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Maydany Salcedo: the environmental defender who catches the ire of armed groups

  • In southwestern Colombia, Maydany Salcedo, 49, faces constant threats to her life and that of her family due to her opposition to illegal activities of armed groups in the region.
  • She founded Asimtracampic, an organization that works to ensure that no more coca (an addictive plant which cocaine is derived from) is planted in the region, and that deforestation does not increase.
  • The organization opposes the expansion of the agricultural frontier in the Amazon, illicit crops, oil pollution, deforestation and all activities that pose a risk to the environment and territory.
  • A victim of the constant violence in the region since she was raped by guerillas as a child, Salcedo is under 24/7 security protection. Despite these threats, she has not abandoned her dream of creating biological corridors for the vulnerable species that live in Piamonte, among which include the Caquetá titi monkey, which is endemic to the region.

On April 10, 2023, at 11:30 a.m., four men arrived at Maydany Salcedo’s house.

“I’m with the target and awaiting instructions,” was a phrase repeated several times by one of the men on the phone with his boss, paralyzing Salcedo with fear. The man stood at the door of her house while the three others walked around inside, weapons in their hands. The men forced Salcedo to prepare food for them while they talked, prolonging her nightmare.

The men presented themselves as members of Border Command (Comandos de Frontera), a residual organized armed group (GAOR) that emerged following the peace process in Colombia. It is made up of former guerillas and paramilitaries seeking control of drug trafficking, extortion, and illegal mining in the southwestern part of Colombia. This territory was controlled by the former Southern Bloc of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

“We hope you’ll stop what you’ve been doing–we know how many times your dog goes out to pee, we’ll finish off the smallest things in your life: your dog and two grandchildren,” they threatened her. She begged not to be killed in front of the children, but they did not intend to kill her.

The men warned Salcedo that she could not return to Piamonte, a municipality in the Bota Caucana region, which borders the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo in southwestern Colombia. In October 2023, the Border Command sowed terror in these territories, imposing stops and roadblocks and besieging different municipalities.

Salcedo left her village in March 2022, returning every so often to carry out activities with the Piamonte Municipal Association of Rural Workers (Asimtracampic), an organization she founded ten years ago. Through this organization, she opposes everything that threatens the territory: the expansion of the agricultural frontier in the Amazon, impacts on rivers, biodiversity loss, illegal mining, corruption, illicit crops, pollution from oil company activities and the arbitrary demands of illegal armed groups.

The men who threatened Salcedo told her how they had killed innocent children in Piamonte, children of rural leaders who had not “kept their mouths shut.” They showed her photos and asked whether she wanted to end up the same way. Eventually, they left her house, and Salcedo wept with her grandchildren and dog by her side.

Salcedo, who is 49 and was born in Río Blanco (Tolima), tries not to publicly break down to set an example. But she would like to feel less alone, especially in a country where, in 2022, 60 environmental defenders were murdered. According to information from the international organization Global Witness, this figure is almost double that of 2021, with Colombia being the most dangerous country for leaders such as Salcedo.

Salcedo, with her kind smile, knows that her head has a price. Not even two weeks after being threatened, on April 21, 2023, an alleged leader of the Border Command, who goes by the alias of Yonosé, held a public meeting in the village of Remanso in Piamonte. During the gathering, he said that Salcedo is a “guerilla who promotes the creation of rural guards,” and as such, was prohibited from returning to the municipality, warning her that there was an order to kill her if she did.

Yet almost three months later, Salcedo set foot in Piamonte again, stating, “I’d rather die standing than live kneeling.” Her bravery is costing her dearly.

Recurrent visits

The visit from the men in April 2023 was not the first. In August 2022, two men appeared at Salcedo’s house, saying that they no longer wanted Asimtracampic working in Piamonte, a strategic municipality for drug trafficking routes that connect Cauca with the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo. It also allows traffic to Ecuador. Its location is so well placed that the Border Command fight over the territory with the Carolina Ramírez Front of FARC dissidents.

To make themselves heard, the criminals sent the same message to almost every Asimtracampic member and expelled 300 families from Piamonte.

“They threatened me too. They told me they knew where my wife and children were and that I should keep quiet if I wanted to see them alive, and that they knew I was in Spain at that time,” says Jonathan Cuéllar, a veterinarian and zootechnician at the University of the Amazon, who is part of Asimtracampic.

Cuéllar had already left the country due to the multiple threats he had received, but he continued working with Salcedo from Europe.

Both know that the work they do bothers all the armed groups, given that Asimtracampic promotes, among other things, a program to replace illicit crops in Piamonte.

“We support the eradication and creation of productive projects. More than 734 families have been part of this,” says Cuéllar. This activism annoyed the illegal groups, largely because coca crops are grown in the municipality of Piamonte, which neighbors Putumayo. Coca is a highly addictive plant in which cocaine is derived from. In 2022, 77% of the increase in land planted with such crops was concentrated in this area, according to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Asimtracampic’s dream was, and still is, to stop the expansion of the agricultural frontier in the Amazon and to cultivate the region’s timber species and seeds.

During the time that Salcedo was not allowed to enter the territory, Cuéllar walked every path throughout the area, taking on several of her duties. When Cuéllar was away from the territory, Salcedo likewise took on his duties. Asimtracampic’s members firmly believe in the association’s social and environmental objectives: no more coca, no more deforestation.

Through one of the Asimtracampic’s many projects, the association was able to obtain conservation agreements from 130 families, who came together to preserve 1,868 hectares (4,615 acres) within the territory. Per Salcedo, the aim is to create biological corridors for species that live in the territory and are threatened, such as the Caquetá titi monkey (Plecturocebus caquetensis), which is endemic to the departments of Cauca and Caquetá, and is in critical danger of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

With respect to Asimtracampic’s members and promoters, speaking publicly about human rights and environmental justice has caused each armed group in the region to take a stance that suits them best, branding them as either guerillas or from the army. Ultimately, every sentence uttered has the same result: risk. Cuéllar was warned that he would be next after Salcedo.

“They could have killed you several times—why haven’t they?” We ask Salcedo.

“One of the men told me that they hadn’t killed me because the political cost would be very high,” she says.

The work carried out through Asimtracampic, which is the only rural organization in the municipality, has attracted so much attention that at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs held in Vienna in March 2023, Salcedo was one of the leaders who accompanied the then Vice Minister for Multilateral Affairs of Colombia, Laura Gil.

While on this trip, Salcedo confirmed that she was not willing to seek asylum in another country and would rather risk her life remaining in Colombia.

“There’s no potato or yam there and they eat very strange things that I don’t like. I don’t speak the language either and the culture is very different. I prefer my land,” she says, though she also acknowledges that there are days when she feels guilty about her family having lost everything, including their land and homes. “If I wasn’t a leader, then maybe this wouldn’t be happening,” she continues. As a result, some family members are now apathetic toward her.

All forms of abuse

Salcedo finds solace in the water, submerging herself whenever she feels anxious, scared or in pain. Even if she cannot wash away the physical wounds of the abuse that she has suffered, the water calms the pain she feels within. Salcedo knows firsthand about all forms of violence: she was six years old when she was raped for the first time, which happened in the municipality of Macarena in Meta when her family lived by the Guayabero River.

“All I remember is that I was bleeding a lot, and they had to sew me up. I think the guerillas killed those men. Since then, I’ve found refuge in the water––it’s where I find peace. I speak, and I cry,” she says.

But this was not the only time she was abused, and that pains her to remember. When she was an adult, a FARC commander told her that she had to give herself to him or he would kill her. She had no choice and was raped for the second time in her life.

“I go into the water–it cleanses me,” she says as if she could wash away the violent history that has marked her.

In Piamonte, Salcedo dives into the Caquetá River whenever she can. It is her safe space, which is why she defended it fiercely from the pollution generated from, in her view, the Gran Tierra Energy (GTE) oil company, which has its main base in Puerto Limón (Putumayo) and a station in Piamonte, where hydrocarbons drawn from wells throughout the municipality are treated.

In 2020, two oil spills contaminated the Caquetá River and several of its tributaries. The first occurred on June 21, 2023, and the second on July 17, 2023, in the same location due to pipe failures, according to a report from the Environment and Society Association (AAS).

“We drink water from that river,” says Salcedo.

Mercedes Mejía, coordinator of the Departmental Roundtable for Defending the Water and Territory of Caquetá, which was created in 2015 with the sole objective of defending the Colombian Amazon, says that GTE oil spills have been an enormous concern, especially because “part of the pipeline is in the river, so when there are floods, it damages it,” which means there is a constant risk.

“The river carries any waste downstream. The oil remains at the site of the spill, but the rest of the water takes everything else away. Municipality aqueducts that take water from the Caquetá River, such as those of Solano and Solita and all riverside aqueducts, are the issue. Indigenous people receive all the mining waste on top of the hydrocarbon contamination,” explains Mejía, who met Salcedo when she began receiving support following the serious threats she had received.

“She has had to sacrifice a lot to maintain processes,” says Mejía.

Reporting oil damage

The Caquetá River no longer flows the same: its water is black and flows across oil-stained stones. Residents say this is proof of the contamination that could put flora and fauna species at risk, as well as the communities that depend on the waters of this tributary in the southwest of the country.

On the night of Oct. 7, 2023, a new explosion occurred due to armed activities, which caused a crude oil spill in the Parayaco ravine, the Mocoa River, and the Caquetá River, according to AAS. The oil pipeline in question has shown irregularities since 2014, again per AAS.

Mejía believes that the authorities have not adequately monitored GTE oil spills. Karla Díaz, a researcher for AAS, agrees: “There are several recurring themes from this oil model, such as a lack of rigor in environmental impact studies, contingency plans, and environmental licensing measures for this type of impact.”

GTE responded to Mongabay Latam on this matter, stating that following the 2020 oil spills, the company had implemented an emergency response plan, established two permanent contingency teams, and, by December 2021, completed all cleanup activities. The company added that it had concluded from an independent investigation that “the cause [of the oil spill] was due to the dynamics of the river and not to operational causes,” nor were there “impacts to crops, plantations, farmland, homes, fishing areas or social infrastructure, such as aqueducts, recreation areas, schools, and communal areas.”

For Díaz, the issue is crucial because “there is no clarity about environmental liabilities, which causes companies to try to reduce impacts. … The communities sued because they use the water from the aqueducts, and their economic activity is closely tied to fishing. When people started monitoring [carrying out inspections], illegal actors confronted them, so they no longer felt they could continue with this process due to its visibility.”

Salcedo claims that in April 2023, armed men demanded that she remain silent about the complaints regarding GTE.

Mongabay Latam questioned GTE about the intimidation that leaders such as Salcedo have experienced. In a document, GTE responded that it rejects such claims and that the company has an internal protocol that “urges communities to report to the relevant authorities any situation they consider harmful to their fundamental rights.” The company concludes by assuring that it is unaware of “any legal action against the company for any type of threats to leaders.”

The first time Salcedo and Asimtracampic members expressed their opposition to the oil company was in 2013, shortly after the association’s establishment and in the midst of an agrarian strike (perhaps one of the largest in Colombia’s history): “We dealt them a blow because they couldn’t get fuel in; they had to transport it in by helicopter,” she says.

In 2013, Asimtracampic also opposed FARC. When the insurgent group ordered the organization to stop work and support the strike, Asimtracampic stated that it was not in agreement and instead took a neutral position, distancing itself from the guerrilla group. This marked the start of tensions between the groups.

This opposition meant that in 2014, members of Asimtracampic’s committee had to leave the territory after receiving threats. They could only return in 2016 when Salcedo and her peers requested authorization from guerilla leaders in Havana, Cuba, where the peace process was taking place.

“After the agreement was signed, we lived happily for months because the guerilla groups and the army had left. That was until the agreements were broken and the dissidents and drug trafficking structures returned to the territory,” says Salcedo.

Always on the move

Since she was a child, Salcedo has experienced displacement firsthand. The daughter of Unión Patriótica political party leaders, Salcedo has had to move from several territories because her family has been branded as guerillas or as collaborating with the military. Both have the same repercussions in a territory where conflict is ongoing.

When Salcedo was nine years old, she and her family fled from Radual Angosturas, in Meta, after guerillas murdered her uncle because he had served in the military. Next, they fled from Puerto Concordia, also in Meta, after another of her relatives was murdered.

“We left in the middle of the night before it got light out,” she says, referring to the fear that made them leave everything again for a new start in Huila, where they passed through three different municipalities after being identified as guerillas.

Salcedo watched her family fall apart without really understanding what they were doing wrong until she realized that perhaps that was the issue: they were trying to do things the right way. She saw this in her first role as a leader in San Vicente del Caguán, in Caquetá, when she was already married to her husband (whom she had moved to live with at the age of 16) and had two daughters.

“I felt my body pulsing with leftist ideas,” she says. Her happiness lasted until she left the demilitarized zone and the guerrillas threatened her because she sold food to army members in her restaurant. “Once again, we left in the middle of the night before it got light out,” she says, a phrase that she repeats. She returned to Huila with her daughters and the grief of separating from her husband and yet again from leaving a place where she felt at home.

In Nieva, the capital of Huila, she took on a leadership role at the Nueva Esperanza [New Hope] Foundation, which works for the protection of displaced populations. She started as a secretary and ended up becoming on the committee. Her work was so exceptional, she says, that a leader of the Communist Party invited her to be part of the Orteguaza River and Caquetá Interdistrict Association, which ensures the protection of the environment and human rights. Salcedo started without giving it a second thought.

“I was the president of that association from 2009 to 2012. It was my best education, the best grassroots and social organization process–I started to know what it meant to be a leader,” she explains.

She left tired of the stigmatization and persecution she faced, without knowing what to do next with her life, but the National Unitary Agricultural Trade Union Federation (Fensuagro) and the Marcha Patriótica political party invited her to Piamonte to put together an organizational process. In September 2012, she packed her bags without hesitating. Her proposal was ambitious and involved walking the municipality’s 66 paths to talk to communities and let them decide whether they wanted to come together to create an organization. After nine months of field work, Asimtracampic was created in June 2013.

“We warned you”

Salcedo returned to Piamonte in July 2023 despite the threats and the order given by the Border Command.

“I had two options: go with law enforcement officers or not talk with communities. We went into the territory to carry out a risk analysis with an organization. I know I can’t do it again, but what could I do?” she says, choking back tears before continuing, “I feel sad.”

The armed groups did not ignore her visit. On Aug. 21, 2023, an armed man turned up at her house and told her in a threatening tone: “We warned you not to come to Piamonte. … Get ready to mourn your grandchildren, your daughters, and your pets. Take what we’re telling you seriously because what you don’t think is going to happen could happen at any minute.”

On Sept. 3, 2023, two men arrived and knocked on her door, one telling the other, “This is where you have to turn around.” They stayed for a few minutes and then left, returning the next day and remaining in front of the house.

Salcedo is protected by the National Protection Unit, a government security agency. Normally, three bodyguards travel with her in a vehicle assigned to her. However, following the last threat on Sept. 3, they now accompany her everywhere.

“They have to wait for something to happen to comply with the 24/7 security protocol,” says Salcedo, who fears for her family’s lives above all.

Sometimes she cannot take it anymore and seems to regret her work. Yet despite this, she says: “I still have a lot of work to do. I want to leave behind a different Colombia for my grandchildren. … I call on the High Commissioner for Peace and the government to guarantee the return of Asimtracampic members’ displaced families and to ensure justice.”

Salcedo is uncompromising and never loses hope of recovering land, creating biological corridors, building productive projects, ending illegal mining, eradicating coca from the territory, and creating a rural farmer reserve zone, on which Asimtracampic has been working since its creation it hopes to establish legally.

Her colleagues know that Asimtracampic could end without her, as her strong and decisive personality will not be easy to replace. “If I have to die, then I will.”


 

Illustration courtesy of Leo Jiménez.

This article is part of the project “Rights of the Amazon in the spotlight: protecting people and forests,” an investigative series on deforestation and environmental crimes in Colombia financed by the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative. Editorial decisions are made independently and are not influenced by donor support.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Feb. 20, 2024.

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