Colombian environmentalists are being pursued by death.
As gunfire erupts near her office, Celia Umenza takes a brief break from explaining her fight against farmland expansion and mining in Colombia, which endangers indigenous land and water.
In the violent country, death is a frequent companion for indigenous environmentalists, and Umenza has already survived three assassination attempts.
Bursts of gunfire and explosives resonate in the foothills outside her office in Toribio, in the remote Cauca region, as she speaks to AFP.
She pauses for a brief period before continuing the interview, seemingly unconcerned about the looming danger that has become a way of life for many Colombians.
Colombia was the most deadly country for land and environmental defenders for the second year in a row in 2020, according to a report released Sunday by the non-governmental organization Global Witness, responsible for 65 of the 227 fatalities reported worldwide.
“There is a possibility of government repression, as well as guerrilla and paramilitary retaliation,” said Umenza, 48.
In 2014, she was subjected to the most recent attack on her life.
She said, “A neighbor was driving me in a van… they riddled the van with gunfire.”
According to Global Witness, the year 2020 was the bloodiest for environmental activists since records began in 2012.
Indigenous peoples were targeted in a third of the fatal attacks, with many of them tied to opposition to logging, mining, agribusiness, hydroelectric dams, and other facilities that endanger natural resources that communities have relied on for generations.
Since the 1970s, indigenous peoples in southwest Colombia’s Cauca area have been fighting sugarcane planters who they claim are forcing them out of the lush lowlands where they rely for survival and destroying the forest.
“Those forests that used to exist are no longer there, and neither is the wildlife nor the flora. “It’s quite concerning,” Umenza stated.
She stated that the conflict is also about water.
Sugar cane, unlike native vegetation, “draws a lot of water and has been slowly drying out the streams,” she noted.
According to Global Witness, 17 individuals will be killed in 2020 as a result of their activism against agribusiness, and 20 will be killed in battles over water and dams.
“For decades, corporations have acted carelessly, contributing to and profiting from attacks on land and environmental defenders,” the report stated.
Illegal gold mining pollutes the water near Umenza’s home and workplace in Toribio. Pesticides used in marijuana growing harm the soil further north.
Both are against the law. Brief News from Washington Newsday.