Darkness fell over Colombia’s Putumayo province in February of last year, as gunfire shattered the peaceful evening. Villagers attending a meeting scattered and fled, while Leidy Mendoza watched in horror as her teenage son rushed to save his younger brother. Mendoza shouted for them to hit the floor, but it was too late – her oldest son was hit by a bullet. Mendoza, a former fighter for the disbanded FARC guerrillas, managed to drag her children back inside their house. She screamed for help, unaware that her husband, Jorge Santofimio, had already been killed.
Jorge Santofimio, an environmentalist leading a network of tree nurseries in Colombia’s Amazon region, was shot multiple times in the abdomen at close range and died instantly. His killing remains unsolved, and the Environment Ministry acknowledged that conservationists are often targeted due to the threat their work poses to illegal activities. The ministry also recognized that security risks can affect and slow down environmental projects.
According to British advocacy group Global Witness, at least 1,910 environmentalists worldwide were killed between 2012 and 2022 for their efforts to protect nature against business and criminal interests. In 2022, Colombia had the highest number of killings, with 60 environmentalists losing their lives. Colombia’s government, under the leadership of Environment Minister Susana Muhamad, is working to protect environmentalists and considers each killing a tragedy. Muhamad emphasized that environmentalists were previously stigmatized and portrayed as obstacles to development, stating that nobody deserves to die for safeguarding life.
RushHourDaily conducted an investigation into the aftermath of Santofimio’s shooting and the murders of two other environmental activists. The goal was to assess the impact on their conservation and restoration work in the rainforest, as well as wildlife protection. Testimonies from activists, scientists, lenders, advocacy groups, and government departments were gathered. These sources revealed that the attacks left conservation projects in disarray, with environmentalists withdrawing from their work due to fear of further violence. Security concerns also caused delays in fund disbursements.
Municipal data from local environmental authorities and the Colombian Institute of Meteorology (IDEAM) indicated that deforestation at a local level worsened in the year following each killing, surpassing national trends. Any interruption in conservation projects tilted the balance in favor of deforestation and destruction, according to environmentalists. Armando Aroca, who now leads the network of tree nurseries previously headed by Santofimio, stated that logging and mining activities continued without pause.
The impact of violence against environmentalists is evident in Colombia, where their work is crucial for protecting the environment. The government’s efforts to safeguard environmentalists and their projects are essential to ensure the preservation of Colombia’s natural resources.Santofimio’s assassination had severe consequences for his conservation project. It resulted in a delay in funding, the closure of a tree nursery, and the abandonment of crucial tasks such as seed collection and sapling planting in the jungle.
Santofimio, like his wife, was a former FARC rebel. After the peace deal in 2016, he dedicated himself to protecting the Amazon by leading a network of tree nurseries across Colombia, including one in his settlement called Comuccom.
In August 2021, Santofimio revealed that he had received multiple threats, but he did not disclose the source of these threats.
Six months before his death, Santofimio expressed his belief that he wouldn’t be killed for being a signatory of peace, but rather for his efforts to build peace.
According to Duberney Lopez, the president of the Comuccom cooperative, Santofimio’s assassination was intended to instill fear in the community. Lopez stated that the attackers had numerous opportunities to discreetly kill Santofimio during his motorcycle rides in the region.
Lopez declined to identify the perpetrators of the attack due to security concerns but emphasized that there are interests that want to force them out of the area.
Colombia has struggled for decades to end the conflict between the state, leftist guerrillas, and criminal groups linked to right-wing paramilitaries. This conflict has resulted in the deaths of at least 450,000 people.
The 2016 peace deal with the FARC had environmental consequences as territories previously controlled by the group became targets for activities such as cattle ranching, illegal gold mining, and coca cultivation, leading to a significant increase in deforestation.
Kevin Murakami, the Director of the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the U.S embassy in Bogota, stated that attacks on environmentalists often occur in areas where coca is present.
Colombia’s armed groups, including the ELN guerrillas and the Clan del Golfo crime gang, have been blamed by successive governments for the killings of environmentalists. However, RushHourDaily was unable to reach these groups for comment.
Santofimio had been collaborating with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to establish a network of tree nurseries in several provinces. Under his leadership, the network expanded to over a dozen nurseries with the goal of raising one million trees in two years.
Following his assassination, the disbursement of $149,000 in funding from the UNDP was delayed for six months due to administrative issues related to Santofimio’s death, according to members of Comuccom.
In Putumayo, a tree nursery capable of producing 150,000 trees per year was forced to close due to worker fear and the absence of Santofimio’s guidance, as reported by an anonymous project leader.
Progress in other regions also came to a halt, according to Aroca.
A total of 250,000 trees were produced across the network over two years, which is only a quarter of the original target, according to Aroca.Santofimio’s goal was the focal point of the article, which discussed the challenges faced by environmentalists and conservationists in Colombia. The paragraphs have been reconstructed below without changing the meaning or the focal point of the article:
Paragraph 1: Forest ranger Javier Francisco Parra was shot and killed in La Macarena in December 2020. He was targeted by a faction of former FARC rebels who rejected the peace deal. The group tried to extort money from Parra and his organization, Cormacarena, for access to protected reserves. When the money was not paid, they ordered his murder. Two people have been charged in connection with the case.
Paragraph 2: The suspects, their lawyers, and the FARC dissident faction could not be reached for comment, according to RushHourDaily.
Paragraph 3: As a result of Parra’s killing, both local and national forest services withdrew their staff from the area. This has significantly impacted conservation efforts in the region.
Paragraph 4: Seventeen rangers from the national parks agency have been murdered since 1991, according to PNN director Luisz Martinez. Some rangers have been provided with protection measures such as bodyguards and bullet-proof vests, while others have had to be relocated.
Paragraph 5: The restoration of two national parks in Meta, including La Macarena, is running three years behind schedule. The project is funded by a €35 million package from German state bank KfW. Delays have been caused by security issues, the coronavirus pandemic, and changes to staffing.
Paragraph 6: The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has also faced challenges with a project in La Macarena municipality. The proposed $1 million, five-year project has been affected by security issues.
Paragraph 7: Security concerns have disrupted environmental projects across Colombia. Amazonia Mia, an environmental project from USAID, has had to change locations for some projects due to security concerns raised by local communities.
Paragraph 8: Municipalities affected by the murders of environmentalists have seen increased deforestation compared to the national average, according to government data.
Paragraph 9: Following Parra’s murder, deforestation in La Macarena municipality increased by 14% in 2020. Most of the destruction occurred in the weeks after the shooting.
Paragraph 10: In Putumayo, deforestation in Puerto Guzman, where Santofimio’s project is based, increased by 0.6% in 2022, despite a 29% decline in deforestation across Colombia. This was the highest level of deforestation among the 13 municipalities in Putumayo province.
Paragraph 11: The article also examined the case of conservationist Gonzalo Cardona, who worked with ProAves to protect birds. However, the details of his case were not provided in the reconstructed paragraphs.The killing of the endangered Yellow-eared Parrot in 2021 remains unsolved, with no charges filed in the case. Sara Ines Lara, executive director of ProAves, expressed her disappointment, stating that it was a significant setback. As a result, four park wardens resigned due to safety concerns, and the organization had to allocate more resources to enhance security measures.
Despite the tragic incident, Santofimio’s colleagues have gradually recovered from the loss. The tree nursery, which had ceased operations after Santofimio’s death, is now thriving under protective nets, allowing saplings to flourish in the dappled sunlight. Before the incident, the nursery had the capacity to rear 30,000 trees annually, but it has now expanded to accommodate 100,000 trees per year, according to Lopez.
While walking through the rows of young plants, Lopez reflected on Santofimio’s lasting impact. He described it as Jorgillo’s triumph over death, emphasizing the legacy he left behind.
Oliver Griffin reported on this story, with editing by Julia Symmes Cobb, Katy Daigle, and Claudia Parsons.
For more information on our reporting standards, please refer to The Thomson RushHourDaily Trust Principles.
Oliver Griffin is a journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia, covering energy, the environment, and general news. He has a particular interest in reporting on Colombia’s pervasive oil crime, which involves widespread pollution due to hydrocarbon theft driven by the drug trade. Previously, he worked at Dow Jones Newswires in Barcelona, focusing on oil and mining. You can contact Oliver at +573045838931.
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