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Large-Scale Development Projects Increase Risks to Women Human Rights Defenders in Colombia

FRIDAY FILE - Threats against the local leaders and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) continue to form part of a strategy of intimidation used by the actors of the armed conflict in Colombia.

By Katherine Ronderos

The Cauca Network for Life and Human Rights (Red por la Vida y los Derechos Humanos del Cauca) report on the Human Rights Situation in the Cauca Region 2012 shows that threat victims are indigenous women leaders, and targeted WHRDs engaged with peasant and environmental protection processes.

On 30 September 2013, Adelinda Gómez Gaviria, a WHRD and peasant farmer leader was shot dead close to her home, in the municipality of Almaguer, Cauca region in Colombia. Gómez Gaviria was returning home from a local women’s committee meeting when she and her 16 year-old son were approached by two unidentified men. She was shot five times and killed and her son is in a critical state in a Hospital in the city of Popayán. Gómez Gaviria dedicated her life to her community, working with the Comité de Integración del Macizo Colombiano (FundeCIMA) as part of the Proceso de Mujeres Maciceñas (Massif Women’s Process for the Committee for Massif-Colombian Integration).

In an interview with AWID, a representative of FundeCIMA shared how Gómez Gaviria played an active leadership role in organising a Mining and Environmental Forum in Almaguer in February 2013, looking at the impact of gold mining extraction companies in her local region and proposing collective opposition against illegal and large-scale mining projects. Although one month prior to her killing, Gómez Gaviria received a threatening telephone call from strangers who warned her to “Stop messing around with this miners’ thing. It’s risky and it’ll get you killed”, she did not pay attention to the threat, not considering herself a public figure like other WHRDs in her region.

The Cauca region is engaged in a battle for the extraction of its natural resources, mainly gold, which has motivated keen interest by large transnational capital investment companies in the region; and requests for mining concessions for exploration and extraction are increasing substantially. According to the report on the Human Rights Situation in the Cauca Region 2012, the Colombian Geological Service has received 510 permit requests, corresponding to 25% of the total land in the region available to multinationals; it has granted 248 permits (11.5%) for mining extraction.

Booming mining business in Colombia

Despite Colombia’s extensive natural riches, the extractive mining boom is relatively recent. Over the last decade, as part of a national strategy to attract foreign investment and make extractive industries a major engine or ‘locomotive’ for its economic growth, the Colombian government has softened its restrictions on mining exploration and exploitation. These legislative reforms have positioned the country as a ‘region of interest’ for multinationals seeking investment opportunities. The Colombian National Development Plan (NDP) 2010-2014 “Prosperity for All” states that the mining sector is second in national exports, with a 74% increase of foreign direct investment between 2006 and 2009 (mainly of gold, ferronickel and coal). The intention of the National Plan for Mining Development and Environmental Policy Vision Colombia 2019is to turn Colombia into a ‘mining country’. Today, 40% of Colombia’s land has been licensed to, or is being solicited by, multinational companies in order to develop mineral and crude oil mining projects.

The government has declared mining an “activity for public utility and social interest”, for which the unilateral expropriation of private property is allowed. The government also declared protests against the mining industry illegal, and has also conceded mining licenses in natural protected areas such as moorlands, indigenous reserves, and collective territories belonging to Afro-descendent communities.

This economic development model risks generating a humanitarian crisis; the entry of multinational companies can further increase militarization in rural areas as the Colombian national army and private security firms protect multinational companies in unstable areas, increasing the potential for violent clashes.

Increased risks for WHRDs

The Colombian working group on Women and Armed Conflict pointed out in its 2012 report, how the Government of President Juan Manuel Santos and its ‘mining locomotive’ would have a direct impact in areas highly affected by the armed conflict. In 2012 economic, social, cultural and environmental rights (ESCR) received significant exposure on the political agenda and were top of national and international public opinion discussions.

While the Colombian National Protection Unit figures show a budget increase for the protection of HRDs, the reality of aggressions, particularly killings, confirms that physical protection is not sufficient if there are no protection mechanism policies.

Alarmingly, the Information System of Attacks Against Human Rights Defenders in Colombia (SIADDHH), points out an excessive increase in violence against local leaders and WHRDs in Colombia. In its quarterly bulletin figures of January-March 2013, the SIADDHH recorded a total of 45 individual attacks against HRDs, of these attacks, 49% were against WHRDs, up from 28% for the same period in 2012.

While civil society organizations have promoted constitutional appeals to challenge the policies that promote large-scale mining, Colombia’s historical armed conflict, along with ongoing high levels of impunity, make the negative effects of large-scale mining a human rights issue that requires national and international attention.

Despite little progress in implementing collective protection measures; and the approval of only 3668 of 9717 (38%) requests for protective measures received by the government’s National Protection Unit, as well as the lack of contingency plans by the Interior Ministry, there have been some advances to improving and expanding the coverage of the protection program. For instance, substantive discussions have taken place in the National Roundtables for Guarantees between local and national human rights organizations and government officials; similarly, the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that crimes against HRDs or land rights leaders should be considered crimes against humanity, given a context of systematic persecution. Nevertheless, national political discussions have been held without addressing the real causes of the violence against human rights defenders in Colombia, such as the lack of investigations or real prevention of aggressions, impunity, corruption, stigmatization, and abandoning leaders in regions that have been handed over to armed actors, and multinational corporations.

International call for a human rights-based approach to large-scale development projects

In her latest report on the Relationship between large-scale development projects and the activities of human rights defenders, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, stresses that HRDs working on behalf of communities affected by large-scale development projects are increasingly being branded ‘anti-government’, ‘against development’ or even ‘enemies of the State’. They are being harassed, stigmatized and criminalized for doing their work, and they also face threats, including deaths threats and physical attacks. Sekaggya emphasises that rather than being against development, defenders play an important role in advancing it.

The report calls for a rights-based approach to large-scale development projects, including principles of equality and non-discrimination, participation, protection, transparency and accountability, as well as access to appropriate remedy. It is essential that communities and those defending their rights are able to “participate actively, freely and meaningfully in assessment and analysis, project design and planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of development projects”.

The report also reiterates the obligation of States to provide protection to defenders claiming their “legitimate right to participate in decision-making processes and voicing their opposition to large-scale development projects” and highlights that private enterprises and donors, as well as States, can contribute to ensuring accountability.

Although Member States have adopted different approaches to ensuring that the rights of those affected by large-scale development projects are respected, according to Sekaggya, in Colombia, the National Hydrocarbons Agency requires, by law, to clarify in all contracts, the methodology that will be used to assess the impact of a project on affected populations; and the way in which the project will benefit them. However, according to Sekaggya, “there appear to be different interpretations of what this right implies, which lead to discrepancies in the way in which it is applied”.

Finally, Sekaggya, once again, expresses her concern to the particular risks and challenges that WHRDs face, which are linked to the work that they do and the rights they defend, which is why “it is important that they be able to do their work without incurring retaliation of any sort”. Among her main recommendations is the need to implement regular human rights impact assessments for large-scale development projects, ensuring that the potential impacts are investigated and the different grounds for discrimination are addressed.

Latin America