On Colombia: a dangerous place for activists

I mentioned in my introductory post that I’m currently engaged in research in Colombia, and that I’ll be posting about that research on a fairly regular basis. A pretty strong case can be made that the experience of “development” in Colombia is one of the most interesting possible subjects for a student of development. The Colombian situation is immensely complex thanks to the country’s ongoing armed conflict, its remarkably progressive legal tradition, its atrocious recent record on human rights, its relatively close relationship with the United States on the geopolitical stage, its geographic location, its abundance of natural resources, and on and on and on.

About a month and a half ago, I wrote a guest blog post at Find What Works (an excellent development blog written by a friend and former coworker of mine, Dave Algoso) outlining the basic contours of the issues I’m researching. I highly encourage readers to click through and read that post, as it serves as a concise introduction to many of the topics I’ll cover in my writings here.

One extremely important thing to know is that virtually all Colombian human rights advocates, labor activists, community leaders, and so on live very dangerous lives. These activists, who are attempting to force Colombian national economic policy to respect the livelihoods and territories of disempowered peoples, face regular death threats – threats that are actually carried out at a depressing rate. In the first six months of 2011, 29 human rights defenders were murdered, and the International Trade Union Confederation claims that in 2011 to date, 19 union leaders have been murdered. As part of my research I conducted numerous interviews this summer in Bogotá, and perhaps 25% of my interviewees or their organizations were facing a recent death threat from the Black Eagles, one of the major right-wing paramilitary groups active in the country.

There is a systemic reason for these threats and violence. Colombia’s former President, Álvaro Uribe, referred to human rights defenders as “the intellectual wing of the FARC” on numerous occasions (for example, or see the Center for International Policy for a long list) – essentially calling them terrorists. Uribe’s entire presidency was dominated by a crackdown on guerrillas, which he called “terrorists” for some very important and problematic reasons that I’ll go into later. By lumping human rights defenders in with terrorists, he immediately created an environment in which those defenders had to fear for their lives.

Doing “development” in a country with mass human rights abuses, where human rights defenders are specifically targeted for persecution, raises a lot of tough questions. In Colombia, it’s even trickier, because the human rights violations are often directly tied to “development” initiatives. People are regularly forced off their land to make way for commercial ventures, infrastructural megaprojects, and so on. If they try to resist, their leaders are threatened and killed. In some cases, massacres are carried out that go far beyond just leaders.

In this context, it becomes crystal clear that international actors need to be extremely careful about the kind of “development” interventions they promulgate in Colombia. There’s a lot about the Colombian situation that isn’t generalizable because of the country’s unique history. That said, there’s also a lot to be learned from an extreme situation.

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  • By Did he really say that? « Power and Participation on September 13, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    […] the guerrillas – dangerously undermining key actors in the democratic process. I’ve mentioned this previously on the blog – on multiple occasions Uribe referred to human rights defenders as the […]

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