Alis Ramírez: A defender of the Colombian Amazon now living as a refugee in New Zealand

  • Because of her opposition to mining, indiscriminate logging in forests and the social and environmental consequences of oil exploration, María Alis Ramírez was forced to abandon her farm in Caquetá, in southern Colombia, and move across the world.
  • The various threats she received because of her work as an environmental defender forced her and her family to first move to New Zealand, where she arrived as a refugee in 2019.
  • According to reports by human rights organization Global Witness, Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental and land defenders.
  • In New Zealand, she says she can live with a sense of tranquility that would be impossible in Colombia. Although Alis Ramírez is now safe, she has not stopped thinking about her country, the jungle and the river that was alongside her throughout her childhood.

“Don’t go to Zabaleta because they’re going to kill you.”

“Why are they going to kill me if I haven’t done anything?”

“They’re going to kill you, please don’t go to your house.”

“How do you know that?”

“Someone told me: ‘Tell your sister, for the love of God, to not to get involved because they’ve already planned that they’ll kill her when she enters the town.’”

This unexpected, hurried, and difficult conversation occurred on August 7, 2018, between María Alis Ramírez, an environmental defender from the southern Colombian department of Caquetá, and one of her nine siblings.

Alis Ramírez, 55, lived in a very small jungle town called Zabaleta, which has no more than 300 homes and belongs to the municipality of San José del Fragua.

“I was alone; I was working at the edge of Belén de los Andaquíes [another municipality in Caquetá], and when I received that call from my brother, some people helped me run down some slopes and catch a bus that would take me away from there as quickly as possible,” said Alis Ramírez. She now lives in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, which is 12,700 kilometers (over 7,800 miles) from the home she has not been able to return to since that day.

As an environmental defender in one of the most dangerous countries to be one, Alis Ramírez said she had to abandon her land to defend it. In its most recent report, the non-governmental organization Global Witness reported that 60 environmental and land defenders in Colombia were murdered in 2022. In 2021, Colombia was the second-most dangerous country in the world in terms of this issue (after Mexico), with 33 murders. Authorities say these figures are of concern as the number of murders has practically doubled, despite explicit promises made by President Gustavo Petro’s administration to protect environmental leaders.

In the past decade, according to Global Witness, 322 of these leaders were murdered in Colombia. The country with the highest number of these crimes between 2012 and 2021 was Brazil, with a total of 342 murders.

Alis Ramírez’s story is almost identical to that of millions of Colombians. People living in the country’s most remote and forgotten areas, which are often most affected by armed conflict, grow up surrounded by rivers, waterfalls, animals, and millions of trees. Landscapes are so beautiful that they take one’s breath away. However, residents often live in precarious conditions, almost always lacking electricity and potable water. They do not have access to adequate healthcare and education, among other services. According to the most recent census, conducted in 2018, 39% of the population in the rural areas of the department of Caquetá live with their basic needs unmet.

A river from childhood

Born on April 14, 1968, Alis Ramírez could only attend school until fifth grade. She did so with enormous effort, walking for up to three hours through the jungle to get to school. Meanwhile, her father, a farmer who had barely received an education either, went out to earn a daily wage to be able to buy raw cane sugar, soap, salt, and whatever else he could afford with the little money he earned. He had to feed many mouths — there were a total of 10 children — and meat was a very scarce miracle at the time.

“My childhood — thank God — took place overlooking a majestic, beautiful river: the Zabaleta. It was a very deep river so that we couldn’t put our feet [on the bottom]; we could only swim or cross it in a small canoe that my father made with sticks. Since we were children, he taught us how to row and to defend ourselves alone because it was necessary to cross to the other side of the river to get anything,” said Alis Ramírez through a video call.

As she speaks, Alis Ramírez is wrapped up in a fleece jacket because it is winter back in New Zealand. She said that despite the four years she has spent there, she still feels that freezing temperatures enter her bones and paralyze her.

Alis Ramírez attributes her passion for defending environmental and social causes to her childhood when she was surrounded by nature. Her eyes shine when she recalls the La Balata stream, where her mother bathed her when she was a child. Today, the stream is practically dry due to mining. Her mouth still waters when she thinks about the fish that came from the Zabaleta: catfish, streaked prochilods, gilt-head breams, bocachicos and tambaqui. These fish are a fundamental basis of most residents’ diets in this part of the Amazon and come from the rivers.

“I remember that when I was seven or eight years old, there were some enormous, beautiful trees around the river. They were all timber-bearing; there were achapo [trees, Cedrelinga cateniformis], the árbol de mochilero [backpacker’s tree]—which is a very thin stick—, the carbonero [Calliandra carbonaria] and the ceiba, which there are very few of today. The animals at the mountain were also very diverse; we saw armadillos, lowland pacas, tapirs, and deer,” she said.

But mercury and cyanide pollution in the rivers has destroyed the fish little by little, and due to oil exploration, those small animals are almost no longer seen,” said Alis Ramírez, as her eyes began to fill with tears.

The other disasters of the Amazon

When discussing Caquetá — and the Colombian Amazon in general — many people automatically think of deforestation and how it has served as fuel to fan the flames of war. Deforestation is often linked to the expansion of illegal armed groups whose income is generated by drug trafficking.

The highest rates of forest loss in Colombia take place in that region. Of the five departments that experience 68% of the country’s deforestation, four are in the Amazon: Meta, Caquetá, Guaviare, and Putumayo. This remains the largest environmental problem in Colombia, even though the national government recently declared that in 2022, there was a 29.1% decrease in the number of hectares of forest loss compared to 2021. This number dropped from 174,103 hectares (about 430,000 acres) in 2021 to 123,517 hectares (about 305,000 acres) in 2022, which is the lowest figure in the last nine years. According to official data, Caquetá was the department with the largest decrease in the country, dropping from 38,390 hectares (about 94,000 acres) deforested to 19,200 (about 47,000 acres). This represents a decrease of 50%, although some experts who have analyzed the data insist that the reduction is not as significant as the government indicates.

Deforestation has somehow decreased the visibility of other environmental and social conflicts that are increasingly noticeable in the Amazon. These other conflicts are the exact issues that Alis Ramírez had set her sights on before death threats forced her to flee her home.

In 2010, for example, Alis Ramírez began to research how aquifers fragment and deteriorate due to “earthquakes from oil exploration,” which is what she calls the work done in preparation to extract hydrocarbons.

According to the official records of the National Hydrocarbons Agency of Colombia, in Caquetá alone, 33 licenses for oil exploration and drilling have been issued. Almost 40% of these licenses are in the hands of the Chinese multinational Emerald Energy PLC, which is present in several countries in South America and the Middle East, such as Syria.

Alis Ramírez’s voice didn’t shake when she said that the company did not comply with the commitments it needed to respect in exchange for these licenses. These commitments included guaranteeing the restoration and recuperation of the natural environments affected by its oil exploration and drilling activities and working closely with local authorities to construct main access roads and alternate roads. Her voice did not shake years earlier when she gathered her neighbors and organized marches against the company in municipalities like Valparaíso.

The social pressure against oil-related activities caused the company to decide to suspend its operations in part of the department in March 2023. Alis Ramírez applauds this decision and considers it “very important” because “what is needed is social development that impacts communities and farmers in a positive way.” Alis Ramírez believes this does not include the development the Chinese multinational promised.

About 12 years ago, the environmental defender also began to see long stretches of beach forming on the banks of the Zabaleta. “Today, the river continues to be the community’s primary source of food, and there are some places where it is still pretty, but it is no longer what it was when I was a little girl. It is very, very different,” said Alis Ramírez.

Oil extraction is not the only activity that has transformed the river.

Researcher Mercedes Mejía Leudo is a professor in the Agroecological Engineering program at the University of the Amazon (which is based in Florence) and is the coordinator of the departmental board for the defense of water and territory in Caquetá. According to Mejía, tributaries like the Zabaleta feed the Caquetá River — one of Colombia’s largest and strongest rivers, which ends in the Brazilian Amazon — are highly polluted with mercury. This pollution comes from small-scale alluvial gold mines, which have been replacing the traditional coca economy in the area.

“We in Caquetá should be in S.O.S. [mode] because of mercury pollution, and that is already having enormous effects on Indigenous communities like the Uitoto. The issue is so serious that even an official document from [Colombia’s system of] National Parks gave some recommendations to the Indigenous Ribereños to take certain measures, or otherwise, they will disappear,” explained Mejía.

Little by little, Alis Ramírez’s voice began to be heard beyond her own town. She became a spokesperson for her community, a mediator, and a role model for hundreds of farmers. First, Alis Ramírez became known for defending water: one of her first actions in defense of the environment and land was protecting the water sources surrounding her home. She did this with so much dedication that she became part of the Coalition for the Life of Water (Coalición por la Vida del Agua) in her municipality and later joined the Departmental Board for the Defense of Water and Territory. S

She went on to inform the community of the consequences of oil and mining companies’ activities on soil and aquifers and their impact on flora and fauna. After that, she became known for speaking on stages of all sizes, using solid arguments to oppose many of the megaprojects of multinationals like Emerald Energy and Pacific Rubiales.

According to Mercedes Mejía, Alis Ramírez’s commitment to the Colombian Amazon is enormous: “When she was here, she was a voice that was always ready to denounce the pollution from mining. She was also always present to disseminate everything related to hydrocarbon projects. She also raised awareness with the community on her farm. There, she worked with native seeds, taught people how to grow trees and care for water sources [and about] the importance of vegetable gardens. Because of that love for farm products, she didn’t mind waking up at 2:00 in the morning to do all her chores on the plot and then go to marches to protest something or to community resistance processes.”

The first thing that Mejía thought when she met Alis Ramírez and heard her speak at an event in 2014 is that she is a very brave woman.

“I was impressed by her ability to say everything she said with that strength. I even remember thinking she talked more than necessary,” recalled Mejía.

Alis Ramírez: The defender of the Colombian Amazon now living as a refugee in New Zealand

The day it rained glyphosate

Before she decided to publicly defend the land in the first few years of the new millennium, Alis Ramírez worked as a teacher at a small school nestled in the municipality of Piamonte in an area known as the Bota Caucana, which is also part of the Amazon.

It was there, in 1998 or maybe 1999 — she no longer remembers the timing very well — that glyphosate fell from the sky one day.

“Teacher, a plane! Teacher, a plane!” shouted her students around 10:00 in the morning, when the sun began to shine brightly.

“In the country, when a plane is heard, the children get excited and run out to see it. [At that time], I thought that it was one of the small planes that would pass by spraying the coca [leaf] crops that were on the side of the school, but I couldn’t stop [the students],” said Alis Ramírez. Her next memory is that not one, not two, but three small planes passed by, ready to release glyphosate.

“I was sprayed with my students. It was something terrible; I felt like I was going to die. Some inflamed spots started to appear on my face. I was swelling up, and I became like a monster. I couldn’t even drink water,” said Alis Ramírez through the video call, lowering her gaze to hide her eyes, which had again filled with tears.

For three months, Alis Ramírez suffered the consequences of having been exposed to the toxic herbicide.

“I already knew that when they sprayed that glyphosate, it entered through windows and doors. Every time the small planes passed by, everything became dark. It was like dense fog; it looked like when there was an oil spill in the water. I think that that is one of the harshest crimes that exist — not only against human beings but against biodiversity. With glyphosate, we are not the only ones who suffer. And I say ‘we’ because we are the ones who speak, but each spray of that poison kills everything, including fauna and flora,” said Alis Ramírez.

Although Alis Ramírez discusses the issue openly and very seriously, the paradox is that shortly after that, she and her husband got 12 hectares [29 acres] of coca leaf crops in San José del Fragua.

“When we returned to Caquetá and bought the small piece of land, I was left without work, and Belisario Ortega [her husband] came up with the solution of planting coca,” said Alis Ramírez.

That was in 2001. “I disliked that more and more when the harvest season came, my husband worked himself to death, but he didn’t even make enough money to buy some underwear. That work is very cruel; it only benefits a few [people], and the farmer, who is the weakest, is almost never one [of them],” said Alis Ramírez.

Convincing him to “decontaminate the land” took years, and the final decision was influenced by the fact that in 2008, the Southern Vicariate of the Archdiocese of Florence (Vicaría del Sur, de la Arquidiócesis de Florencia) named Alis Ramírez as a facilitator, and she began to travel to the communities in the area. Thanks to this work, she learned how to build organic vegetable gardens and became so interested in this topic that two years later, she created her own garden where they used to plant cocas.

Forced to leave La Ceiba

Alis Ramírez’s and Belisario Ortega’s plot had plentiful water; the Zabaleta River, the happy old stream from her childhood, surrounded it.

“That land is so noble, so fertile, that anything you sow, you harvest,” said Alis Ramírez with emotion. Before being forcibly displaced to Ecuador, they cultivated hearts of palm, spinach, lettuce, onions, and even a type of tuber that they called the “airy potato.” They also had Mandarin oranges and cacao and had even begun to process honey and raw cane sugar. Before they were tragically uprooted from their home, their farm was practically self-sustaining.

“Truthfully, we were empowering ourselves. My husband already knew by heart how many plant seeds we had: almost 300 varieties. That was something very good for us because it meant that we had what we needed on hand. I wanted to show the community that it was possible, that the land is sacred,” said Alis Ramírez. “And due to a lack of knowledge, we misuse it, but we have to learn to love it, and if we treat it well, it sustains us.”

The plot, which is located on a path called “La Primavera II” in San José del Fragua, became so well-known in the community that neighbors soon began to visit it, followed by those living outside the department’s borders. Among the visitors were high school students and University of the Amazon students.

Belisario Ortega nicknamed the farm “La Temblona,” which was the topic of several conversations since Alis Ramírez wanted it to be called “La Ceiba.” The good thing is that it remained in both of their names.

“That is another fight that, as a woman, I was able to win alongside my husband. He understands that we both have the same rights,” said Alis Ramírez.

Before the forced displacement, Alis Ramírez and her family were approved to receive a solar panel by the Government of Caquetá after a process that took almost five years. Their dream was to convert their farm into an “environmental and learning ecosystem, where trails could be created to teach [people] to grow different foods and to protect natural resources.”

But on August 7, 2018, the fantasy became a nightmare.

For Alis Ramírez, threats were nothing new. At one point, some miners — who illegally extracted gold from a river from which the animals at La Ceiba drank water — told her that if she continued to complain about the damage to that source of water, no one would hear from her again.

“I was filled with fear from head to toe, and that is how I worked. It was something that I was always feeling, but even so, I would walk through the towns. People would not leave me alone. They came with me. And I also tried to guard myself, always changing my routines,” said Alis Ramírez.

With sadness and helplessness, Alis Ramírez explained that it is very difficult to know exactly who has threatened her over the years.

“The threat in 2018, which is why I had to leave the country, is pretty confusing because I had already received several [threats] before. I cannot say for certain who is behind it because there are so many people who abuse the territory, and I have opposed all of them… from the companies that work in the development of legal mining to the illegal mines to the large multinationals in search of oil and even to armed groups, like FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] dissidents. The truth is that we make many enemies by protesting the damage to our environment. That is very sad, very hard,” said Alis Ramírez.

During the video call, when Alis Ramírez discussed what happened to her small piece of land, a wave of tears broke out on the other side of the screen. “I’m going to try… I will tell you that since I’ve been here, I’ve been ignoring my plot and thinking about it. That little piece of land was my harmony. Without it, I don’t feel complete,” said Alis Ramírez.

Alis Ramírez said all of her crops were lost, that the organic vegetable garden died a while ago, and that family members and acquaintances visit her plot every so often to tend to it, but she spends her days fearing that someone will take it from her. She then shifted the conversation to discuss her life in Ecuador, the first country she traveled to before settling in New Zealand.

The day that her brother told her not to return to her community because she would be killed, her husband — who was at La Ceiba — began to give away his belongings and burned the books that Alis Ramírez had accumulated in her years of work as a teacher. None of these things could be taken along on the forced journey they would need to make as soon as possible. They gathered their children while the Ombudsman’s Office and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) offered to take them to Ecuador by air, but Alis Ramírez preferred to make the trip by land so that they could bring “at least a mattress and a stove.” These items would remind them of their home and would also be useful to them.

In Ibarra, Ecuador, they lived poorly for seven months. For Alis Ramírez, they were the worst seven months of her life. It was there that, one morning, a 4×4 truck with dark windows stopped her youngest daughter, who is an environmental technologist and has tried to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Two men with long guns asked her if she was Alis Ramírez’s daughter and tried to force her to get inside the vehicle. Miraculously, she was saved by people who happened to be passing by on the street.

From Ibarra, they escaped to Quito, but what they earned as street vendors was very little. An international organization that helps refugees, known as HIAS, relocated them to Cayambe, a city at an altitude of 2,830 meters (about 9,280 feet) above sea level. For this family from the jungle, it felt like being on ice.

“There were rose gardens, and I worked with the thorniest ones, a type of rose called ‘Paloma,’ pink and cream-colored. That was another challenge for me: learning to improve the roses and life in the midst of the pain that I was feeling from having had to abandon everything and from working with the thorns and making the roses feel smooth,” said Alis Ramírez.

In Ecuador, Alis Ramírez experienced appendicitis. After that, while in a tomato garden, she and her husband had some of their wages stolen.

What is the meaning of life, she thought, when you’ve lost everything and every time you try to open new doors, they hit you hard? Alis Ramírez even considered suicide.

This is why, when the ACNUR told her that New Zealand would give her family a visa as refugees, she relaxed for the first time in a long time. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know where that country was or that the trip would take two days and several flights.

The family landed in Wellington on August 30, 2019.

“The first thing that I did when they gave me the name of the country was try to find out about its nature and landscape. I wanted to be sure that it was not something catastrophic in environmental terms. I checked [to see] if there were rivers because I like to feel surrounded by what used to surround me in my municipality,” said Alis Ramírez with a sad smile on her face.

Even in New Zealand, María Alis Ramírez fights for the land.

The first thing Alis Ramírez did in New Zealand was ask about the immense ocean surrounding the minuscule country. When she saw the ocean through her plane window before landing in New Zealand, it left her with her mouth wide open. Next, she asked about the oil companies that are present there and about the windmills. It was hard for her to understand that there could be a country with so much wind and open fields that it could produce adequate amounts of energy, making hydroelectric plants practically unnecessary. Alis Ramírez also looked for women’s organizations — especially Latina women’s organizations — that she could join to empower herself further to defend her rights.

The greatest obstacle for Alis Ramírez in New Zealand has been the language. Although she has taken classes, has an app on her cell phone, and can respond to questions in a basic way, English is not her strong suit.

“This is why I still keep a low profile,” she said sincerely before adding that her children were wise to study another language. Her children also help her feel grounded when she feels nostalgia and sadness.

“They have been able to empower themselves here. They have caught on to English and can navigate more than I have. Even if I have nothing, there is nothing more beautiful than seeing your children empower themselves, grow, and start [their own journey],” said Alis Ramírez.

Alis Ramírez: The defender of the Colombian Amazon now living as a refugee in New Zealand
As an environmental defender in one of the most dangerous countries to be one, Alis Ramírez said she had to abandon her land to defend it. Illustration by Leo Jiménez.

A sad tranquility

The name “María Alis Ramírez” appears very few times in the infinite sea of Internet information: in a few press records and a web page about the Catholic church in Caquetá. If her name is spelled correctly, with an “X,” it does not appear even once on Google. Perhaps this is why — when Alis Ramírez learned that a journalist was searching for her to portray her as an environmental defender, which she has been her entire life — she spoke without taking precautions, without a script, and without needing to repeat answers from other interviews.

Living in the capital of New Zealand still fills Alis Ramírez with conflicting emotions. On one hand, she lives with a sense of tranquility that would be impossible in Colombia. She sleeps in peace, knowing that she will not hear the army’s planes or rifle shots in the middle of the jungle.

However, it took time to get used to the fact that — at her simple house in the Wellington suburb that she moved to along with her husband and four of her children, with thin doors and large picture windows without bars, with its interior visible to her neighbors — no one would break in to rob or harm her.

“The first few days, I felt very unsafe. A single kick to that house in Colombia, and the robber is already inside, or they could kill one of my children. When I realized it was safe here, that no one was telling me that an armed group was coming… and when I realized [that it is] calm the entire day because the neighbor does not wake you up with commotion at 7:00 in the morning… I don’t know, but I entered a kind of psychological therapy that I needed for a long time. My God! I needed this so much!” said Alis Ramírez.

The problems come when Alis Ramírez remembers why she is there when she starts to feel bad for the environmental and land defenders who have not been able to leave Colombia and do not have the opportunity to experience life without external turbulences of any kind.

Problems also arise when she remembers that she is the same woman who — in Colombia — was never still. Now, in New Zealand, she must wait to recover from surgery on both of her hands since she was recently diagnosed with severe carpal tunnel syndrome.

Alis Ramírez now spends her days creating projects on her sewing machine, arranging her garden at her new house, and trying to connect with leaders in Caquetá and other places in Colombia. She yearns to know what is happening with the rivers, vegetable gardens, small community markets, hydroelectric plants, and oil companies around her home in Colombia.

“Here, I feel physically passive but spiritually active because I have my mind set on Colombia. Someone told me that I had to forget about going back to being involved in social and environmental leadership activities, and my response is always: don’t ask me for the impossible. Don’t ask me for that, because doing that is my life. That is something that is deep inside of me. It is what gives me strength,” said Alis Ramírez.

After a long conversation that took place at night in South America and in the morning in New Zealand, we asked Alis Ramírez what she tells herself every night or whenever she feels she is losing her drive to keep fighting.

“I often ask myself why I had to leave,” she answered. “And now I think I have an answer: it was to see more of the world. To see the world very well. God didn’t create me for short projects.”


Illustration courtesy of Leo Jiménez.

This article is part of the project “Rights of the Amazon in the spotlight: protecting people and forests,” an investigative series on deforestation and environmental crimes in Colombia financed by the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative. Editorial decisions are made independently and are not influenced by donor support.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Feb. 20, 2024.

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