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Afro-Colombians Defend ‘Life and Land’ in Northwest Humanitarian Zones

by Moira Birss

The first thing I notice after disembarking from the canoe that carries me across the Curvaradó River are palm oil trees. Their rows of short, stout trunks topped by long green fronds, stretch as far as the eye can see. I am visiting the Curvaradó River basin in Northwest Colombia where afro-Colombian farming communities have been violently displaced and their land usurped by palm oil companies destined to profit from the trees that will one day become cosmetics and snack foods.

I turn my gaze to a military checkpoint a few meters from the river bank. My companions and I are waved through a gate made of guadua, a bamboo relative. The soldiers are part a protection detail stationed at the perimeter of the community settlements ordered by Colombia’s Constitutional Court last year as part of a process to restore the land to its “ancestral” inhabitants—the displaced afro-descendant farmers. We have arrived at the Humanitarian Zone of Camelias.

I soon meet Cristóbal Reyes. His baggy dark blue oxford shirt doesn’t hide his slight frame. When I ask him to tell me about the violence that led to the displacement of the Afro-descendant and mestizo campesinos – small-scale farmers – in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó river basins, he does not hesitate.

Starting in 1996 there were “bombings, bombings, some planes flew overhead and bombed the area, and well…and killing, killing campesinos. We were afraid so we got together and we left.”

This violence was part of military operation, known as “Genesis,” that left the region ravaged by deaths, disappearances, looting, burned villages and thousands of displaced campesinos. Accounts from now-demobilized paramilitaries who participated, and campesinos who lived it, confirm the complicity of the paramilitaries and the Colombian Army in the violence.

“We realized,” says Reyes, “that there had been complicity between the paramilitaries and the Army because first the Army arrived and told us not to be afraid of them, but that others would be arriving later who we should be afraid of. And after that came the groups known as the paramilitaries.”

Many families went to nearby towns and cities, where they stayed with family members or in makeshift and depressing camps. Hundreds of displaced families lived for months in the soccer stadium in the town of Turbo, where food did not arrive for weeks at a time and people had to subsist on bananas from trees in nearby fields.

It was not until 2006 that the first organized group of families attempted to return to their lands in Curvaradó. Those 14 families, led by campesino Enrique Petro, decided to set up a “Humanitarian Zone” on five acres of Petro’s land. Knowing that the region was still a dangerous place, the families planned to live inside this demarcated area and prohibit entrance by all armed actors as a tool of self protection based upon the principles of International Humanitarian Law.

When the 14 families arrived they found the surrounding land converted into enormous palm oil plantations. The palm oil growers claimed that they had merely taken over land newly uncovered when the river shifted its course while the campesinos were displaced. Were that really the case, according to a government official, the river would have had to have moved 17 kilometers (about 10.5 miles) to account for the 17,720 hectares the Colombian government has now deemed illegally obtained.

The campesinos bravely uprooted the palm oil trees on their land and began planting their corn, bananas, rice, and yucca. Today, eight Humanitarian Zones and fifty Biodiversity Zones (another similar mechanism of civilian and environmental protection) dot the river basins of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó.

The Humanitarian Zones, says Eustaquio Polo, a leader of the Camelias Humanitarian Zone, are “a form of struggle, a way to defend life and land while being on the land…Here we are legally claiming our rights as human beings and I think it is the only possibility that there is.”

Unfortunately the Humanitarian Zones have not entirely protected the campesinos. Ligia María Chaverra, a 71 year old “matriarch” of the Humanitarian Zones, explains that many powerful interests covet the land because of its tremendous fertility. “You throw a plantain plant on the ground and leave it there and when you go back to look, see, it’s huge. You throw a yucca root,” she continues, her gnarled hands demonstrating the yucca toss, “and poof!, that yucca has rooted and it already has little yuccas. That is why they have their eye on [this land].”

Those that have their eye on it—palm oil growers, cattle ranchers, and drug traffickers—have pulled out all the stops to force the campesinos off the land. In 2009, Benjamín Gómez, an 80-year-old local community council member, was murdered by presumed paramilitaries. After having received threats, Argenito Díaz, a spokesperson for a region-wide community council, was murdered in 2010, also by presumed paramilitaries. Houses and crops have been burned, and other community leaders have received multiple threats over the years, including Ligia María Chaverra and Enrique Petro.

Despite an order from Colombia’s Constitutional Court to return all lands to their rightful owners, these threats and attacks continue. In early August of this year, two men from the region, Francisco Pineda and Everto González, seem to have disappeared. Both men were members of community councils, and family members have fled the zone out of fear.

Most of the Humanitarian Zone members have remained, however. Reyes explains how it is they have the courage to confront the threats and violence. “We as campesinos, owners of the land, we have courage because we are reclaiming what is ours… And so for us, our decision is to not leave our land, but rather to be here and fight for it, because this is the mother of campesinos, the land. So we have made the decision: we will not leave. When they kill the last one of us, our fight ends, but until then we are here.”

About the author:
Moira Birss
works with Peace Brigades International – Colombia from their Washington, D.C. office. Moira spent two years in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Prior to her time in Colombia, Moira worked on researching community-based models of alternative economies, advocating for affordable housing, and promoting environmental protection. Her articles have appeared on Alternet, In These Times, and CommonDreams. She blogs at You can follow Moira on Twitter @moira_kb.

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