WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
2 May 2017 | Commentary

Questions for Luis Gilberto Murillo, Colombia’s Minister of the Environment


Colombia’s Minister of the Environment is in Washington D.C. to discuss Colombia’s post-conflict environmental agenda. Below are some cases of concern and questions to consider.

While there are diverse environmental issues that affect communities throughout Colombia, the effect of the damage on the majority of afro-descendant and indigenous regions of the Pacific and La Guajira Departments is alarming. Here are some key cases of concern:

Critical Situation Facing Wayuu Communities in La Guajira Thousands of indigenous Wayuu children have died as a result of malnutrition brought on by a lack of access to water. There are many factors leading to this deplorable situation, which should not be happening given the fact that Colombia is a middle income country. The fact that the Rancheria River (the central water source for these communities) was damned so that water could be deviated to the Cejerron carbon mining operation, oil palm production, and other agricultural crops is an environmental issue requiring action.

In 2012, the Wayuu community sought intervention by the international community to stem further deaths. In 2015 the Association of Shipya Wayuu received protective measures from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) to protect children, as well as pregnant and lactating women, from malnutrition. Numerous Wayuu leaders are under threat and several killed defending their rights. Yet the water from this river remains exclusively for economic benefit beyond the Wayuu community.

Deaths of Children due to Mercury Poisoning[i] The lawyers’ Group Tierra Digna has noted that mercury poisoning along the Rio Quito (Chocó) has led to the deaths of children. An Instituto de Investigaciones Ambientales del Pacífico “John Von Neumann” (IIAP) study that researched the impact of contamination in the ecosystems and hydrological sources in this area found that 100 percent of the fish were at least 40 percent contaminated by mercury. Such contamination is also present in the Atrato and Negua Rivers.

Mining’s Effect on Colombia’s Biodiversity According to the U.N., 78,839 hectares of land suffer the impact of mining exploitation in Colombia, with 40,839 hectares situated in the Pacific region. In Chocó Department alone, 88 percent of hectares are affected. According to William Klinger, IIAP’s director, 3,350 hectares of forests disappear in the Chocó each year. Native tree species including the caoba, yellow guayacan, orejo, and the chanul are becoming extinct. In December 2016, the Colombian Congress’ First Commission torpedoed a legislative effort to make access to water a fundamental right. The Constitutional Court of Colombia just issued a sentence stating that the Atrato River (Chocó) is subject to protection. It also orders the State to put in place an action plan to save this river from out of control mining practices and use of mercury. At the same time, Servicio Geológico Colombiano (SGC) has granted mining concessions in this area that would further destroy the environment. In 2014, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office issued Resolution 64, declaring that Chocó Department is facing a humanitarian crisis. Article 9 of this resolution describes the humanitarian crisis as an environmental one. As such, the ombudsman recommends that conflicts related to mining activity are resolved so that communities can secure their right to water.

In northern Cauca, the Black Women’s March negotiated measures whereby Colombian authorities made a commitment to undertake action to protect the lives, environment, and collective land titles of the communities affected by illegal mining. Today, few of these promises have been implemented.

Deforestation due to Coca Cultivation[ii] Various sources indicate that coca crops are on the rise in recent years. There were 25,976 hectares in 2014 and 40,594 hectares in 2015 (a 56 percent difference).  Coca crop cultivation is a serious threat to old-growth forests, biodiversity, and waterways. Furthermore, as coca cultivation spreads so does the presence of the illegal armed groups that coerce local rural farmers to grow coca. Disputes between different armed groups have increased attacks and displacement of ethnic minorities. A recent example is the Alto Baudó River basin where more than 400 persons were recently displaced.

Given the above, we urge you to ask Mr. Murillo:

  1. When will he put in place an effective plan that guarantees access to water to the Wayuu communities so they do not die of thirst and malnutrition? How will he work in direct consultation with the Wayuu leadership to make sure environmental regulations are properly applied in la Guajira?
  2. How is the Ministry of the Environment acting to address mercury contamination in the Pacific Region? What role will the Ministry play in implementing the recent decision concerning the Atrato River and the Ombudsman’s Resolution 64? Why have the commitments made to the Black Women’s March of Northern Cauca not been fulfilled? What measures are being taken to prevent further deforestation in the Chocó.
  3. What are the formal channels of communication between the Ministry of the Environment and Afro-Colombian and indigenous traditional authorities concerning the environmental damage in their communities? Has the Ministry engaged with the Ethnic Commission in a formal setting to make sure that the Ethnic Chapter of the peace accord is integrated in its planning, programming, and actions?
  4. Multiple factors have led to increased coca growth in recent years. However, the best way to stem further growth and address the problem is to implement the FARC peace accord’s commitments to addressing the illicit drug problem. To what extent is the Ministry of the Environment committed to furthering implementation of ecologically sustainable programs in coca growing communities?

[i] Betancur Alarcón, Laura. “‘En Quibdó no hay que ser minero para tener mercurio en el cuerpo,'” El Tiempo. July 30, 2016. http://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/CMS-16659926

[ii] UNDOC. Colombia-Monitoreo de territorios afectados por cultivos ilícitos 2015. Report. July 2016. https://www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Colombia/Monitoreo_Cultivos_ilicitos_2015.pdf.