The fight for the lives of women defenders of the environment in Colombia

Bogota, 22 Nov. For Maydany Salcedo, every time oil is extracted from Mother Earth, it is as if “the blood of a human being was being extracted.” Arguments of this type, in favor of the environment, make this social leader one of the many women in rural Colombia who live under the shadow of threats.

“They kill and disappear there, but it seems that nothing is happening,” Salcedo laments in an interview with EFE at the headquarters of the Swedish Movement for Reconciliation, about the situation currently in place in Piedmont, in the department of Cauca (southwest).

The figures corroborate his complaint; the month of October, with 17 murders, was the second most violent this year for social leaders, according to a report by Fundación Pares.


Originally from Río Blanco (Tolima), Salcedo feels a special connection with water since, for her, it was always her “psychologist and advisor.” That is why she did not hesitate to denounce and write statements when the multinationals that arrived in Piedmont began to dump crude oil into rivers and pipes, affecting the potability of the water and the Caquetá River.

However, he assures that none of the requirements presented before the Justice prospered because “here in Colombia, being a defender of the environment and human rights is like being a criminal,” he says.

“It is better to be a criminal, a drug trafficker or a group outside the law because there is more protection for them than for those of us who are defenders,” he adds.


One of the demands that the defender makes from the Municipal Association of Peasant Workers of Piamonte Cauca (Asimtracampic) is that a “humanitarian table in the Andean-Amazon region” be created to prevent civilians from continuing “in the midst of the conflict.

“We do not want to be part of this dispute over the territory that groups born overnight have and now want to hold dialogues with the Government,” he said while asking the Executive to speak first with the peasants and then with the armed actors.

A similar criticism is made by the leader of the Wayúu ethnic group Jakeline Romero Epiayu, who asks the State to reconsider the way in which it wishes to “induce the guarantee of the right to prior consultation”, so that it obeys Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization on Peoples Indigenous and Tribal.

This document recognizes the right of indigenous people to participate in decisions that directly affect them; the right to maintain and strengthen their culture, ways of life and institutions, and to establish their priorities in relation to development.


Romero denounces that multinationals plunged the Caribbean department of La Guajira into the “commodification of hunger” through an “asymmetry in dialogue” and by stirring up “inter-clan conflicts.”

“When a community is in the process of prior consultation with the company, the company tells it that if it doesn’t have water it will hire a tank truck to bring it weekly. Then, when the community questions something that is going wrong, it threatens not to send it anymore,” complaint.

The activism of this natural defender of Barrancas, a municipality in La Guajira known for its coal exploitation, awoke in the eighties when an uncle of hers began working in the El Cerrejón mine to “clean up shit”, the only job that then it was allowed to the wayúu, as he says.

“When he returned from work, he always questioned the work they did. He was a Wayúu very advanced for his time because of his knowledge. He disappeared on August 13, 1985 and we never found out his whereabouts,” he says.

Seeing her grandmother “die of sadness”, despite the “rebellious spirit” that she always admired in her and that led her to become the manager of the first school in her community, was the seed of what she is today: a defender of land and human rights.

“I grew up in that anguish because, for the Wayúu families, burying our dead is sacred and is part of the spirituality of the people. It was very humiliating not being able to bury him (the uncle),” he recalls.


For Romero, the vulnerability of women defenders is exacerbated not only because the threats from the armed actors also fall on their families, but also because Justice lacks any hint of a gender perspective.

To date, Romero and Salcedo agree that “the justice system in Colombia is unfair.” However, none of them considers stopping their fight because, in the words of the second, “despite everything, we continue to resist because we prefer to die on our feet rather than live on our knees.”

Maribel Arenas Vadillo

The fight for the lives of women defenders of the environment in Colombia