by Amazon Frontlines /

October 2023 /

Chronicles /

In a country ravaged by over half a century of civil war, the promise of peace is now but a distant dream for thousands of people from Indigenous, Afrodescedent and campesino communities in the Putumayo, one of Colombia’s poorest and most dangerous regions. As we write, their territory in the municipality of Puerto Asís is being fiercely disputed by armed groups. Communities are finding themselves threatened, abandoned by the Colombian state, and deprived of access to basic needs.

According to official figures, over 1,100 families are currently affected, with many facing forced displacement and confinement.

For much of the last century communities across Colombia have been struggling for and awaiting a long-promised peace. Since the 1960s, Colombia’s civil conflict has raged across the country, disproportionately affecting its most vulnerable populations. Between 1985 and 2013, according to Colombia’s Truth Commission, over 450,000 people were violently killed, and at least 8 million people were displaced. In 2016, a landmark peace agreement signed between the government and the FARC-EP guerrilla group promised to draw an end to decades of brutality. 

But the much-lauded peace agreed upon seven years ago, does not exist in Colombia’s most neglected territories. This year alone, at least 64 massacres have taken place across the country, and 123 human rights defenders have been murdered, according to the Indepaz research institute. Colombia remains the most dangerous and deadliest country in the world for land defenders, with at least sixty being murdered in 2022

The Putumayo region has been one of the hotspots of violence since the 2016 peace agreement, despite the department being designated as a priority area for territorial development and peacebuilding by the government, given the outsized impact of the civil war on the area. Putumayo’s municipality of Puerto Asís is crossed by the Putumayo river, one of the main arteries of the Amazon river, and a key supply route for drug traffickers aiming to move goods to Brazil, Europe and beyond. Territory in this municipality is currently being violently contested by the armed groups Comandos de Frontera and the Carolina Ramírez Front, dissidents of the FARC-EP. 

An elder man describes the violence that forced him and his family to leave their homes.

As the lawyer Jomary Ortegon Osorio, president of the “José Alvear Restrepo” Lawyers Collective (CAJAR), one of Colombia’s most respected human rights organizations, explains, “after the peace agreements between the government and the FARC guerillas, in Siona territory in the department of Putumayo, the presence of armed actors allied with illicit economies such as a drug trafficking grew. This presence has been gravely affecting the autonomy, self-government, territorial control, and rights to life of the Siona people…the risk of forced recruitment of young people by armed actors has increased.” 

These hostilities intensified around the 10th of September, 2023. Since then, many Indigenous, Afrodescendant and campesino communities caught in the crossfire have been displaced from their lands, or threatened and locked down in their homes by armed groups.

Communities have also experienced the closure of schools, health services and both river and land transport services by armed actors. Many are exposed to anti-personnel mines that are being actively planted by armed groups on their territories and in surrounding areas, further restricting access to their livelihoods and freedom of movement.

The Siona people, whose community straddles the Putumayo river, have faced decades of brutal impacts of violence from diverse armed actors, oil companies and extractive projects.

In several communities, families and community leaders are also taking measures to protect, and in some cases, evacuate their youth since armed actors have also resumed their practices of recruitment either by force or by offering economic bonuses. In a territory abandoned by the State, these bonuses often become one of the only opportunities for economic subsistence. At least thirteen boys and girls have had to leave their parents and homes, protected by their own community to avoid recruitment by armed groups.

A young 16-year old displaced student describes why she had to leave her family and hometown.

The responsiveness of state institutions has been mediated by bureaucracy, and has been slow and insufficient. Meanwhile, armed actors have occupied communal facilities, and have stolen food supplies and community goods. These armed groups are directly threatening any community members speaking out publicly about their rights violations, and have made it clear that any person who denounces the situation before public authorities or civil society organizations will be a target of the armed group.

The situation is grave, adding new layers of violence for communities who have already faced decades of destructive impacts from traffickers, armed groups, oil companies, miners, and loggers.  

Community members facing forced displacement share their testimonies.

Our Work and Demands

Community members in a canoe on the Putumayo River straddling the Colombia-Ecuador border.

Our team of human rights defenders has been working closely with local communities for years to uphold the protection of their rights. In 2018, in collaboration with multiple organizations, we supported two Siona reservations in the region to request protective precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which were granted in July 2018. Yet the Colombian state has not fully complied with the Inter-American decision in this case.

Since the intensification of violence in September, Amazon Frontlines has been working around the clock with other organizations to respond to the urgent needs on the ground.

In late September, a medical brigade along with food supplies was able to arrive in the area thanks to the coordinated efforts of Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace and rights organizations to secure a temporary ceasefire between armed actors and the opening of a humanitarian corridor. This corridor was suspended only a few days later.

A humanitarian corridor arrives to support communities displaced by armed groups.

The presence of armed actors significantly impairs the access to communities to health care services.

Temporary measures are not viable solutions to this deepening crisis. That’s why we’re continuing to accompany and support communities in the area, who are making an urgent appeal to the Colombian state and President Gustavo Petro to take immediate, integral and sustained measures to safeguard the lives and rights of local communities, and to ensure the safety of human rights defenders, including human rights defender and member of Amazon Frontlines, lawyer Lina Maria Espinoza, who is facing death threats issued by armed actors.

Amazon Frontlines lawyer and human rights defender Lina Maria Espinosa remarks: “As human rights defenders accompanying the communities, we are being threatened by armed actors. Our presence in the territory and our actions to publicly denounce this grave human rights crisis is uncomfortable for them and it prevents them from being able to move forward with total impunity. That is why it’s crucial for the Colombian Government to protect and guarantee our work. In the absence of the State, we, human rights defenders becomes the eyes, ears and voices for justice.”

Lina Maria Espinoza, human rights defender and lawyer for Amazon Frontlines, outlines the demands we are making of the Colombian government and the international community.

Indigenous communities and the rights organizations supporting them firmly believe in total peace. But right now, the possibility of that peace has vanished. There is no state presence, only the presence of war and armed actors fighting over strategic narco-trafficking routes. Without the state’s active and effective presence to secure rights, there can be no peace in territories.

As Santiago Mera, from the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission reflects, “A total peace, sustained in time, implies a transformation of territories. That is, autonomous development for Indigenous, Afrodescendant and campesino communities. The satisfaction of basic needs. Freedom and dignified conditions for communities to be able to stay in their territory. Peace is little more than a form of life in human harmony, and with nature. But that peace requires commitments – commitments from institutions, from communities and from armed actors who have disputed territories.”

Community members bathe in the Putumayo River at sunset.

At Amazon Frontlines, we are committed to standing by and supporting communities in this crisis, ensuring an end to the violence and a sustainable peace.

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