Indigenous and Black communities in Colombia's Chocó department filed a lawsuit this week, claiming 37 of their children died after drinking water contaminated with mercury by nearby mining operations over the past three years. The suit was brought before Colombia's Constitutional Court, which has ordered a thorough test of the water quality in the Riosucio and Andagueda rivers, which merge to form the Río Atrato. The affected Embera Katío and Afro-Colombian communities depend on these rivers for fishing and agriculture as well as direct consumption of water. The plaintiffs, represented by the Greater Community Council of the Popular Campesino Organization of the Upper Atrato (COCOMOPOCA), charge that unchecked gold mining in the zone has caused an "environmental crisis, which has had a devastating effect and cost the lives of the indigenous and Afro-descendant children." The Constitutional Court, in addition to asking the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for assistance in the water quality tests, also called on the University of Cartagena to prepare a report on the health impacts of mercury and cyanide contamination. (Colombia Reports, Feb. 4; El Tiempo, El Espectador, El Colombiano, Feb. 3)
Since Colombia's FARC guerillas called off their unilateral ceasefire following a military air-strike last month, peace talks with the government have resumed in Havana. As the new phase of talks opened May 25, FARC leaders appealed to the government to instate a bilateral ceasefire. (EFE, May 25) But the very next day, government forces carried out a mixed land and air assault on a camp of the FARC's 18th Front along the Río Chimirindó, in Riosucio municipality, in the Pacific coastal region of Chocó—leaving 41 guerillas dead. Among the dead was the 18th Front's commander, Román Ruiz, authorities said. (El Teimpo, May 26) The next day, Colombia's air force carried out new strikes, targeting the 4th Front of the FARC's Magdalena Medio Bloc at Alto la Cruz hamlet, Segovia municipality, Antioquia. Ten guerillas were killed in the strikes—which came as the climax of a three-day operation in the area that authorities said left 36 guerillas dead. (El Tiempo, May 27)
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos on May 9 called upon his National Drug Council to halt the spraying of glyphosate on suspected coca fields following its recent reclassification as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. The decision to put an end to 20 years of the US-backed aerial spraying was applauded by leaders of the FARC guerillas. The spraying has long been opposed by the FARC as well as by Colombia's peasant communities. Santos' announcement came one week after government representatives and FARC leaders met in Havana for the 35th round of ongoing peace talks—this time to focus on justice and restitution for victims of Colombia's long civil war. (Colombia Reports, May 10; Prensa Latina, May 3)
In another case of Colombian villagers staging a local uprising in response to militarization of their communities, on March 24 a detachment of some 20 special anti-narcotics agents of the National Police were detained by indigenous peasants at the hamlet of Alto Naya, in the southern region of Cauca. Villagers apparently accused the troops, who were on a coca eradication mission, of entering indigenous lands without community consent. But the local National Police commander said consent had been secured at a meeting with village leaders held in the nearby town of Santander de Quilichao. In any event, police seemingly agreed to call off the eradication mission in order to win the release of the detained troops.
Victim representatives at peace talks with the FARC rebels held a press conference in Bogotá Feb. 20 to demand action from the Colombian government over mounting death threats against them. At least 14 of the 60 representatives have received death threats because of their participation—and the son of one representative was killed. Nilson Liz, a regional leader of the National Association of Campesino Land Users (ANUC) from Cauca department, said that following his trip to Cuba for the talks, unknown assailants murdered his son Dayan on Jan. 1. ANUC, which is seeking return of lands stolen by armed groups, has had 90 leaders assassinated since its founding in 1970. (Colombia Reports, Feb. 21; Semana, Feb. 20)
Colombia's humanitarian situation remains severe in spite of ongoing peace talks with the FARC, the United Nations said in a report released Feb. 12. Raising concern over illegal armed groups not incuded in the dialogue, it found that the grim situation is likely to persist even if a peace deal is struck in the talks. The report, entitled "The Humanitarian Dimension in the Aftermath of a Peace Agreement: proposals for the international community in Colombia," was commissioned by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and supported by the Norwegian Centre for Peace-building (NOREF). At least 347,286 people were displaced in Colombia between November 2012, when the talks began, and September 2014, the report found. Nearly half of these displacements (48%) resulted from FARC or ELN actions, with 19% blamed on neo-paramilitary groups. The report also found that 62 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed in Colombia in 2014.
Hundreds of indigenous and Afro-Colombian protesters from La Toma, Suárez municipality, in Colombia's southwest Cauca region, marched over the weekend against illegal gold mining taking place in their territories. The communities, angry about environmental damage caused by the activity, said they had received threats from the Rastrojos paramilitary group for their opposition to the mining. The three-day cross-country march along the Pan-American Highway culminated Feb. 16 at Buenos Aires, in northern Cauca.
In another case of Colombian villagers staging a local uprising in response to militarization of their communities, on the night of Jan. 18 residents of La Emboscada hamlet at Argelia municipality, Cauca, detained 36 army troops for several hours. The rebellion was sparked by the death of a local resident who was shot when he tried to run an army checkpoint on his motorbike. Troops of the 56th Infantry Battalion were immediately surrounded by angry villagers, disarmed, and marched off to the Argelia cabacera (municipal building). Village authorities finally released the soliders after the government agreed to send a team to mediate. Colombia's official human rights ombudman, the Defensoría del Pueblo, is backing up villagers' demands that civilian rather than military authorities conduct the investigation into the killing. The army claims the slain man was carrying 25 pounds of coca paste. (ColPrensa, ColPrensa, Semana, Bogotá, El Heraldo, Barranquilla, Jan. 19)