Courage & calm despite attacks: Mongabay news platform Q&A with Colombian environmental defender Yuly Velásquez

Published by Brent Patterson on

Mongabay, the U.S.-based non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform (whose readership averages 9 million visitors each month), reports:

Yuly Velásquez grew up on the banks of the Magdalena River near the Colombian city of Barrancabermeja, an area surrounded by a large network of swamps, lagoons and tropical forests. These wetlands are home to a host of migratory fish species, such as the bocachico (Prochilodus magdalenae) and dorada (Brycon moorei), which riverside communities depend on for their livelihoods.

But in recent decades, the fish have become increasingly scarce as the city’s lucrative oil industry and a nearby landfill discharge oil and toxic waste into water bodies. The country’s largest oil refinery, owned by the national oil company Ecopetrol, is located in Barrancabermeja and contributes to 70% of the local economy, according to the latest estimates. It refines everything from gasoline to propane, and the industrial complex also hosts a large petrochemical plant to produce products derived from petrol, such as plastic. But although the refinery is a pillar in the local economy, researchers and locals say inadequate management and illegal discharge is impacting the health of residents and the livelihoods of fishers.

As a fisher and president of an environmental organization that focuses on protecting the region’s wetlands and waterways, Velásquez has faced violent threats and attacks, including three assassination attempts by unidentified aggressors. Despite efforts by her organization, FEDEPESAN (the Federation of Artisanal, Environmental and Tourist Fishermen of the Department of Santander), to monitor and report pollution and corruption in the region, Velásquez says a lot of their complaints have been ignored. Instead, attacks suffered by environmental defenders have reportedly increased.

These are the challenges Velásquez and her colleagues face on a daily basis. But her passion to protect the wetlands and guarantee access to clean water, she says, pushes her to continue her work, despite the threats to her personal safety and her family’s security.

In the interview section of the article, Velasquez says:

“Thank God we don’t feel alone, because the international community is also supporting us, showing and making us visible. And this is a weapon that helps us say that we are not alone, there are other people who know the complaints that we are making and, if something were to happen to us, it is because of the complaints we made against the Ecopetrol refinery, due to all the types of pollution that occur here in the territory.”

“We feel that we have made a little progress, with a lot of fear, because as the network becomes stronger, we are also much more visible, and so the latent fear of being attacked is greater, it is strong. That is why we accompany ourselves with CREDHOS, also with Peace Brigades International [an international NGO that works to protect human rights and environmental defenders]. They now accompany us to carry out monitoring of the pipes in Las Ciénegas. We can have a little peace of mind to be able to carry out the work.”

“We are very grateful for the entire international community, for all the colleagues who were now at the U.N. climate and biodiversity conferences providing so much information and making visible everything that is happening here. And also showing what we do as communities to mitigate climate change.”

We add that the UN COP16 summit – the Sixteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity – will take place in Colombia (in a city to be determined) on October 21 to November 1, 2024.

To read the full interview, go to Courage & calm despite attacks: Q&A with Colombian activist Yuly Velásquez (Mongabay, January 19, 2024).

Photo: PBI-Canada and PBI-Colombia with Yuli, June 30, 2022.


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