CIVICUS speaks to Carlos Andrés Santiago, spokesperson of CORDATEC, an organisation that defends water, the territory and the ecosystems of San Martín, in the Colombian region of Cesar. CORDATEC mobilises against oil extraction through fracking in the area.
1. Now that the peace accords with the FARC have finally been ratified, one would think that violence in Colombia is over. However, aggressions against social activists have not diminished. You and your colleagues at CORDATEC have reported numerous intimidations and threats. What are the causes of the on-going violence against human rights defenders?
The conflict between the FARC and the military has effectively de-escalated over the past several months, even before the peace treaty was signed, thanks to the bilateral ceasefire that was declared in August 2016. This is reflected in the information that President Santos provided a few days ago: at that time, a single wounded soldier was being treated at the Military Hospital, in contrast to very high figures just a year earlier.
In regions such as Cauca changes became apparent as a result of the ceasefire, the signing and ratification of the peace agreements, and more recently the establishment of “normalisation border zones” (zonas veredales de tránsito y normalización). These are areas in which the guerrillas will carry out the process of laying down their weapons, demobilising and reintegrating into civilian life. This, however, has also meant that in these regions a vacant space has remained that is now being occupied by new armed groups or criminal gangs.
In addition, we are witnessing a transition from a great conflict between two armed actors to a set of diverse conflicts around social issues, many of them linked to environmental causes. For instance, land use conflicts involving victims who demand the restitution of their land and struggles in defence of water and, particularly in communities like ours, mobilised against extractive projects.
The extinction of the conflict with the FARC, which yielded countless victims, therefore correlates with an increase in the number of murders of social and environmental activists and also the visibility of human rights defenders active in territories and communities.
2. What is CORDATEC’s role and aims in this context?
It is important to note that, as part of its post-conflict strategy, in December 2015 the Colombian government signed a contract with two multinational companies (ConocoPhillips and Canacol Energy) to explore and exploit hydrocarbons from unconventional deposits through fracking in three municipalities. One of them is ours: San Martín, in the department of Cesar.
So our community got organised and in early 2016 we formed the Corporation for the Defence of Water, Territory and Ecosystems, CORDATEC. We began to mobilise: we staged demonstrations, pot-banging protests, a civic strike and several marches. About 9,000 people took part in the most recent one, on 25 September 2016 – in a municipality that has 21 000 inhabitants. We also went to the media, resorted to strategic litigation and looked for allies in Congress. We even went along with CIVICUS to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
We seek to defend the most fundamental good which is water. By resorting to peaceful resistance, we are trying to prevent oil exploitation through fracking because we acknowledge the environmental and social impacts that it causes, and we are not willing to pay the costs. Among other impacts, fracking uses large amounts of water, contaminates underground and surface water sources, increases induced seismicity, causes serious damages to public health, changes the uses of agricultural land, and releases large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse effect gas.
3. What sort of restrictions on the exercise of the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly have you faced as environmental and anti-fracking activists?
We face many. In retaliation for resisting fracking, the community of San Martín, and particularly CORDATEC members, have been subjected to harassment. It is clear that the municipal mayor, Saul Educardo Celis, has a strategy of intimidating all the people that are close to CORDATEC. For instance, CORDATEC members’ relatives have lost their jobs in the local administration. I have personally received death threats, and the comrades from the Workers Trade Union (Unión Sindical Obrera), who accompany us in our struggle, were threatened through a pamphlet just a few days ago.
The company ConocoPhillips has also attempted to file civil lawsuits, and through several letters to the municipal government they have requested that the conflict be judicialised, that is, that measures be taken to arrest and imprison the leaders of the mobilisation and protest actions, and that guarantees be provided so the company could start work in the Pico Plata 1 well, which they had so far been unable to do.
In the demands that they directed towards the government, the company appealed to the Criminal Code, according to which the obstruction of roads is a crime punishable with imprisonment. In response to these demands, the municipal government – in complicity with the Attorney General at the time and the national government – authorised the use of the ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, or Anti-Riot Squad), the unit of the National Police that is employed to control demonstrations and carry out evictions. Our fundamental right to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, enshrined in Article 37 of our Constitution, was therefore ignored.
Since then, the ESMAD has repressed the community of San Martín and our comrades from the department’s subdivision of Cuatro Bocas on three separate occasions, and several people have been injured. The ESMAD’s operations have resulted in numerous human rights violations, on top of the threats, intimidation, harassment and illegal surveillance that CORDATEC leaders have been subjected to. These events have been reported to the Office of the Attorney General, the Ombudsman Office, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia, of the Organization of American States, among other instances. Nevertheless, the government has taken no measures to safeguard the lives and physical integrity of the environmental defenders under threat.
Ever since its first operation, on 19 October, the ESMAD has remained in San Martín. The camp and the entrances to the well are guarded by militarised police at all times. In other words, a significant number of military personnel have been assigned to guarding the interests of a multinational company instead of protecting the communities. In the context of a social state based on the rule of law, the communities should take priority – not a transnational corporation that has come to plunder those communities’ natural resources.
The same is happening in other regions of Colombia, which is not surprising given that there are currently 43 blocks assigned to fracking that would eventually affect more than 300 municipalities across the country. In seven of those blocks there are already signed contracts, most of them adjudicated to foreign companies. To make it worse, despite the pronouncements by the Comptroller General, two additional contracts are currently being processed.
Why is this happening? It’s fairly simple. The extractive industries create very strong economic interests that frequently involve politicians and government officials who receive bribes in exchange for facilitating contracts, granting environmental licences, providing congressional support or favouring the companies when under investigation. Corruption has pervaded this type of megaprojects: the Odebrecht case is a clear example of this. These are struggles led by small communities that are trying to defend themselves, like the Biblical David from a giant and corrupt Goliath that crushes whoever gets in their way. From their perspective, the end justifies whatever means.
A few months ago the Minister of the Environment acknowledged that 75% of current conflicts in Colombia are environmental conflicts. And the pattern of threats, intimidation and ESMAD use is replicated throughout the country. It is part of a familiar script that often ends with activists being murdered. We are used to life not being worthy enough; therefore, we see it as relatively normal when physical elimination is resorted to so as to remove from an obstacle from the way. In Colombia, defending water is costing us our lives.
4. Are there any civil society initiatives to overcome these limitations of civic space?
Due to the long-standing conflict that we have experienced, many organisations in Colombia have long specialised in human rights issues. Numerous Colombian civil society organisations as well as the international community follow and give accompaniment in this sort of situations and provide support to communities regarding self-protection, visibility and denunciation.
As the situation in San Martín unfolded, we have found allies willing to accompany the process. Along with trade unions and social and environmental organisations, we are in the process of forming the Alliance Colombia Free of Fracking as an arena in which to weave resistances, and we are moving forward from there.
But this does not happen in all regions of the country: many struggles are being quietly fought in very small and distant territories that are not easily reached and where access to media and technology is extremely limited. In those places, the law of fear continues to prevail, and whoever gets in the way is easily taken out of the equation.
5. What concrete actions should the Colombian government adopt in the short term to safeguard civic space and protect the rights of its citizens?
First of all, the government must stop stigmatising and criminalising environmental activists and human rights defenders, and particularly those who oppose extractive industries. The Mayor’s accusation that we are terrorists, for instance, lapidates us and undermines the legitimacy of human rights defenders’ struggles.
Secondly, the government must provide guarantees for the exercise of the constitutional rights to mobilise and protest, which is not presently the case. Third, it should stop relying on mining and fossil fuels, and instead reorient its development model towards alternative and sustainable energy sources that do not pollute the environment.
Fourth, it must channel the required resources towards the National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP), which provides protection schemes to persons under threat. The capacity of the UNP is currently insufficient, and only one out of every six submitted applications receives a positive answer entailing the provision of some type of protective measure. This means that five out of six persons seeking protection are left unprotected. Many social leaders who submit applications are told that their risk level does not warrant the granting of security measures.
Recognising threat levels, however, does not automatically result in the adoption of timely and effective measures. For instance, on 29 November 2016 the Ombudsman’s Office – a human rights guarantor with no enforcement capacity – issued a report identifying several political groups and social organisations in various communities of Cesar, including CORDATEC, as facing imminent risk due to their work. On 1 December an early warning was issued for the authorities to guarantee these persons’ life and integrity. Protection however never came and one of those people – a member of the Community Board of Hatillo – was murdered a month later.
This situation is a reflection of a very unequal country, where congressional representatives, former presidents and various politicians enjoy very generous protection schemes, with many people assigned to their protection detail, while community leaders and human rights defenders are left exposed.
6. How connected is local civil society in Cesar with its counterparts in other parts of the world and how can external actors support activists and civil society organisations in Colombia?
Given the high profile of both the armed conflict and the peace negotiations in Colombia, the organisations that form the United Nations and the Inter-American system, as well as international cooperation agencies and various CSOs around the world have spoken out about what is happening.
Global Witness in its reports On Dangerous Ground and How Many More?, Front Line Defenders in its Annual Report on Human Rights Defenders at Risk 2016, and also CIVICUS in the report Against All Odds about the dangers of environmental activism, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) with their strong statements to condemn the assassinations of land rights defenders, and Amnesty International in their 2016/2017 Report – they all converge in alerting the world about the serious risks faced by social and environmental leaders in Colombia. This has originated a very strong movement to repudiate the wave of assassinations, forcing the Colombian state to acknowledge the problem.
Concrete measures, however, are still very inadequate. That is why it is urgent for the international community to adopt a firmer position vis-à-vis the Colombian government. We need international actors to put more pressure on the Colombian state so it behaves more consistently.
Indeed, there are currently major contradictions and inconsistencies between what the national government says out there and what they do domestically. The Colombian state promotes and ratifies international commitments in defence of the environment and against climate change; it proclaims the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreements while within its own territory it implements fracking and mining projects that contradict those agreements for the protection of the environment and its inhabitants. Not only does it fail to fulfil its environmental commitments, but it also receives the Nobel Peace Prize while its mining-energy locomotive opens the way for the murder of social leaders. Somebody needs to call them to account.