Like her Afro-descendant ancestors, Danelly Estupiñan was born in the port city of Buenaventura, Colombia. She grew up in the territory’s lush ecosystem, where dense mangrove jungles look out to the Pacific Ocean. Some of the traditional palafíticas (stilt houses) still stand over the water to this day.
For Estupiñan and her community, the land is more than a physical space. She explained that she and her community carry out important cultural practices and values in the territory. “This is where we can be who we are, as Afro-descendants,” she said.
Over the years, however, Estupiñan has witnessed her beloved neighborhoods transformed into container yards and hotels, the rivers polluted into sickly colors.
Fortune Threatens the Bold
The literal English translation of Buenaventura is “good fortune.” Located in the Valle de Cauca, the city is Colombia’s largest seaport, connecting to over 500 ports around the world.
Its strategic geography and biodiversity have attracted an influx of international economic interests. Afro-descendant communities, which have inhabited the area for generations, are forced to relocate to make space for port expansions.
“Buenaventura has been put under siege. It’s very violent out there. This violence comes from the economic platforms that have been developed in the port of Buenaventura,” Estupiñan explained to The Globe Post.
“The port companies and the business state in Colombia want to consolidate Buenaventura as a mega-port and not respect life. They want us to evacuate so they can actually implement and establish the different companies and port activities.”
Estupiñan is now a researcher on human rights and one of the most prominent advocates for Buenaventura’s Afro-descendant communities. As a member of the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN) she regularly campaigns for Black people’s collective rights to territory in Buenaventura, speaking out against developmental projects for the port.
That’s when the threats started arriving.
Since 2015, Estupiñan has been receiving calls and messages with threats to murder her. Her phone has been tapped multiple times. Even before the pandemic, Estupiñan restricted her movement because she knew she was being followed.
Last year, she had to leave the country upon learning about a plot to kill her. She described the city as a “laboratory of violence,” where activists like herself are perpetual targets of assassination, where victims are regularly dismembered in “chopping houses,” and where bodies are discarded in plastic bags and thrown into the streets.
Although Estupiñan is determined to continue fighting for her community, she admits that the risks associated with her activism have taken a huge emotional toll on her.
“It has stripped me of the possibility of living,” she reflected. “I have not known what calm is for six or seven years. In these years, I’ve been defending my life instead of enjoying it.” She said that there is a human rights defense award in Colombia: the award of being killed.
Colombia: Deadliest Nation for Human Rights Defenders
In Colombia, Estupiñan’s situation is no isolated case. Her country has earned the morbid title of being the deadliest nation for human rights defenders: as of November 23, 260 of them have been massacred in 2020, equating to a murder every 30 hours.
The Bogota-based Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ) has a bone-chilling registry of every killed person’s name, date of murder, region, and calidad — Indigenous, Afro-descendant, campesino (peasant farmer), LGBTQ+; the list goes on.
According to Juan F. Vargas, an economics professor at the Del Rosario University in Colombia, the current high levels of violence against local leaders is nothing new.
“This has always existed, but it’s become more salient in part because of the peace process [in 2016], and in part because Colombia is in the spotlight of the international community,” he explained to The Globe Post.
Colombia’s 2016 Peace Agreement, which earned former President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize, did not bring the calm it had promised. The treaty between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) — the country’s oldest, largest, and most powerful rebel guerilla — ended 52 years of violent conflict that took away 22,000 lives.
However, in a report published in October, Amnesty International detailed how the Peace Agreement has worsened the dangers facing community leaders.
As the deal was only bilateral with FARC, other armed groups filled in the vacuum left by FARC in Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and Campesino communities, especially those rich in resources like Buenaventura. Although the current president Iván Duque stated that activist killings have reduced by 25 percent under his government, Amnesty’s report claims otherwise. According to the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the state has only implemented six percent of the 2016 Agreement.
Rodrigo Sales, a researcher at Amnesty International and author of the report, explained to The Globe Post that the escalating danger stems from both a governmental failure to comply with the peace process, as well as an ignorance of the systemic discrimination in rural, Indigenous, and Afro-descendant communities.
In theory, Colombia appears to have one of the most comprehensive protections for human rights defenders. The Unidad Nacional de Protección (UNP) is a governmental institution dedicated specifically to protect activists in the country.
However, Sales explained that “this institution has a very limited approach to the protection of land, environmental, and social leaders because its measures are not adequate in the context of Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and Campesino communities. It tends to protect people thinking that they were in cities, and not in rural areas.”
Protection Versus Prevention
After Danelly Estupiñan received her first threat five years ago, the UNP provided her with its protection scheme: a car, two bodyguards, a bulletproof vest, and a telephone. Not only did Estupiñan find the male bodyguards invasive to her personal life, these measures were no panacea to her situation. For one thing, she continued to receive anonymous threats.
“There are several leaders who have been murdered in spite of having the protection scheme,” she recalled. “I have no problem with a particular person, but my cause, my work is what actually puts me at risk. If we are having risks for defending the territory… Well, it’s the territory that has to be protected.”
At best, the UNP provides material safeguarding that only addresses the symptoms of systemic injustices. Amnesty International calls on the Colombian government to adopt collective protection plans that will realistically address the root factors of violence in communities, rather than handing out satellite phones every time a defender is in danger.
“It shouldn’t be reactive; it should be preventive,” said Sales.
The governance in Buenaventura, Estupiñan believes, is currently doing the exact opposite.
“They have no interest in deactivating the risks because they benefit and profit from the war, from the violence, from the displacement that occurs in our territories.” Whereas the state can collect revenue and taxes from companies in Buenaventura, there is no immediate economic feedback in protecting Black communities. Sales’ Amnesty report concluded that the central problem in Colombia at large is “the state’s lack of political will to effectively protect human rights defenders.”
Across the country, in a completely different environment from Buenaventura, another activist echoed similar disappointments in the government.
Maria Ciro is a campesino advocate at the Comité de Integración Social del Catatumbo (CISCA), pushing for the recognition of small peasant farmers in rural Catatumbo, an area of Colombia’s Norte de Santander Department that shares borders with Venezuela.
Ciro told The Globe Post that “the president doesn’t seem to be interested in listening to the communities and this has happened throughout his government.”
“Our national government has not set up space for dialogue so it can listen to the very complex human rights situation. But when the government goes out to the international scenario, well, they pretend that they are highly committed to the peace process and the communities. But that is not happening at all.”
Ciro’s work with CISCA focuses on maintaining the campesino culture in Colombia, which revolves around local and self-sustaining farming practices. She wants to see peasant farmers return to a traditional agro-economy that will guarantee both communal and environmental food security.
Not only are rural farms currently under threat to industrialize, many campesinos in Catatumbo have had no choice but to plant coca crops to sustain themselves. As a result, Ciro and her community are often stigmatized and harassed for being “insurgents, drug smugglers, and terrorists.”
“This is why our people are always at risk. This is one of the areas where more murders occur,” she said.
Different paramilitaries occupy the area in competition over its resources; when Sales from Amnesty International visited, he saw armed men parade the streets.
Catatumbo is also oil-rich and attracts extractive projects that have contaminated the soil and water sources. Ciro suspects that her organization’s inactivity due to COVID-19 will cause a “big wave” of drilling activities in the near future.
All that Ciro asks for her community is rural life. “We don’t demand that many things,” she stated. Due to the poor internet connection in her remote location, Ciro’s voice flickered in and out during the conversation. “What is at the center of our priorities? Food and well-being. Simple life. A simpler life that has a more direct relationship with nature.”
COVID-19 Does Not Stop Violence
In Ituango, some 175 miles west from Catatumbo, environmental defender Isabela Zuleta’s work revolves around denouncing the Ituango Dam on the Cauca River. According to Zuleta, “this mega hydroelectric power plant has yet not produced a single kilowatt of power, but has destroyed our territory. It is in a grave situation because it can collapse any minute.” She, too, is frustrated with the government’s inaction.
“The Colombian government has given away its authority of overseeing companies. It is now the companies who are the owners of the corporate state,” she told The Globe Post. “It is the companies that are carrying out the functions of the government. They have their own armies.”
When the Movimientos Ríos Vivos, a coalition of grassroots environmental groups, moved most of its operations online, hacking and virtual surveillance ensued. Zuleta, a member of the organization, said that activists were already being tracked in the streets prior to the pandemic, and now that has carried over in the virtual realm.
“As we increased our virtual activities we have had more digital surveillance. We have come into our email accounts and they have tried to hack our accounts. Our website has also been hacked.”
When asked whether grassroots groups like hers are realistic oppositions against large corporations with private militaries, she paused for a few seconds to think.
“Actually, we don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to fight back,” Zuleta finally replied. “We do what we can, we do everything we can. Because our life is at stake.”
In Buenaventura, violence is not in quarantine. Despite the risks of COVID-19 infection, Estupiñan has had to call for multiple mingas — collective communal actions — to demonstrate against encroaching threats to the territory.
“We want our youth to be assured that they deserve to be free, that they deserve to live in a free territory,” said Estupiñan. “What we pass down to them is the love for the land and the knowledge that we are subjects of law, that we are not things that were carted from one continent to another. The African community is no slave to anybody. We have a decent life, full of liberty that we have built step by step. Every word, every sentence, every action that we carry out is motivated by the love we have for our territory and our space of life.”
For Zuleta, defending human and environmental rights is also a vehicle for personal healing. As a victim of armed conflicts during childhood, Zuleta said she has never lived a single day of peace in her 30 years on earth. Although her activism is endangering her life, Zuleta believes that she found peace within the work.
“I couldn’t understand what happened and why we had to undergo so much pain,” she said. “This is why I joined the resistance and the movement because I am trying to heal my own pain. I don’t want this to happen to other girls. I am resisting because I want things to change, however difficult they might be.”
Zuleta looked away and said in a more solemn voice, “I am doing what I have to do, I am doing what is right. I put my life at stake because my life is at stake anyway in Colombia. People die every day, murdered by the state. I’ve seen most of my childhood friends die, and I want my life to make sense. And I want death to make sense, to have a purpose as well.”