Article by PBI-Colombia

The region of Magdalena Medio, home to 6% of Colombia’s armed conflict victims, has historically suffered serious impacts from the extractivist economic model. Today, once again, its environmental leaders and human rights defenders are under serious threat and at risk of displacement. For more than a century, communities have been victims of the expropriation of their lands, the expansion of agribusiness and the exploitation of hydrocarbons, severely affecting the region’s diverse fauna and flora within the countless water sources, rivers and marshes. Oil extraction has caused irreparable environmental damage, and has seriously affected communities’ ancestral fishing economies. Moreover, the enclave economy of the Magdalena Medio region has not generated benefits for the communities that protect it, where communities suffer limited access to clean drinking water and energy services.

Recently, through their constant denouncement of serious human rights violations, human rights and environmental organizations such as the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) have succeeded in getting the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) to turn its attention to the region and to prioritize the investigation of crimes committed by the security forces during the armed conflict. In spite of the importance of this recent decision by the JEP to prioritize the Magdalena Medio region in relation to the severe impacts suffered by the population within the context of the armed conflict, members of CREDHOS and allied organizations such as the Committee for the Defense of Water, Life and Territory (AGUAWIL) and the Federation of Artisanal, Environmental and Tourist Fishermen of Santander (Fedepesán) continue to be exposed to alarmingly high levels of risk. It is essential that these serious allegations are investigated and clarified to ensure true guarantees of non-repetition in one of the regions most affected by the armed conflict.

No guarantees in Magdalena Medio: region prioritized by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace

On January 19, 2022, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) began the process of opening three new macro-cases with national reach[1]. One of them will prioritize the Magdalena Medio region. In this way, the Transitional Justice System is prioritizing investigations into crimes committed by members of the security forces and the responsibility of State agents in the promotion, expansion and support of paramilitary groups in the Magdalena Medio region[2]. This decision represents an important step for the participation of victims in their struggle for truth and justice[3], and responds to a repeated request from the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS), an organization accompanied by PBI Colombia, among other social organizations in the region[4].

Various factors have contributed to this petition by human rights organizations[5]. On the one hand, the communities of the Magdalena Medio have been victims of systematic violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. According to the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CEV), 6% of the victims of the armed conflict belong to the Magdalena Medio[6]. CREDHOS also claims that the Magdalena River itself, considered the largest mass grave in Colombia due to the region’s tragic history of forced disappearances[7], should be recognized by the JEP as a victim of the armed conflict[8].

According to repeated denunciations by CREDHOS, the armed dispute[9] over the control of the abundant natural resources of Magdalena Medio and the imposition of an extractivist economic development model continue to contribute to structural violence in the region.

Environmentalist water defenders and opponents of fracking threatened

A number of environmental organizations in Magdalena Medio, including CREDHOS and other allied organizations, are receiving serious threats in relation to their complaints concerning human rights violations and their opposition to the imminent start of two pilot projects for oil extraction by means of the hydraulic fracturing technique (fracking) in Puerto Wilches (the Kale and Platero projects). Since the start of 2022, CREDHOS has warned about the increasing control of armed groups in the territory, in particular, the expansion of the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) – a group inherited from paramilitarism -which is active in several municipalities of Magdalena Medio[10]. The constant threats which defenders receive from the AGC and other armed groups are framed within a context where strong social leadership is clashing with the interests of the armed actors and the extractive industry.

Most recently, on February 7, a pamphlet distributed by the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) declared Ramón Abril, Coordinator of the Observatory of Human Rights, Peace and Environment and member of the Board of Directors of CREDHOS2, a military target[11]. On the same day, CREDHOS denounced the circulation of another pamphlet, signed by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), threatening several environmental leaders from Puerto Wilches who are legally represented by CREDHOS [12]. Among the names mentioned in the pamphlet is Carolina Agon, CREDHOS Promoter, President of the Human Rights Committee and of the Federation of Artisanal Fishermen of Puerto Wilches (FEDEPU), and leader of the Regional Coordination for the Defense of Water, Territory and Dignified Life. Also in Puerto Wilches, Yuvelis Morales, environmental leader of the Committee for the Defense of Water, Life and Territory (AGUAWIL), member of the Association of Afro-descendants (AFROWILCHES) and of the Free Alliance against Fracking, was the victim of harrassment.

Most of the people threatened belong to organizations that carry out social activism for the defense of water and territory in Magdalena Medio that are in opposition to the imminent start of two pilot projects articulated by the National Government and ECOPETROL SA, along with other multinational companies, for the extraction of oil through the fracking technique in Puerto Wilches. This technique is highly toxic, as pointed out last year by two United Nations Special Rapporteurs who, in public hearings, requested that Colombia eliminate this practice because “it causes contamination that threatens life, health and ecosystems, aggravates climate change [and] violates the right to live in a healthy environment (…) “[13]. Indeed, running out of water is one of the concerns of the communities as in order to extract oil using this technique subsoil rocks are fractured and a huge amount of water is used.

In the most lethal country for environmental defenders, the persistence of such threats and attacks with no progress in the investigation of the material and intellectual perpetrators is extremely serious. Just over a year ago, organizations that had been denouncing the corruption of companies and state institutions in relation to environmental damage in different municipalities in the region[14] suffered serious death threats, attempts on their lives, forced displacements and gender-based violence[15]. Of all the complaints filed with the Attorney General’s Office, no progress has been made in terms of investigations and clarification of the facts.

Five years since the Peace Accords were signed, there is still a serious lack of guarantees for human rights organizations that, in addition to defending the environment, are contributing to the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Repetition (SIVJRGNR). Their contributions to the system which was born out of the Peace Accords serve to clarify historical acts of violence, dispossession and corruption in the Magdalena Medio region, a pattern of violence that continues to this day.

PBI Colombia.

[3] CREDHOS: La JEP busca priorizar el Magdalena Medio, 21 January, 2022.

[5] Taula Catalana per Colombia: 5/11 On és la Pau – XIX Jornades sobre Colòmbia, 5 November, 2021.

[8] CREDHOS: La JEP busca priorizar el Magdalena Medio, 21 January, 2022.

[9] Taula Catalana per Colombia: 5/11 On és la Pau – XIX Jornades sobre Colòmbia, 5 November, 2021.

[12] CREDHOS Twitter : Comunicado, 7 February, 2022.

[13] CREDHOS Twitter : Comunicado, 7 February, 2022.

15El Espectador: Petróleo, paras y amenazas en el Magdalena Medio, 3 March, 2021.