is still ongoing.

Fracking in San Martn in Magdalena Medio, another high-profile instance, was also mentioned. Colombia declared its First frackingIn 2015, there was a significant backlash against the proposed development in the area. The CCALCP was instrumental in filing the first popular motion, a legal mechanism that protects collective interests. In a case of fracking, and the fracking was stopped in 2018.

The collective has gained recognition for its work as it has grown in importance. At home InternationalIt is important to win funding and awards. However, it is vital to keep a local connection.

Julia says, “We didn’t want that regional identity to be lost, and we didnt want the area to disappear when we wanted expansion.” Because, in reality, knowing the history of an organisation like ours is one of its strengths. Here Bogot is not required to be monitored.

The current team is comprised of 11 women, four lawyers, and three others. They are highly respected here in the province, says Hernn Moantes, a lawyer with the Committee for the Defense of Water. She worked with the collective during the 2017 legal conflict. They have also been recognized for their international vision.

The teams are required to submit reports to JEP, a transitional justice process that investigates war crimes in Colombia. They have been threatened and accused of being allied with terrorists and inventing victims. Julia states that the current administration has been a critic to the peace accords has made things worse. She says that people often report the collective to police to trigger an investigation. This can further intimidate them, especially in environmental cases.

Julia says that it is important to oppose million-dollar contracts between the state of the US and companies when it comes to the environment issue. She says that the government often views environmental defenders as obstacles to economic progress.

Protesters call on the government not to grant the Canadian mining company Greystar Resources a licence for a gold project in the Santurbn pramo
Protesters demand that the government refuse to grant a licence to a Santurbn gold project.Photograph by Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images

She claims that the job comes at a cost to privacy, freedom and personal relationships. She said that many women take long breaks to recover and then return. The group offers members psychological support, as well as time and space to deal with stress.

They have not been capable of silence us. She says they tried to bring us to justice, they attacked us, and they scared us. We are all afraid when they threaten to harm us. We are all scared of many things. But, I believe that the collective is so hopeful. If Julia pulls through, if my predecessors pulled through, then we can keep going.

Except for senior leaders, names and faces of members of this collective are not made public. Their office in downtown Bucaramanga lacks any description. There is no signage to announce their presence in the building. There are only security cameras outside with many more inside. For security reasons, everyone who enters the building must turn off their phones.

Phones left on a table outside the office.
Mobile phones are not permitted inside the offices of collectives for security reasons.Photograph by Nadege Mazars/The Guardian

Since its inception, the group witnessed significant political changes in the nation. Its lawyers traveled to remote and difficult territories to document human rights violations that would otherwise have been hidden. Julia According to him, many communities are better equipped for defense.

However, there are other challenges. The 2016 deal created a power vacuum for drug traffickers, paramilitaries and other armed group to fill. As the conservative government stalls implementation of the agreement, it is creating new problems. The pandemic has led to an increase in poverty and deforestation due to the increased competition for land.

The team said it is hopeful because a group made up of women from small cities can reach high courts and make policy changes. They also believe that they have the ability to find joy, forgiveness, and persistence within the communities they serve.

We have to believe. Marisol says that we are blessed to be positive and purposeful, and to say, “Things are going to change.” We must fight to be part that change. To contribute our grain.

This article was modified on 1 and 2 Dec 2021. Julia Figueroa is not a founder of CCALCP as stated in an earlier version. The article stated that the CCALCP had obtained an order declaring that Eco Oro Minerals’ license was unconstitutional. This ruling was not against Eco Oro, but rather about the pramo definition process.

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