Colombian environmental activists swamped by threats | Oil and Gas News – Advice Eating

Santander, Colombia – Environmental activists Fabian Urquijo and Jhordan Peinado, who hail from Colombia’s Santander region, received a sinister warning in February.

Their names were mentioned in a pamphlet published by the Gulf Clan paramilitary group, which warned they would be killed if they did not give up their activism. More than 20 other local activists were also named in the leaflet, which was distributed in their neighborhoods.

“It was a difficult moment,” Peinado told Al Jazeera. “Given what we do, we are aware that these threats are emerging – especially in a country where leading social and environmental struggles are causing many problems.”

Fearing for their lives, the two fled their hometown of Barrancabermeja.

And this is by no means an isolated case: Many Colombian activists are increasingly concerned they could be targeted for their work, as recent data from Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) and the Corporacion Compromiso, a local NGO, shows a sharp rise Threats and violence against environmentalists.

Demonstrators gather in Puerto Wilches to protest against fracking [Inigo Alexander/Al Jazeera]

The commitment to activists in Santander is particularly high. In the past 18 months, the JEP has recorded more than four dozen threats against activists across the region.

Corporacion Compromiso reported even higher numbers, citing 68 threats against environmentalists in Santander in the first three months of 2022 alone – a significant increase from 2021, when a total of 70 incidents were documented throughout the year.

Colombia is known as the world’s deadliest country for environmentalists, and Santander’s northern Magdalena Medio region has become a hub for many threats. The area encompasses the heart of Colombia’s petroleum industry, and the local town of Puerto Wilches has been chosen for the country’s first fracking project, which has met with strong opposition from locals and environmental groups. This opposition, in turn, has drawn threats from local armed groups.

Yuvelis Natalia Morales, a 21-year-old environmental activist, was reportedly forced to flee Puerto Wilches and seek shelter in France after intruders smashed into her home last year and put a gun to her head.

Carlos Andres Santiago, an anti-fracking activist, told Al Jazeera, “Basically, their message is that anyone who is against fracking will get a bullet because they are the law here.”

A police officer monitors protest
In the last 18 months, a local NGO has recorded 68 threats against environmentalists in the Santander region of Colombia [Inigo Alexander/Al Jazeera]

Armed groups fight for control

Earlier this month, hundreds of locals gathered in Puerto Wilches to protest the proposed fracking project. Activists who attended the demonstration told Al Jazeera that after their march, attackers threw a protester off his motorcycle and warned that he would be killed if he continued to speak out against the project.

“Environmental leaders excel in communities because they prevent them from being inevitably grabbed by illegal groups,” Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy, told Al Jazeera.

“If there is a criminal group that wants to establish itself as the leader of the area, they bend the local social leaders to their will. If they don’t comply, they become an obstacle for many of these organizations.”

Local environmentalists and a representative of the JEP told Al Jazeera that they suspect a connection between the paramilitary groups who are intimidating them and the state-owned Ecopetrol, which is behind the fracking project. The company has been accused of having ties to the Gulf clan. For its part, Ecopetrol has denied all such allegations and has publicly denounced any violence against environmentalists.

“Many contractors and those associated with them [fracking] Projects have ties to illegal groups,” a JEP official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity. “We have received numerous reports from organizations that have documented how activists and human rights defenders have been killed in the past for opposing oil extraction projects. The situation is very serious.”

Anti-fracking mural
An anti-fracking mural in El Pedral [Inigo Alexander/Al Jazeera]

Armed groups such as the National Liberation Army and the Gulf Clan have increasingly gained a foothold in Magdalena Medio in recent years after an accord was struck in 2016 to end Colombia’s longstanding conflict.

“After the peace deal … armed groups have captured many power vacuums across the country,” Guzman said. “This has put many communities at risk because the state is failing to fulfill its role as the primary safety provider.”

At least five different leaflets threatening environmentalists have been distributed about Magdalena Medio this year, all attributed to the Gulf clan. But despite the increased intimidation, activists like Urquijo remain committed to their cause.

“We will continue because we would rather defend this fight than die and see the country we love destroyed.”

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