Before starting the narrative, I want to point out its relevance to the proposed “Free Trade Agreement” (FTA) between the U.S. and Colombia. This story is about stolen land. Much of what has happened in Colombia in the past 20 years is the violent theft of land, a major reason why Colombia has the second highest number of internally displaced people in the world. The FTA is largely about agricultural products. Small farmers are mainly producers of food for local consumption. The FTA will cause further displacement by undercutting Colombian family farmers with subsidized foreign imports.
There’s also another factor. Much of the stolen land is being used for agribusiness. Colombian President Uribe is promoting palm oil as an agribusiness export. The oil palm, cattle, and other agribusiness products are produced on stolen land. Until all the stolen land is returned, a free trade agreement with Colombia is an arrangement to do business with entities that have no right to the land on which their products are grown. To trade with those entities is to traffic in stolen goods.
In 1997, Don Petro and 15,000 other civilian inhabitants of the region known as the Lower Atrato (near Panama), were forcibly displaced by a series of attacks known as “Operation Genesis,” carried out by paramilitary forces and the Colombian army’s 17th Brigade. Soldiers participating in the operation told people, “We have orders to clear out the area because somebody wants your land.” More than 100 people were killed. These inhabitants had lived in the area for generations practicing small-scale farming in harmony with the rain forest.
Many of the displaced, while in refugee camps, organized themselves under the protective umbrella of Colombian and International human rights organizations. Most of the displaced were Afro-Colombians, and therefore have a right to collective ownership of the land they had been living on. This right was guaranteed in Colombia’s 1991 Constitution and codified in Law 70 in 1993 . Negotiations following the initial displacement resulted in the government recognizing that 86,000 hectares of land in the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó river basins belong to those displaced communities. (A hectare is 2.47 acres.)
But when they returned to the region, the people discovered that their land had been invaded by logging and agribusiness companies that were replacing the forests and farms with large cattle ranches and monocrop plantations, especially oil palm. Paramilitary thugs, allied with the agribusiness companies and corrupt local officials, again violently displaced the returned communities. This was repeated several times. The government has done little to implement the return of the land to its rightful owners.
When Don Petro first returned, he found that his farm had been covered in oil palm. He didn’t dare try to reclaim his farm. But he had individual title to about 320 acres. So in March 2006, with the accompaniment of national and international human rights groups, he gathered together 100 former residents of the area and returned again. He and his companions cut down the oil palms on his land and built their community. This was the first of the ‘humanitarian zones'” in the Curvarado basin. They call it Caño Claro. We had the privilege of visiting Don Petro and his courageous friends.
The term, “humanitarian zone,” refers to the living area of a returned community. The community members surround a few acres of land with a barbed wire fence and put signs on the fence saying this is a civilian area and nobody carrying weapons is allowed in the area. Their homes are inside the fence, although their farms are outside it. This provides a toe-hold in the region. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has told the Colombian government that the communities have a right to demand that armed groups, including official armed forces, stay out of the civilian areas.
But the destruction, threats, intimidation, and violence continue. The government strategy seems to be to delay returning the land until the original inhabitants give up or die off. There is also the fear that after a time the government will give squatter’s rights to the agribusiness companies and the repopulators, people whom the paramilitaries brought in from other parts of the country to work on the plantations. Instead of giving those people full pay, the companies gave them land which was not theirs to give.
We also visited Caño Manso, another humanitarian zone of about 50 people. The signs on the fence did not stop two armed men from entering Caño Manso on October 14, 2008 and murdering Walberto Hoyos, a community leader. During our visit, a community member tearfully recounted the event which she witnessed that day. Walberto Hoyos had been testifying about the abduction and murder in 2005 of Orlando Valencia, a leader in the nonviolent efforts of the Afro-Colombian communities in the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó regions to regain their land. (Orlando Valencia had been invited to participate in a conference in Chicago which I attended. But the U.S. embassy refused to grant him a visa. When he returned from Bogotá to his home area, he was abducted and disappeared. During the conference we learned that his body had been found in a river.)
Before we left Caño Manso, community members took us to see what was left of their cemetery. The ranchers had dug up the remains and replaced the cemetery with a garbage pit. We witnessed harassment by an administrator of the ranch that was occupying the community’s land. We saw him photograph members of the community. In the context of the previous assassinations, such picture-taking is a clear act of intimidation.
This August 27, a month after our visit, Benjamin Gomez, an 80-year-old leader of the Caño Manso humanitarian zone was found dead in a field near the community. His body showed signs of violence. The family has been denied a copy of the official autopsy report.
From Caño Manso, we went to Caracolí. This beautiful humanitarian zone of about 100 people on the bank of the Curvaradó River was almost lost in June of this year when a local judge ordered the eviction of the community, based on a false claim by a nearby rancher. International attention, including from the U.S. Embassy’s Human Rights Officer, convinced a higher court to reverse the eviction order. Some of you may remember participating in the campaign to save Caracolí.
We arrived in the humanitarian zone of Camelias after crossing the Curvaradó river in a motorized canoe. Of the 86,000 hectares which are supposed to be returned to the original inhabitants of the region, only 1,200 have been returned. Camelias is part of that 1,200. Like ghosts, the tall stumps of dead oil palms stand in rows in the village. This is an area where a plant disease destroyed the oil palms. In another part of the 1,200 acres the returned communities have to contend with the presence of repopulators.
While visiting Camelias, we observed a truck, loaded with lumber, pass by on the road. Companies continue to harvest lumber in the region, making more space for the oil palm and destroying one of the most biodiverse rain forests in the world. Some proponents of biofuel claim that oil palm is not an environmental problem because it is grown in places that have long ago lost their forests. A number of times, as we went through cattle ranches and palm plantations, we saw piles of lumber next to the roads. Community members assured us that the deforestation continues as the oil palm plantations expand.
Caño Claro, Caño Manso, Caracolí, and Camelias are in the Curvaradó Basin. To reach Nueva Esperanza in the Jiguamiandó Basin we hiked two hours through the forest that separates the two river basins. Our walk through the forest began where a dirt road ended in a palm plantation. Some of us went through the forest by canoe. The canoe was not on a river, but on a channel that the palm companies had dug to drain away the water from the forest to make it more suitable for planting palm. We also saw newly planted oil palm, replacing the diseased mature palm, and giving the lie to government claims that the land is in the process of being returned.
On that plantation, we saw some houses of repopulators. The companies claim that by giving some land to repopulators, they are returning the land. But the repopulators had been brought in from other regions to serve the companies. No doubt some of the repopulators had themselves been violently displaced from their own land in other parts of the country. But the right thing to do for them is to give them back their own land, not give them land stolen from someone else.
After traversing the forest, we spent the night in the humanitarian zone of Nueva Esperanza on the bank of the Jiguamiandó River. The following day we made the one-hour trip in motorized canoes up the river to the humanitarian zone of Pueblo Nuevo. Our meeting in Pueblo Nuevo was with people from Nueva Esperanza, Pueblo Nuevo, and other communities. Among them were two Embera Indigenous leaders who had hiked eight hours from their home in the Urada Indigenous Reserve to meet with us. They told us about their current struggle to save a mountain near their home, named Careperro, which they consider sacred. A Colorado-based mining company called Muriel has used trickery in its endeavor to receive authorization to explore the mountain for copper, gold, and molybdenum mining. The Afro-Colombian and Mestizo communities of the Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó Basins are also concerned about the possible mine because the headwaters of their rivers are in the region of that mountain. They know that mining brings contamination, producing environmental destruction, sickness, and death downstream.
A few days ago, I received word that a new humanitarian zone is being started. It’s a 40-minute walk from Caño Claro. Former residents of the village of Andalucía are returning home despite their fear, cutting down the oil palm and reclaiming their land. In their formal return on September 28, described as a ritual procession from Caño Claro, they were accompanied by about fifty friends from other river basins and towns in the region. (If you read Spanish, you can find the full account here.) I’ll end with their words:
“Here under the palm are our roots, our life, our project of life, our dignity, which the State with its politics wants to erase. Here is our dignity and it is better to die with it than far from the land, dead in life because of the terror. The return is part of restoring our dignity.”
Patrick Bonner is coordinator of the Colombia Peace Project, a nonpartisan association based in Los Angeles committed to education and advocacy in support of nonviolent efforts for peace, human rights, and social justice in Colombia.