Jakeline Romero Epiayú, 1979 – 2024

It is with great sadness that ABColombia has learned of the death of Jakeline Romero Epiayú, a human rights defender that we greatly admired for her kindness, her courage, her expert knowledge and her determination to defend the rights of others. Our thoughts go out to her family and the communities around the Cerrejón mine. We are sorry that you are suffering such a great loss.

Jakeline was an extraordinary Wayúu woman, committed activist, and courageous human rights defender who dedicated her life to achievingsocial and environmental justice for the communities living around the Cerrejón Mine (owned by multinational Glencore) in La Guajira, Colombia. She will be greatly missed by all of us who knew and greatly admired her and her work at ABColombia.

She started her life as a teacher, travelling across the region to teach children. As she travelled, she was horrified at the damage being inflicted on the communities and the environment by Latin America’s largest open pit coal mine – Cerrejón.

This brave woman took a stand despite knowing of the potential dangers to her and her family, and she became the director of the Fuerza de Mujeres Wayúu or Sütsuin Jieyuu Wayúu, an organisation that defends the Wayúu territories and raises awareness of the human rights violations that the community faces. The Wayúu community are situated in la Guajira, neighbouring Glencore’s Cerrejón coalmine. Jakeline faced years of threats and intimidation for speaking out against the devastating impacts that this mine has imposed on her community. Her continued advocacy, despite the many dangers that she faced, is a testament to Jakeline’s spirit and passion.

Jakeline once stated, “They threaten you, so you shut up. I can’t shut up. I can’t stay silent faced with all that is happening to my people. We are fighting for our lands, for our water, for our lives.”[i]

After the signing of the 2016 Peace Accord things didn’t quieten down for the Wayúu and afro-decent defenders in La Guajira, and Jakeline received the following threat regarding the work she was doing:

“Don’t focus on what doesn’t concern you [if] you want to avoid problems. Your daughters are very lovely, so stop stirring other people’s pots […] Bitch, avoid problems because even your mother could be disappeared if you keep talking.”[ii]

Women defenders in Colombia have to bear additional burdens to their male counterparts. Not only are they attacked because they are human rights defenders, but they are also targeted in unique ways because they are women. The above threat is an example of this – perpetrators of this violence frequently threaten the children and other close relatives of women defenders to silence them. Threats against Jakeline’s life did not silence her, so they threatened her family, and still, she did not remain silent.

She bore the cost of being a human rights defender with courage, commitment and because of a great concern for her people, their land and the planet.

Jakeline Romero Epiayú will always be remembered by those of us at ABColombia who knew her and by many more people and organisations around the world. Her life and work has meant so much to so many.

Further information:

Background on the Cerrejón mine taken from the opening pages of the OECD Complaint:

The Cerrejón mine is one of the largest open pit coal mines in the world, covering approximately 69,000 hectares of land in the administrative region of La Guajira in Colombia. The persistent expansion of the mine over the past four decades has led to ruinous environmental degradation with serious human rights impacts.

The air in La Guajira contains particulate matter in excess of the limits recommended by the WHO and imposed on Cerrejón by the Colombian courts. Annually there are over 400 emergency room visits and over 336,000 respiratory symptom cases in La Guajira directly attributable to the mine. Studies have shown that air pollution is driving elevated levels of cellular damage, in turn raising the risk of cancer, DNA damage, and chromosomal instability for those living in the region.

As well as contaminating the air in La Guajira, the mine consumes and contaminates significant quantities of water. It uses approximately 24 million litres of water per day. In 2019, it dumped 578 million litres of liquid waste into natural bodies of water. Studies on the Ranchería River have found unsafe levels of harmful metals in the water, including mercury and lead. Cerrejón’s diversion, consumption, and contamination of water has led to water scarcity, food scarcity, and health impacts for those who live in La Guajira.

These harms have been expedited because of the mine’s various structural interventions into the hydrological system in La Guajira. The Ranchería River is the principal waterway in the region, and many communities once relied upon it for their domestic and farming activities.

[i] Defenders_of_the_earth_report.pdf.pdf

[ii] Ibid