Maria was wrapping up a workshop in August 2019 with small-holding farmers. She explained how they could get rid of coca, the cocaine crop and instead grow coffee.
“We were informed that a mountain had been set on fire by unknown persons… We knew it was the dissidents,” she said, adding that the coffee crops were also up in flames.
Then, a local man informed her that the leader for that group wanted her to come. She got in the car and said it was only about money.
“But then they put my head down, and put the weapon into my body, I understood that it wasn’t good,” she adds.
Maria* was driven to rural house, threatened and tortured as “punishment” for her work helping peasants and children out of the cocaine trade and advocating for women’s rights. Four men then took Maria into another room.
“I just begged, “Don’t murder me!” I have my girls. You can do whatever you like, but don’t take my life.
“And then, your life changes. You are not the exact same person anymore.
Maria was raped. She doesn’t know how many men she was raped by.
‘A promised land’
Maria’s crop substitution project is a key part Colombia’s historic 2016 Peace Agreement. It ended a bloody 50 years of civil war between Colombia’s government and the far-left FARC rebels, once the most powerful rebel force, and other armed groups.
The program is designed to assist rural people who, before being forced to sell cocaine to armed groups or were displaced, to return to farming and to take up legal forms.
Maria said that it was like living in the promised country immediately after the agreement. She could finally “work without fear”
Anti-personnel mines, which were laid to protect coca plantations, were gradually removed and the guerrillas in control of the area stopped fire.
In 2018, Colombia elected Ivan Duque as president. He was from the right-wing Democratic Centre, which had strongly opposed the peace agreement with the FARC. Duque had campaigned for a platform to “modify” the peace accord.
Duque’s undermining of the terms of the agreement, combined with the state’s historical struggle to wrest control of rural areas from armed groups, is the unfortunate, perfect “equation” for today’s violence, according to Andrés F Aponte González, researcher at the Bogota-based Ideas for Peace Foundation.
According to the United Nations, the number of murders in Colombia has increased steadily since 2018. 2020 was the highest year since 2014. It has also become the most dangerous place for environmental defenders.
Global Witness recorded 65 killings in 2020. 17 of these were related to the crop substitute programme.
Social leaders who promote the programme are “attacked by illegal armed groups that live off economic resources produced by drug trafficking and they aren’t interested in the elimination of coca crops,” says Diana Sánchez, director of Minga, a Colombian human rights organisation.
Land defenders, which can include social leaders or farmers, are considered a separate but related group to environmental activists. This is because land use is crucial for tackling the problem. Climate crisis.
Many complain of high levels of impunity for perpetrators of attacks on those who seek to defend Colombia’s natural ecosystem, one of most biodiverse places in the world and rich in natural resource.
The Colombian government declined to comment on the request, but highlighted its successful prosecutions as well as its specific policies to safeguard environmental defenders. It has added new crimes to its criminal code, including deforestation, and increased sentences for existing crimes such as ecocide.
The Duque administration attributes the threats and assassinations against social leaders to organised armed groups that it claims continue to feed on illegal mineral extraction and drug trafficking.
But defending the environment in Colombia is also dangerous because the government “strongly promotes economic extractive politics, which means the exploitation of oil, carbon, gold and other valuable minerals,” according to Sánchez.
“This also leads to a lot more deforestation where indigenous, peasant, and Afro-descendent communities live.”
“All leaders are threatened”
Armando Wouriyu Valbuena of the Wayuu indigenous group in the northeastern tip says, “All the black leaders and indigenous people have been threatened.”
He is the secretary general for a high-ranking body of ethnic peoples, a position that was established in the framework the peace agreement.
Colombia is home of 2.3 million indigenous peoples. This includes five million afrodescendants and several smaller groups. A large portion of their land is rich in fossil fuels and water.
Valbuena says that the growth in “the mining, oil and farming frontier” is the reason why “Afro- and indigenous people are persecuted.”
He claims that some are forced out by the threats of others, others by the dispossession of their property, and still others by the presence or anti-personnelmines.
New pledges at this year’s COP26 climate negotiations recognized the critical role of indigenous peoples protecting forests and nature. They also attempted to integrate their rights into the efforts to reduce the climate crisis. They have been competing for the right of access to and protection of their land for too long, even in Colombia.
Civil society groups are urging the government to accelerate its implementation of the peace accord. “We must return to the spirit and values of [it],” says Aponte González. “It was an opportunity for change… how state was trying to incorporate these marginalised spaces, and populations.”
Colombians had rejected a previous peace agreement in a referendum in 2016. The 2016 agreement was adopted. Many wanted peace but wanted all the armed groups in prison, says Aponte González, who wishes the benefits of the agreement had been spelled out more strongly.
Valbuena believes that more public pressure on the government would be a great help in investigating and mitigating “massacres, disappearances, and so forth.”
He says, “It’s only way to let us breathe a bit, relax and one day see the peace.”
There is also some hope for the Escazú Agreement, a Latin American pact designed to slow climate change and protect environmentalists. But Colombia has not yet ratified it as “the government’s legislative benches haven’t wanted to” says Sánchez.
Maria was able to flee with her life and is now in hiding with her daughters, hoping to file an asylum application to leave the country.
“Many of their loved ones, they’re just murdered or the kids just disappear,” she said.
“I just wanted to tell you why i am speaking now about it: Because I have been silenced for far too long.”
Recently, the United Nations praised Colombia’s peace process for its “deep roots” but encouraged all Colombians follow its lead.
If not, there will be many more Marias.
*Some names have been changed to protect identities.