The daylight has faded in the Caribbean port of Santa Marta, but high above the coast, the sun’s last rays sharpen the outlines of the white peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. From my vantage point at the Hotel Don Pepe’s rooftop bar, the glowing mountaintops form a jagged, triangular halo behind Tito Rodríguez, who rolls an unsipped bottle of beer between his palms.
Rodríguez is the director of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park, a natural wonderland that rises from Colombia’s Caribbean shore to nearly 19,000 feet in just 26 miles. The park ascends from beaches and mangroves through dry forests, rainforests, cloud forests, glaciers, and the tropical tundra known as páramo. Its steeply stacked microclimates support an exuberantly complex range of ecosystems and endemic wildlife, including 23 birds found nowhere else. The reserve is, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Science, the most irreplaceable protected area in the world for threatened species.
“I don’t think the authors intended the word ‘protected’ to be ironic,” Rodríguez says, managing a grim smile. “But in truth, it has never been adequately protected. And considering that protecting it was my responsibility, what I feel at this moment is an overwhelming sense of defeat and grief.”
Rodríguez’s broad face is darkened by lack of sleep and a day’s growth of beard. He’s come tonight to share with his conservationist friends a decision that he and his wife have not dared to discuss with others, including their children. In three days they intend to flee Colombia and the escalating spiral of intimidation and violence that has left his park’s headquarters in embers and a friend and coworker dead—felled by bullets that, sources say, were intended for Rodríguez.
As the waitress comes around to light the table’s candles, Rodríguez glances toward the mountains and lowers his shoulders, as if the mass of granite and snow were bearing down on him. Even though Colombia’s National Protection Unit has deemed him to be at an “extraordinary risk” for assassination, they’ve informed him that they will no longer maintain his security detail—“although they said I could keep the bulletproof vest and a cell phone with a panic button.” And because he’s a public figure, there’s no place he can hide in Colombia, and little possibility that he’ll ever be able to return.
“And so,” he tells his friends, “tonight is goodbye.”
olombia, Rodríguez’s homeland, is one of the most biodiverse nations on Earth, and by far the world’s richest country in terms of avian life. Its tapestry of ecosystems hosts nearly 2,000 bird species, many of them migrants that spend summers in North America. The nation also has the distinction of being the most dangerous place on Earth to defend the environment, with an average of more than two defenders killed each week in 2020.
A similar devastating pattern is playing out in countries around the world, where anti-environmentalist violence and intimidation are on the rise. Growing numbers of park managers, rangers, Indigenous forest guardians, and anti-mining activists are being threatened, run out of protected areas and ancestral lands, and, in many cases, murdered.
In the Philippines, Indigenous activists are regularly assassinated—sometimes with the involvement of government security forces—for opposing agribusiness expansion into their forested homelands. In India, attacks on conservationists have spiked against a backdrop of heavy-handed policing and repression of peaceful protests. In Central Africa, game guards in several countries are as endangered as the elephants, gorillas, and rhinos they protect. In developed countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, violence is less common, but increasingly authorities are criminalizing environmental activism while companies use aggressive legal tactics to stifle opposition.
Last year at least 225 land and environmental defenders were killed and many more attacked and threatened, according to Front Line Defenders, an international organization that investigates and verifies attacks. More than two-thirds of the deaths occurred in Latin America, much of which is rapidly developing within a context of weak governance, extreme inequality, and political instability. Rising demand for minerals and agricultural products such as soy and beef has accelerated the push to transform biodiverse landscapes into mines and pastures. Meanwhile, the potential for high profits with little oversight is attracting organized crime to the region’s mining and ranching sectors.
Those with close connections to land—small-scale farmers, tribal leaders, activists, and organizers—are often the most at risk. In Honduras, Lenca activist Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home after waging a grassroots campaign that pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of a project that would have cut off water and subsistence livelihoods for her people. In Mexico, Tarahumara farmer Isidro Baldenegro was jailed for 15 months for organizing protests against illegal logging, and later assassinated. In Peru, after Máxima Acuña stood up to a multinational mining company trying to evict her family from their land, she and a daughter were beaten unconscious by the company’s militarized security contractors, who also destroyed their crops.
Many observers say that the rise of authoritarian leaders and populist politics has emboldened illegal miners, loggers, and land grabbers, and led governments to use national-security legislation to quash protest. In Brazil’s Amazon, for instance, land invasions and other attacks on Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian forest guardians have increased since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. Bolsonaro has praised the genocide of Indigenous peoples and encouraged loggers and ranchers to cut and burn the forest to make way for cattle and infrastructure projects. Unsurprisingly, deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rose 34.5 percent between August 2019 and July 2020.
From Brazil to the Philippines to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world continues to lose precious ecosystems and their most effective defenders. The COVID-19 pandemic has not eased the trend—and may have exacerbated it as the health crisis diverted resources and attention from rural areas, and as authorities used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down.
n Colombia, barely a week into 2021, conservationist and community leader Gonzalo Cardona became the year’s first environmental leader to be assassinated. Gonza, as his friends called him, is credited with saving the endangered Yellow-eared Parrot, an effort he began in the late 1990s when there were only 81 known individuals. By creating reserves and halting illegal logging of the parrots’ habitat, Cardona and his collaborators grew the population to 2,895 birds, in dozens of flocks scattered in Colombia’s Central Andes. Cardona had just wrapped up his latest parrot census when he was gunned down on a mountain road on his way to his home in Roncesvalles.
The cloud forests of the Central Andes lie on a strategic route long used by combatants during Colombia’s 52-year civil war. In the mid-1960s, liberal rebels formed the first of several Marxist-inspired guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In the 1980s, landowners and others formed far-right paramilitary groups to counter left-wing insurgents and their perceived supporters, often with the help of the Colombian army and local politicians. The fighting killed more than 220,000 people and forced more than 5 million from their homes. After the government struck a 2016 peace deal with the FARC (the paramilitaries had demobilized in 2006), calm began returning to much of the countryside. Field research picked up and, until the COVID-19 pandemic, ecotourism was booming.
For the past six years, Audubon has been working to protect Colombia’s most important bird habitats by incentivizing conservation in rural communities. Guide-training and other efforts to cultivate bird-based tourism have transformed local economies and attracted many thousands of international birders who have safely visited the nation’s prime birding and ecotourism areas.
But in other areas, the end of fighting has opened essential habitats for vulnerable species like the Blue-billed Curassow and the Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan to exploitation. In some pockets of rural Colombia, the FARC’s departure left a power vacuum that has emboldened drug traffickers, illegal loggers, and miners whose economic interests are threatened by those who defend fragile ecosystems and the species living within them. “In places where the FARC had control, the state has failed to provide security or economic and social alternatives,” says Felipe Clavijo-Ospina, a senior constitutional adviser at the Office of the Inspector-Attorney General of Colombia. “As a result, these places are now getting colonized by criminal organizations that are pushing to exploit local resources.”
Added to the pressure from organized criminals, settlers, and small-scale loggers or miners are large international businesses that are rushing to exploit high-profit minerals, agricultural lands, and hydroelectric potential—in many cases without consulting or securing the consent of affected communities.
Over the past five years, Colombian activists who raised concerns about environmental abuse by international corporations were attacked hundreds of times, according to researchers with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. Forty-four percent of the attacks targeted activists who spoke out about just four large mining and fossil fuel companies; others targeted those raising concerns about dams and palm oil plantations.
Often, company agents use the threat of murder to push subsistence farmers off their lands. In many cases, the victims belong to Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that have long lived in remote regions, where they use resources sustainably and the state is virtually nonexistent.
reas vulnerable to conflict often host some of Colombia’s most important national parks. Consistent with Colombians’ growing concern for the environment, former president Juan Manuel Santos set an ambitious goal in 2010 to more than double the country’s parks and other conserved areas. By 2018 Colombia had expanded its reserves from 32 million acres to 76 million acres—adding an area larger than New York State.
But even with the support of international conservation organizations, resources to protect those areas have been scarce. Several reserves in the Amazon region have been left with no protection at all, after FARC dissidents threatened to attack. Elsewhere, rangers, with little more protection than the park service’s Andean bear logo embroidered on their shirtsleeves, often represent the state’s only presence in remote and violent regions.
In 2001, shortly after Rodríguez began working for the park service, he met Marta Hernández, the director of Tayrona National Park, which borders the Santa Marta park. In 2004, after Hernández reportedly defied a paramilitary group’s demands to use Tayrona’s beaches to load cocaine onto boats, gunmen burst into her home and opened fire. Hernández was the second director of Tayrona killed that decade; a third fled her post after receiving death threats.
When Rodríguez took over the much larger Santa Marta park in 2013, the government was beginning to take action to regain control of a strip of park land known as La Lengüeta (the tongue), which connects the high sierra to the ocean. Incorporated into the reserve as part of the Kogui-Malay-Arhuaco Indigenous reservation, La Lengüeta had long served as a strategic corridor for narcotics and weapons, and hundreds of non-Indigenous families had illegally moved onto the reserve. Though Rodríguez’s predecessors had informed the settlers that building and cultivating were prohibited, the population continued to grow. Paramilitary leaders with reported links to powerful ranchers and political families even took on the role of property developers and real estate agents, selling reserve land that they did not own. Over the past 15 years, hotels, banana plantations, and two entire towns were built illegally in La Lengüeta.
“Basically,” Rodríguez says, “I inherited a time bomb.”
Rodríguez figured that he had three choices: to do nothing, to crack down on the lawbreakers, or to begin what he calls “an exercise of dialogue and consensus building among all the actors…while still exercising authority.”
At first, his measured attempts to find balance “between the club and the carrot” yielded positive results. After a year of dialogue, Rodríguez convinced ranchers to remove 250 head of cattle they were grazing illegally near park headquarters (a compound that the government had confiscated from a drug trafficker imprisoned in the United States). He set illegal loggers up with gigs monitoring sea turtle eggs instead. And when funds became available, he offered a contract ranger position to a former logger named Wilton Orrego, who lived in the illegal settlement of Perico Aguao. Rodríguez quickly became friends with Orrego and his wife.
At the same time, Rodríguez promoted conversations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples living in La Lengüeta, culminating in a 2015 agreement that the latter would relocate, but be allowed to engage in regulated subsistence activities within the park until they left. But the deal, signed by the park service’s general director and endorsed by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, was strongly opposed by some non-Indigenous people in the area, including powerful families with links to former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe. While applying pressure on lawmakers in Bogotá to scrap the “anti-development” plan, the landowners encouraged workers and squatters in La Lengüeta to agitate against the parks. Over the next four years, the animosity escalated.
In 2017 the prosecutor’s office, protected by the military, razed 13 illegally constructed buildings, then presented the builders with an invoice for the demolition. Farm workers, riled by their bosses, threatened park staff, burned forests, and built more houses near the Santa Marta park headquarters. In late 2018 an environmental court ordered the owners of two illegal banana plantations to knock down their trees and infrastructure. The park service also authorized the bulldozing of the newly built houses, in an operation that was recorded by enraged residents who posted the videos on social media. The next day the park headquarters was burned to the ground.
Throughout this period, Rodríguez had been building trust with the four Indigenous groups living within the Tayrona and Santa Marta parks and led negotiations for joint conservation and management of the shared territory. An agreement was nearing completion when, on January 11, 2019, Rodríguez received his first death threat. Three days later assassins surprised ranger Wilton Orrego in Perico Aguao and shot him five times. With no ambulance available, his father borrowed a neighbor’s car and raced his bleeding son toward Santa Marta, an hour away. By the time they reached the hospital, the 38-year-old ranger and dad to a teenage daughter was dead.
That afternoon Rodríguez received a panicked voicemail from his boss, telling him that he’d learned that the attack had been aimed at Rodríguez. The police strongly advised that he leave the area immediately. Rodríguez and his family fled to Bogotá for several months and missed the signing of the agreement he had so painstakingly brokered. (“That was one of the few achievements that gives me some joy, the feeling of having left a seed well planted,” Rodríguez said later.) When he returned to Santa Marta, the National Protection Unit stationed round-the-clock officers at his house and assigned him two armed bodyguards, an armored van, and a bulletproof vest.
By this time, Colombia’s newly elected government had effectively scuttled the 2015 agreement by refusing to support the relocations. And in May 2019 Uribe and political allies, who wanted to construct hotels in the parks, began publicly airing their discontent with the management of Tayrona and Santa Marta. Uribe convened a meeting in Santa Marta with prominent landowners and politicians to discuss “the future of ecotourism” in the parks. When a journalist asked the director of the Colombian national park system, Julia Miranda, why no parks representative had attended the meeting, she replied, “We were not invited.” (Within a year Miranda, an environmental lawyer who had led the service for 17 years, would be replaced by a new director with a postgraduate specialization in construction.)
A month later Rodríguez got word that his security detail was to be discontinued. “That’s when we realized that we needed to find a way to get out of the country,” he says. “We would need to leave our jobs, our friends, our families, the kids’ schools, everything. And we would need to do it very quickly.”
or Colombia, each loss of a park ranger or other environmental defender represents a compounding loss to the nation. “Rangers are defending the most important asset that Colombia has,” says Carolina Gil of the Amazon Conservation Team, an organization that partners with communities to protect tropical forests. “The ecosystems they’re protecting are essential for the survival of not only the populations that live around the protected areas but also the citizenship as a whole. In some way, all of us are affected.”
As are all of us. Environmental and land defenders are the first line of defense against biodiversity loss and climate breakdown. When an important habitat loses its protectors, exploitation follows. As forests tumble and tropical ecosystems collapse, we fall further behind in efforts to stabilize atmospheric carbon—and the outlook for the planet looks a little bleaker.
With so much at stake, some groups offer defenders direct support. Front Line Defenders and Somos Defensores, for instance, have been able to help a small fraction with advocacy and protective measures such as bulletproofing, bodyguards, and temporary relocation. These efforts have saved lives, but they don’t stem the broader tide of losses or get to the root of the problem: the widespread impunity that enables, and even incentivizes, violence against people whose work is essential to the future of the Earth and the humans who live on it.
“When nobody is being held accountable, there’s little risk or political cost when these killings take place,” says Ed O’Donovan of Front Line Defenders, which estimates that 85 percent of killings of Latin American environmental and human rights activists go unpunished. In Colombia, the rate of impunity is 92 percent, according to Global Witness, another group that tracks killings. To end the cycle, governments need to address land-rights issues, protect defenders’ safety, and bring to justice those responsible for attacks against them.
One ray of hope is the Escazú Agreement, the first international treaty to include specific protection measures for defenders of the environment. It requires Latin American and Caribbean countries to prevent, investigate, and reprimand attacks against them. To date 24 countries have signed and 12 have ratified the agreement, which entered into force in April. Unfortunately, many of the countries that are not yet fully on board with Escazú—including Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras—are among the most dangerous for defenders. In some cases, ratification proponents have been overwhelmed by arguments from politicians and industry representatives that the agreement could limit investments and undermine national sovereignty.
Multinational companies that operate across national borders can use their power and influence to prevent violence and intimidation by pressuring governments to enforce laws and fully investigate attacks. Some corporations have developed zero-tolerance policies regarding threats against environmental and human rights defenders throughout their supply chains. But when companies choose to exploit an indifferent government’s weak or poorly enforced domestic regulation, there are few effective mechanisms to prevent corporate human rights abuses.
Encouragingly, lawmakers in the developed world have begun to take a proactive stance. The European Union is moving forward with strong laws that will hold companies accountable for the adverse impacts of their activities throughout their value chains. And in the United States, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) has announced that he will introduce a bill to require businesses to verify that the commodities they import do not originate from illegally deforested land, including land cleared in violation of the rights of Indigenous and local communities.
Because slayings of Latin American environmental defenders are most often linked to opposition to projects backed by investment banks, financial institutions also play a role in perpetuating violence and environmental degradation. A small but growing number of investors and customers are making clear that banks should not support projects that adversely affect the environment, climate, or people living near resource-extraction sites.
Sometimes that pressure comes too late. International investors in the Agua Zarca dam in Honduras were informed of threats to Berta Cáceres, but did nothing. Only after Cáceres’s high-profile assassination did financiers stop funding the project.
But some recent wins are demonstrating that pressure on investors can pay off. Earlier this year, three major European banks—Credit Suisse, ING, and BNP Paribas—announced they will no longer finance the trade of oil extracted from the Sacred Headwaters region of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Oil projects threaten the region’s intact forests as well as the livelihood and cultures of more than 500,000 Indigenous people. And in 2020, after a campaign by environmentalists—including many Audubon members—all six major American investment banks pledged not to finance drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which would cause irreparable harm to wildlife, exacerbate the climate crisis, and violate the human rights of Alaska Natives.
For companies and investors, meaningfully involving local communities before development starts isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also good for the bottom line. According to an International Development Bank analysis of 200 infrastructure projects in Latin America that led to conflict over the past four decades, a lack of consultation with local stakeholders increased costs by an average of 69 percent and delayed projects by an average of five years. Local stakeholders’ concerns about ecosystem degradation and pollution were cited as the main causes of conflict.
Intergovernmental financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, also have a responsibility to act, given their mandates to support investments that promote sustainability and improve the living standards of people in developing countries. In response to harsh criticism over human rights abuses surrounding funded projects, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) recently updated their policies to boost stakeholder engagement and human rights standards for borrowers and provide grievance mechanisms for complaints.
“In many cases [these standards] are better than local legislation. But not all projects are covered, and in the case of the IDB we’ve found that people in affected communities often weren’t aware that there was a mechanism they could have used,” says Carolina Juaneda, Latin America coordinator at the Bank Information Center. Juaneda and other observers say that large-scale investors need to go further and draw a line at supporting potentially harmful projects in the first place.
he next time I saw Tito Rodríguez, in January of last year, he again had a backdrop of snowy peaks behind him, this time in the form of snowbanks piled high along the sidewalks of a Canadian city. It had been two months since he and his family left Colombia. “The cold and the snow,” he said, zipping his jacket a little higher, “have been the easiest part.”
When the family departed Santa Marta, Rodríguez and his wife still hadn’t shared the true purpose of their trip with their two young children. They’d told them they would visit Disney World, tour Washington’s museums, walk through Times Square—all of which they did. Then, they drove north toward Canada, telling the children that they would try to visit an aunt. “We’ll just have to check at the border,” his wife said, “to see if they’ll let us in.”
“Until then we’d been fine,” Rodríguez told me, when we went inside for a coffee. “But on that day we were both terrified. There was snow, and confusion about where we should try to cross. We didn’t speak English, much less French, and here we were going to knock on the doors of Canada and ask for asylum.”
At 10 o’clock in the morning their taxi stopped, still a half-mile from the snow-swept border post. The driver refused to go farther, lest he be accused of human trafficking. And so the family got out and walked, dragging and carrying their bags and the family dog along the roadside.
Rodríguez remembers it as the most humiliating moment of his life. “In Colombia, I had driven past Venezuelan refugees struggling with their luggage on the roads. And now that was us, walking, the faces in passing cars looking at us. Two weeks earlier I’d been the director of one of the world’s most important parks. And now, I was a refugee.”
In his pocket, Rodríguez had a letter in English explaining that his life was in danger and petitioning the Canadian government to take the family into custody so they could apply for asylum.
“Approaching the border, I got confused; I was in the wrong place. People were yelling at me. A border patrol lady was shouting, the children and my wife were screaming at me. I didn’t understand anything. A year of living in internal terror, and I’d kept my cool. But now I was losing it.”
Rodríguez had rehearsed a few English words to say when he handed the letter over. But when he finally reached the correct window, his mind went blank.
“All I could say was ‘Help, help.’ ”
Rodríguez was led, sobbing, to an interview room. When the rest of the family rejoined him, the kids were freaking out.
“But the officials treated us impressively,” he says. “They calmed us; they made it clear that they were concerned about our well-being.” Agents offered hot drinks and food, even for the dog. “It was at this moment that I began to feel the tremendous decency and humanity of this country.”
Canada took them in. The children struggled after their parents broke the news that they wouldn’t be returning to their friends and extended family or to their tropical home. A year later they’ve formed new friendships and are learning French. Rodríguez and his wife, a veterinarian, are considering how to rebuild their careers. For now, the former director of the most irreplaceable protected area in the world is picking up odd jobs—manual labor, maintenance, truck driving—and hoping that he’ll eventually be able to find a job in conservation.
He’s heard bits and pieces about the continuing chaos in La Lengüeta. The news is always painful. For his sanity, he tries to stay “in the margins,” he says. “Our lives were turned upside down. But I have no choice but to consider myself lucky.” He’s well aware that most of his former colleagues don’t have the option to get out—a truth reinforced a few days after we met again, when ranger Yamid Alonso was shot to death at El Cocuy National Park. Alonso had been left, unsupported and unarmed, to guard an isolated checkpoint at 11,500 feet.
“I believe that the majority of parks officials [in Colombia] feel completely alone,” Rodríguez told me.
And that may be one of the saddest aspects of this tragic phenomenon. Those who are courageous enough to stand up for these last bastions of nature often do so with little or no support. This reinforces assailants’ belief that, after an initial uproar, the people they’ve eliminated will soon be forgotten.
That doesn’t have to be the case. When we tell these defenders’ stories, we keep their memories and their accomplishments alive. And when we advocate for justice and accountability, we support those who are still out there, risking their lives to protect our planet and our future.
This story originally ran in the Summer 2021 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.