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A canoe slides slowly through the waters of the Ciénaga de San Silvestre, on the outskirts of Barrancabermeja, in northern Colombia. On board are five fisherwomen who defy the dangers of a hot zone in every way: in addition to the usual temperature of more than 30 degrees, there are the challenges of an area with the presence of paramilitaries, the Clan del Golfo and the ELN guerrilla group. But these women, brought together in the Federation of Artisanal Fishermen of Santander (Fedepesan), have organized to defend the water from contamination in an area affected by two landfills and several industries, including a refinery of the oil company Ecopetrol, the largest company Colombian big.
“There are many threats, especially against fishing leaders. Because they defend the rights of fishermen and [luchan contra] the contamination of the swamp water. So there are often serious threats against our leaders,” says Liudmila Alemus, a 51-year-old fisherwoman who lives on the road to the Ciénaga de San Silvestre, a swamp that belongs to the middle basin of the Magdalena River. According to her account, she herself was the victim of an assault on July 25. That day, three armed men came to her house to threaten her in front of her 8-year-old son and searched the house for an hour. Before leaving, she warned him that they would cut off her hands if she didn’t tell them where she had her money. They took a cell phone, a tablet and a motorcycle.
Liudmila did not know the men or what group they belonged to, but she believes that this episode is related to her public role as a defender of water. This is also believed by several organizations that defend the rights of fishermen in the area who, in a public complaint issued a week after the attack, attribute it to “retaliation for the work in defense of the swampy complexes and their tributaries, the protection of artisanal fishing and the complaints made by artisanal fishermen”. As can be read in the letter, the assault occurred after an inspection led by a group from the fishermen’s federation, including Liudmila’s husband, to explain to public officials the environmental effects on various water sources, including the San Silvestre swamp.
Video: EDU LEON
For Liudmila —several times displaced by the armed conflict and whose family suffered the violence with the murder of one of her sisters— and for her companions, the threats are not new. But they do not doubt that they have to continue defending the water. They live from it and because of it they feel protected from it. “Wherever I have lived, I have lived by a river, a swamp or a swamp. Water is life for us humans, for fish, for everything,” says the fisherwoman. “There has been contamination and I have seen that now the fish are not as big as before,” she confesses. According to her, there is less and less bocachico, the species that is consumed the most in the area, and there are hardly any tarpon. As she talks about her, her son Stiven, playing in the water, yells at her, “I’m a manatee, look at me.”
For decades, in addition to being a source of biodiversity, this area has been an oil extraction area. Among other industries, an Ecopetrol refinery, the largest state-owned company in Colombia, has been operating there since 1922. But for the population, the oil activity has not meant development, but they continue to have bad roads, bad schools and bad hospitals. And they see more and more pollution, so much so that, they denounce, there are already areas where they can no longer fish and some of the swamps have even dried up.
The San Silvestre swamp is the pantry of Liudmila and her companions. But a trip through its waters is enough to see the effects of the industry. When passing by the side of the pipes where Ecopetrol’s discharges come out, the leaves of the guamo macho, almond tree and bramble are stained jet black by the oil, which is also deposited in the depths of the swamp.
In 2020, a Comptroller’s report on contingency plans and emergency care for hydrocarbon spills in bodies of water affected by the Barrancabermeja refinery noted “repetitive contingencies,” which indicates “a lack of effective preventive measures.” According to the audit carried out between 2012 and 2019, “the alteration of water quality [relacionada con la actividad de la refinería] it affects the availability and quantity of fish that the community in the area of influence of the most affected bodies of water can access,” including the San Silvestre swamp.
The company, however, rejected in an email to EL PAÍS that the report concludes that the operations of the Barrancabermeja refinery have affected the fauna or the waters. In addition, they claimed to have an updated risk and emergency management plan, as well as to be making “millionaire” investments to guarantee clean operations and protect water. “The events that have been presented have been attended immediately and effectively with our own personnel and equipment; They have been classified as minor because they have not generated damage that requires processes to recover areas,” they add.
Fishermen collect garbage in the great swamp of Barrancabermeja (Colombia).Edu Leon
But Liudmila and her companions do not agree with this version. That is why, in 2019, they decided to join together to protect the waters. One of the activities they carry out is the surveillance of the Antillean manatee, a species in danger of extinction, according to the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. Wild (CITES). In addition, the fisherwomen carry out controls of the swamp to record and document contaminating materials and oily masses, participate in institutional spaces such as fishing councils and make public complaints, which has earned them threats and even banishment, as happened with Yuly Velázquez, the president of Fedepesan in the department of Santander.
This 37-year-old woman has had to move away from the swamp where she used to fish and now lives in a neighborhood in the city of Barrancabermeja, where she receives daily visits from the police protection unit after having suffered three assassination attempts since January. 2021. Before fleeing, Yuly had taught the other fishermen to use mobile phones and record their situation with photos, videos and direct messages on social networks, which mobilized environmentalists from other places. “The fishermen, those of us who are closest to the water, began to identify and document the contamination. We witnessed the death of fish, flora and fauna such as turtles and other species. At that time, we started doing the baseline, noting down the most contaminated places,” she recalls.
Yuly has publicly denounced on several occasions the contamination of the swamp, as well as irregularities in the award of a contract for its cleaning and has paid dearly for her activism: in 2021, she suffered the first armed attack on her home. In May of this year, it happened again when she was with other fishermen: “They shot us from the shore towards the boat. Every time we report a new contamination problem, it happens”, she assures. Last month, she was the victim of a new attack in which his bodyguard was hit by a bullet in the face.
Video: EDU LEON
The fisher leader admits that she is afraid and that her struggle has made her family unable to live in peace. “Any noise, any suspicious car, anyone looking at you, I already think it starts again,” she says. But her commitment to defend the swamp and fishing communities remains firm: “If I don’t fight for water, and if others are afraid of it, who will?” she asks herself. ”We have endangered species, so we fight for water. If we don’t have water, we can’t fish (…) Pollution is a way of threatening us so that we finally have to leave”.
However, he knows that for now he must live far from the swamp for safety. The same has happened to other activists, such as Carolina Agon, a 35-year-old fisherwoman who is vice president of the Magdalena Medio fishermen’s association. After receiving attacks and threats that she attributes to the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) —a paramilitary group that has charged other environmentalists—, in February she had to leave her house to find a safe place in another part of the country. .
Edin Salazar, 63, and fellow member of Yuly and Liudmila’s association, remains firm in the fight despite having witnessed one of the attacks on the president of Fedepesan. Despite her fear, she says she feels proud to think that she is fulfilling her duty to defend the environment for her grandchildren.
The swamps and waters of the Magdalena River in Barrancabermeja are already suffering deterioration as it is one of the most important oil areas in Colombia. Edu Leon
Meanwhile, Yuly dreams of being able to return to the swamp, to enjoy it again. “We have not lost our essence of being connected to the water. My son loves to go fishing. The water is in my blood. They are my veins, right? I love the river and my dream is to have a house by the water in the swamp because it connects me with my grandparents who have died, it connects me with the world and reality and with all the beautiful things that we can enjoy.”