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COLOMBIA: Disappearance of an environmentalist

July 2011

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Never elucidated, never punished, enforced disappearances are one of the human rights scandals in Colombia. Official figures amount to more than 32 000 cases, around 1 130 of them in the last three years. Much more than under Pinochet’s dictatorship, in Chile, or Videla’s, in Argentina.

Among the recent cases, that of SANDRA VIVIANA CUELLAR GALLEGO, a young environmentalist who used to work for the NGO CENSAT Agua Viva/Friends of the Earth Colombia. Currently she is the director of the NGO Surviviendo, working on issues related to water, river basin and wetlands area protection in Valle del Cauca department, south-west of the country. In the 15 days before she went missing, on 17 February, Sandra Viviana Cuellar Gallego was developing with the local community an environmental management plan for the municipality of Yumbó, Valle del Cauca Department. She had also been working with the Yanacona Indigenous People, helping to promote the activities of this population for the protection of the Cauca River. On 18 February, one day after she was last seen, Sandra was due to participate in a forum on water issues in Cali.

On 19 February, her family was informed that her identity card had been found close to where she was going to take a bus to the university; later her mobile phone was found at another location nearby.

Human rights defenders working on environmental protection in Colombia have often been threatened, forcibly disappeared or killed for their work. Organizations and activists have received threats following their participation in events related to defense of their territory, their natural resources, the environment and the right to lead a life with dignity, which often include work with Afro-descendant and Indigenous People.

HILDEBRANDO VÉLEZ, another environmentalist who has played a leading role in campaigning to establish the whereabouts of Sandra Viviana Cuellar Gallego, has received death threats. On 9 April, his computer’s hard drive, his mobile phone and a USB Memory Stick that contained information about Sandra’s enforced disappearance were stolen from his house, which is also the headquarters of the NGO Surviviendo. Relatives and friends of the young woman have organized gatherings in front of Colombian embassies around the world to call for her return with life.

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