“God willing, I will be coming back to you soon,” the 55-year-old told his daughter.
Three days later, a search party found his body in a shallow grave with two bullets in his chest. His slaying was the latest in a deadly wave of killings of environmentalists in Colombia, a nation where they are fast becoming almost as endangered as the species they strive to protect.
Authorities are treating it as another in a long list of killings of community activists by resurgent armed groups and other actors as a moment of shaky peace slips away. In this war-weary nation of 50 million, the 2016 peace accords between the government and leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, is collapsing, sparking renewed violence as dissident fighters, right-wing paramilitaries and criminal gangs battle over trafficking routes, illicit mining and illegal logging.
“Environmentalists like Gonzalo operate in areas where there is a fight for territory,” said Alex Cortés, founder of ProAves, who worked with Cardona for two decades. “The environmentalists become a hindrance.”
It’s not just environmentalists. An estimated 310 activists — Indigenous leaders, community mobilizers and others who got in the way of the armed groups — were killed last year in Colombia, the highest death toll since the signing of the peace deal, according to the Bogota-based human rights group Indepaz.
“We’ve seen a marked increase of violence, and this is reflected not just in the killings of human rights defenders, but also in the number of threats and attacks,” said Juliette de Rivero, representative for the U.N. Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia.
In one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world, environmentalists are being targeted for their efforts to preserve sensitive habitats used by drug traffickers and armed gangs, and their activism against legal and illegal mining, agriculture, fossil fuel extraction, and hydroelectric plants and dams. Sometimes, they’re simply unwanted eyes and ears in remote regions where the Colombian government is largely absent and illicit activity thrives.
“The cause of Gonzalo’s death and of many other leaders is not because they were even calling out the presence of armed groups or denouncing them, it’s because of their very presence,” said a Colombian government official familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by armed groups.
“They’re people safeguarding nature, they’re also out there constantly observing. That’s uncomfortable for the armed groups.”
Statistics on their killings vary. London-based Global Witness called Colombia the world’s deadliest country for environmentalists in 2019 with 64 killings, while 2020 appears to have been at least as deadly, the group said.
Such violence is a decades-old scourge. But as activists increasingly come into conflict with legal and illegal interests in rural areas — and as security forces take a step back during the coronavirus pandemic — observers see a deadly surge.
In January, 11-year-old Francisco Vera, who drew attention speaking to lawmakers about the dangers of fracking, single-use plastic and animal abuse — a sort of Greta Thunberg of Colombia — received anonymous threats.
“I want to hear him scream while I cut off his fingers, to see if he keeps talking about environmentalism,” read a threat from an anonymous Twitter account.
Colombian Environmental Minister Carlos Eduardo Correa says the government has made strides against illegal deforestation and is moving to protect activists.
Attacks on environmentalists “should not happen in Colombia or anywhere in the world, less against leaders like Gonzalo, who gave everything for nature,” he told The Washington Post. “Gonzalo worked hard for the conservation of birds. He leaves an important legacy.”
While Colombia’s government blames the violence largely on armed groups, others connect it to legal companies and extractive projects. The Business and Human Rights Resource Center reported last year that 44 percent of attacks on human rights defenders were against activists who raised concerns about just five companies.
Cardona, who managed the Andean Parrot Reserve of Roncesvalles in the center of the Tres Cordilleras mountain range in western Colombia, labored for 20 years to save the endangered yellow-eared parrot. The mustachioed environmentalist, known for his perpetual smile, traveled from town to town, speaking to schools and communities about the importance of protecting the birds and the wax palms in which they nest and flourish.
“He loved the birds more than his own life,’ said Kelly Rojas, his 36-year-old daughter.
The yellow-eared parrot was believed to have perished until 1999, when a small cluster was discovered near Cardona’s town. Cortés, of ProAves, and a small team traveled to Roncesvalles in search of the bird. There they met Cardona, the son of a local farmer. He was eager to join their efforts.
Cardona had a fifth-grade education. But he became a self-taught naturalist, learning to spot different species of birds. He devoured texts on preservation.
“He would sit down and read and read and read,” Rojas said.
He managed the parrot reserve for 15 years, protecting 12,300 acres of habitat and wetlands. He rode his motorcycle across thousands of miles of unpaved back roads, tracking bird populations, and replanting seedlings of the wax palms in the surrounding mountains. The yellow-eared parrot grew from 100 birds to 2,900 in the Tres Cordilleras region alone. Researchers at the University of Newcastle last year credited Cardona and ProAves with saving the species.
The region has long been a hotbed for trafficking drugs, guns and people. When Cardona began his conservation work, he and the other researchers were frequently caught between the sides in Colombia’s brutal civil war. Cortés said they often had to ask permission from armed groups to work in the area.
The peace accords brought a temporary lull, but the violence has come roaring back.
Members of the FARC dissident group known as Compañía Adán Izquierdo have established a stronghold in the region, according to local and national authorities. Paramilitary gangs have also been traversing the roadways, sparking clashes over territory.
Colombia’s Prosecutor’s Office confirmed Cardona’s death is being investigated as the killing of a social leader by armed groups. The office declined to provide further details, citing an ongoing investigation.
Shortly after Cardona went missing, family and friends organized a search party. Leader Salomón Muñoz said his queries to locals drew looks of terror.
“They wouldn't say anything; everyone had their mouths shut,” he said. “There was this fear.”
One searcher spotted fresh dirt and gravel under a patch of trees. Muñoz said he felt his stomach drop as he knelt down and sunk his hands into the earth.
“The first thing that appeared was his face,” he said.
When Muñoz and a funeral director drove the body back to be buried, he said, they were met by what seemed an entire town in mourning. At the funeral, Muñoz sang a song he wrote to celebrate the parrots.
“I sang with all of my love in the church, as they put him in the ground, as they were burying him,” Muñoz said. “Fly fly, my little bird. Fly to the sky in peace.”
Faiola reported from Miami.