By Melissa Cox, Witness for Peace International Team -Colombia Here in Uraba it is quiet; quiet enough to hear the rustle of the plantain leaves, the song of the birds, and the faint laughter of children in the distance. The ground is soft and the intensity of the sun warms my skin. There is a peacefulness that lingers in the air and would rejuvenate my spirit—that is, if I didn’t know the story of these lands.
Enrique Petro, a community leader says that “before 1997 I lived a very happy life. I had all of my family here, a good life, and my work.” But in 1997, Operation Genesis, a brutal joint Colombian military and paramilitary attack led by a School of the Americas graduate General Rito Alejo del Rio Rojas, changed everything for Enrique. “I had 110 cows, I lost them, they stole them from me,” Enrique narrates. “I had twenty sheep and I lost all of this. I lost my two sons, they killed them.”
During the attack, innocent civilians were tortured, dismembered and in some cases, their heads used as soccer balls by the armed groups. Horrified by the nightmare that unfolded around them, hundreds of terrorized farmers ran for their lives. They were able to escape with their lives, but were forced to leave behind their family members, friends, customs, traditions, land, home… everything they had ever known.
What awaited them was a fate experienced by millions of internally displaced Colombians: poverty, desperation and deplorable living conditions while seeking refuge in nearby towns.
In 2000, some community members from Uraba decided to return to their homes. Upon arrival to their native lands they did not find abandoned houses or forsaken land. Instead, their homes and traditional crops of yuca, plantains, rice, corn and bananas had been replaced with massive palm oil crop projects set up by large agribusinesses for the production of exportable bio-fuels.
“They deceived us when they threw us out of here because it was to take our land,” indicates Guillermo Diaz, a community leader from Uraba.
Colombia’s U.S.-backed economic development plan relies heavily on foreign investment by multinational corporations to translate the rich natural resources of the country into exports.
Marginalized farmers all over the country have been systematically and violently forced from their homes to make way for multinational corporations engaged in mining, oil production, logging, hydro-electric dams, cattle ranching and palm oil. These corporations operate on land that Colombian law recognizes as legally and collectively belonging to the Afro-Colombian, indigenous and mixed race farmers. Community leaders and human rights defenders who report on the illegal practices of these corporations and stand up for their rights have been threatened, kidnapped and murdered by both the Colombian military and illegal armed groups. In the words of community leader Estaquio Polo, “they can kill you for telling the truth.”
Despite the terror tactics used by armed groups to stop communities from returning to their land, many community members are determined to reclaim their life and land. In the Bajo Atrato region of Uraba, communities have begun their journey home through the creation of Humanitarian and Bio-Diversity Zones protected by the Inter-American Court. These areas are enclaves of peaceful civil resistance and environmental preservation.
Unfortunately, there is great risk of retaliation against the communities for taking back their land. Therefore, Witness for Peace began accompanying these communities three years ago. Just two months ago, for example, a Witness for Peace delegation of students from American University accompanied the construction of a new Humanitarian Zone in Curvaradó.
The presence of the international students gave the community members the protection that they needed to finally declare their land a Humanitarian Zone. As personal connections were made and stories were shared, the communities shared about how the passing of the U.S. free trade agreement would devastate small-scale farmers in Colombia as NAFTA has in Mexico. They also spoke about how the installation of seven U.S. military bases would be disastrous in their lives.
“The seven military bases the U.S. plans to set up in Colombia, will bring war,” said Eustaquio Polo. “They will bring more displacement to Colombia.”
Despite the specter of ongoing war, multinational corporations appropriating their land and death threats for resisting the takeover, community leaders like Enrique Petro are not backing down. In fact, just this month a plot to kill Petro, in which paramilitary groups were reportedly paid $15,000 by local elites for his murder, was uncovered.
As he wipes his sweat from his brow, Enrique tells me that, even if they try to kill him, he will not stop working to ensure the community members will be able to pass their land down to their children. “This is our dream.”
And their dream lives on.
To watch a slideshow about Uraba, click here.