Julia Figueroa never leaves her house without security. She travels with two bodyguards and an armoured vehicle. Her home and office are watched around the clock. She carefully monitors any devices that might contain compromising information about her clients.

As the director of the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers Collective Corporation (CCALCP), threats to her life are a daily occurrence. The all-female group of lawyers provides legal representation to small-scale farmers and indigenous communities affected by the armed conflict in Colombia. Their work includes defending displaced peoples and victims of state crime, but also defending environmental rights, including fighting mining companies that seek to extract resources, often at the expense of the local water supply and the surrounding environment.

In a country named the deadliest in the world for human rights defenders, the team faces enormous risks, including threats, false accusations of criminal activity and links to illicit armed groups.

The CCALCP has its roots in Bucaramanga’s only public university, the Industrial University of Santander, where a group of law students graduating in 2001 bonded over a desire to address the conflict and displacement facing their province, says Figueroa. Santander, in the north-east of Colombia, has a rich indigenous cultural heritage as well as untapped reserves of coal and oil.

The collective of women lawyers at a video conference in Bucaramanga
The collective of women lawyers at a video conference in Bucaramanga, with Julia Figueroa on screen. Photograph: Nadege Mazars/The Guardian

A collective of human rights lawyers was a novelty in the region at the time, and the group struggled to access funding and attention. The Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) was at the height of its power and paramilitary forces were rampant. The group initially comprised men and women but, as time went by, the male members gradually fell away.

“The world outside began to notice something that we did not have the time or the means to see,” says Figueroa. “When you have your life at risk and your family, you don’t start doing these differentiated analyses – you just prioritise your life.”

More women joined, including Marisol Figueroa, Julia’s sister, who left her corporate job in 2011 to join the collective. Since the government pulled her state-sponsored security for unknown reasons, she says she takes care to spend as much time as she can with her family, since “you don’t know when you might leave this world”.

Marisol Figueroa in her office
Marisol Figueroa in her office. Her computer shows an image of the Santurbán páramo, a frosty, high-altitude wetland ecosystem threatened by mining. Photograph: Nadege Mazars/The Guardian

Although she left a relatively tranquil life, Marisol says the all-female environment in the office was a welcome change from her previous workplaces, where machismo and sexual harassment were commonplace. “I think that each one of us comes to this world to contribute a grain of sand,” she says. “And I think you can do it in many ways. One of those ways for me was to get to know the world of human rights.”

As the team expanded to the surrounding Magdalena Medio region, they successfully defended displaced families from landowners, protected indigenous groups from oil companies and precious ecosystems from mining.

A notable case on the group’s files is that of the Santurbán páramo. The páramo – a frosty, high-altitude wetland ecosystem – is hugely biodiverse and provides water to nearly 2 million people but is threatened by mining multinationals eyeing its mineral resources.

For decades mining companies have sought to exploit the area’s gold and silver resources. But in 2017, the CCALCP obtained a ruling in the country’s constitutional court annulling the delimitation process for violating the right to environmental participation of the community.

Protest in front of the Canadian embassy in Bogotá after a lawsuit was filed against activists by the multinational Eco Oro
A protest outside Canada’s embassy in Bogotá calling for Colombia’s páramos to be protected from mining. Photograph: EFE News Agency/Alamy

While Colombia’s páramos, important carbon sinks, have been given special constitutional protection they remain vulnerable. The Canadian company Eco Oro Minerals sued Colombia after losing its mining title in Santurbán in a dispute that is still ongoing.

Another high-profile case involved fracking in the municipality of San Martín in the Magdalena Medio region. When Colombia announced its first fracking project in the area in 2015 there was a considerable backlash. The CCALCP helped to file the first “popular action” – a legal mechanism to protect collective interests – in a fracking case, and the fracking was suspended in 2018.

As its work has grown in importance, the collective has earned recognition at home and internationally, winning awards and funding. But maintaining a local connection remains crucial.

“We didn’t want to lose that regional identity, we didn’t want to leave the area when we wanted to expand,” says Julia. “Because really, one of the strengths that an organisation like ours has is knowing how it is here – not having to be monitored from Bogotá.”

Currently, the team is made up of 11 women, including four lawyers. “They are a group that is highly respected here in our province,” says Hernán Morantes, a lawyer with the Committee for the Defense of Water and the Santurbán Páramo, who worked with the collective during the 2017 legal dispute. “And they also have an international vision, they’ve achieved national recognition.”

The team’s work submitting reports to the Special Jurisdiction of Peace (JEP), a transitional justice system investigating war crimes in Colombia’s armed conflict, has earned them threats and accusations of being allied with terrorists or inventing victims. Julia says the fact that the current administration has been a critic of the peace accords has made matters worse. Often, she says, people will report the collective to the police to trigger an investigation and further intimidate them – particularly in environmental cases.

“With the environmental issue, to defend water is to go against million-dollar contracts that have been signed between the state and companies,” says Julia. The government often paints environmental defenders as barriers to economic progress, she adds.

Protesters call on the government not to grant the Canadian mining company Greystar Resources a licence for a gold project in the Santurbán páramo
Protesters call on the government not to grant a licence for a gold project in the Santurbán páramo. Photograph: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images

The job, she says, comes at the cost of privacy, freedom and personal relationships. She says many women take extended time off to recover and then come back. The group provides psychological support, and time and space for members to deal with the stress.

“They have not been able to silence us. They have tried to prosecute us, they have attacked us, they have scared us,” she says. “We are all scared when they threaten us. We are scared of many things, but I think the collective is so hopeful that if Julia can pull through, if the ones before me pulled through, then we will keep going.”

Names and faces of members of the collective are not publicised except for the senior leaders. Their office in downtown Bucaramanga is nondescript. There is no signage announcing their presence in the building, only security cameras outside, with many more inside. Everyone who enters must turn their phone off for security reasons.

Phones left on a table outside the office.
For security reasons, mobile phones are not used inside the collective’s offices. Photograph: Nadege Mazars/The Guardian

The group has seen enormous political changes in the country since it started. At the beginning, its lawyers travelled to “the most distant, most impenetrable territories” to document human rights abuses that otherwise would never have come to light. Now, Julia says, many communities are better equipped to defend themselves.

But there are different challenges – the 2016 peace deal created a power vacuum for paramilitaries, drug traffickers and other armed groups to fill, as the current conservative government drags its feet on implementing the agreement. Competition for land has increased deforestation and the pandemic has brought increased poverty.

But the team says it draws hope from the fact that a group of women from a small city can reach the high courts and change policy, and also from the capacity for joy, forgiveness and persistence in the communities they work with.

“We always have to hope. We are always fortunate to be positive and purposeful and say ‘Hey, things are going to change’,” says Marisol. “And we have to fight to be part of that change. To contribute our grain of sand.”

This article was amended on 1 and 2 December 2021. Julia Figueroa was not a CCALCP founder, as an earlier version said. The article also said that the CCALCP had obtained a court ruling declaring a licence granted to Eco Oro Minerals to be unconstitutional; that ruling was not against Eco Oro specifically, but was about the páramo delimitation process more broadly.

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