by Moira Birss
- Colombia -
The sparse media coverage of Colombia tends only to give vague descriptions of a violent country with a thriving drug trade. But I’ve come to understand in my 15 months living and working here as a human rights observer and accompanier, that, like many armed conflicts in the world, the war continues because it serves the interests of the rich and powerful, from the Uribe administration to multinational corporations.
Despite its claims to the contrary, the Colombian government’s policies do little to end the violence. Spanning over nearly five decades and multiple administrations, the internal conflict has resulted in countless deaths and over 4 million internally displaced Colombians.
Colombia is a country of vast riches. Endowed with incredibly fertile soil and a wealth of natural resources like gold, oil, coal, and emeralds, the war serves as a means to exploit the country’s natural resources. Multinational corporations like Chiquita Banana, Drummond, Coca-Cola and dozens of lesser-known companies have been accused of funding paramilitary groups’ efforts to pacify union activity and clear land of peasants to pave way for company use. The displacement of nearly 4 million Colombians as a result of the violence is not just an unfortunate accident. Uruguayan journalist and social critic Raúl Zibechi calls it “accumulation by dispossession.”
The government, most often in the form of the army, causes and enables many of these massive displacements but is hardly the only actor. Guerrillas and narco-paramilitaries use violence to force civilians off their land in order to cultivate illegal crops and control territory. Although they employ anti-guerrilla rhetoric and practice political and social cleansing - targeting not just union leaders and other opposing voices but also “undesirables” like prostitutes or drug users - the paramilitaries also use the power of violence for economic ends, both for themselves and their friends in politics and business.In testimonies given as part of his demobilization process, former paramilitary leader Éver Veloza García said that “the only winner of the war [in] Urabá [was] the large landowners, the owners of the big farms and companies.” The high levels of land concentration prove Veloza’s point: according to DANE, the national statistics agency, 13% Colombians own 73% of the land, while nearly half of small land holders own a mere 3.5% of land.
The region of Urabá exemplifies the strategy of accumulation through dispossession. Besides its fertile land and plentiful mineral deposits, its access to the Caribbean Sea provides an extremely useful exit point for legal and illegal goods. Vast swaths of land are controlled by paramilitaries, many of whom can claim legal ownership due to a recent law that grants land title after five years of possession.
Founded in Urabá twelve years ago, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó has attempted to resist this dispossession through a declaration of neutrality and intense community organizing. Even though the Peace Community has suffered nearly 200 deaths and dozens of displacements since its founding, its members remain steadfast in their efforts. As Community member Sandra told me, “we continue resisting what the government does against the civilian population to vacate the land.” Sandra recognizes that not just the government is behind the displacement. “This is a strategic area for all of the armed actors,” she explains. “We say that the war in Colombia has a name: natural resources – water, coal, gold, nickel, wood and others. The war exists in order to steal land from the campesino (peasant farmer).”
Nearby in the Chocó department, the government has responded to forced displacement not by looking for ways to return campesinos to their land, but by repopulating land with people from other areas who tend not to have historic ties to the land and will happily work in the mines and palm oil fields. Father Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest who works for the rights and safety of the displaced, describes how he came to understand what lay behind the displacement of thousands of campesinos from Cacarica after a 1997 military operation. “I was there [when the displacement occurred] and I didn’t understand why they were displaced,” he tells me. “But when [the people] went back, I saw all the oil palm plantations and I understood.”
Zibechi refers to the phenomenon as neocolonization. “Eliminating the FARC from the scene,” he says, “would be a bad deal for the imperial strategy of destabilization and recolonization of the Andean region…This project cannot be completed without war, direct or indirect, without the permanent destabilization as a way to reconfigure territory and politics of this strategic region.” The massacre of 27 individuals from the Awá indigenous community in February and the subsequent displacement of many survivors demonstrate how the conflict is used to reconfigure territory and politics.The Awá live on a resguardo (indigenous reservation) in the southern Pacific coast of Colombia, a region prized for rubber and palm oil plantations, as well as coca. In late August the same indigenous community suffered another massacre, this time with evidence pointing to possible military participation.
Since the massacre, 350 terrified men, women and children have been displaced. The National Indigenous Council (ONIC) declared in its denunciation of the massacre that “the Colombian State implements policies that provide legal institutional protection for the exploitation of land.”
My experience has also made it clear that it’s not just organized peasants and indigenous communities that are angry about the privatization and exploitation of Colombia’s natural resources: middle-class friends from Medellín, for example, have also expressed their disgust at what they refer to as Uribe’s gifting of Colombian land and ecological richness to multinationals. “He’s giving our country away,” I’ve heard them complain.
The state tries to disconnect massacres in the Peace Community, massacres of indigenous peoples, the assassinations of labor leaders, and chalks internal displacements up to “economic migration.” But of course it’s all connected; it’s all part of the strategy.
Rodolfo, a Peace Community member describes his simple hope for the future: “What we dream is to be able to work our land and pass it down to our children.”
Communities like the Peace Community and the Awá must work hard to make that dream a reality, because Colombia’s armed conflict has another agenda.
About the Author
Moira Birss works in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, though she considers San Francisco, California home and plans to return there some day. Since graduating from the University of Michigan, she has worked on researching community-based models of alternative economies, advocating for affordable housing, and promoting environmental protection. Moira's articles have appeared on Alternet, In These Times, and CommonDreams. She blogs at www.1peaceatatime.blogspot.com.