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The Civil Resistance Process: Humanitarian Zones in Columbia

The 1990’s represented for Columbia an era wherein State paramilitary strategy achieved its peak in terms of atrocities. With the tolerance and support of the Columbian authorities, the military units executed a massive repression across the country against those who dare defend their rights and their land. Their objective is to shatter all forms of organization and to impose a single development model linked to private investment and the worldwide capitalist distribution of wealth. The privileged strategy has been that of massacre, where many people have been cruelly killed, often in front of their own family, with the objective of instilling terror and forcing the rest of the population to flee or to submit. In this manner, the big landowners and private companies have succeeded in displacing thousands of Columbian farmers from their ancestral lands (3 million in total across Columbia). The military and paramilitary strategy has permitted them to appropriate a large quantity of lands to develop agribusiness projects, in this manner reinforcing the agrarian counter-reform that exists in Columbia. The repression and forced displacements have also permitted the Columbian state to pave the way for a number of infrastructure mega-projects that have been in the works within the context of Plan Peubla Panama and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. In the rural settings, the main victims of this repression are black communities, indigenous peoples and farmers. Historically, these groups have lived by means of subsistence agriculture and by a mode of social organization that strongly differs from the one that the state and the capital wish to impose by force. The communities have been forced to search for a method to halt the repression and to reiterate their Rights of Land and Self-Determination. It is within this context that the Humanitarian Zones have appeared. They were born as a strategy to distinguish and protect these zones within the armed conflict. But more profoundly, they have allowed communities to regroup, to organize themselves and to bring to the fore their autonomous life projects. The Zones are truly enclaves of resistance within the armed conflict milieu. Relying on International Human Right as well as national and international accompaniment, they constitute a new strategy against the redeployment of military and paramilitary that is currently underway in Columbia.

The Three Humanitarian Zones of Jiguamiandó, department of Chocó The Humanitarian Zones of Bella Flor Remacho, Pueblo Nuevo and Nueva Esperanza are situated in the Jiguamiandó river basin, department of Chocó. They are composed of black and métis populations that lived ancestrally in this region (Bajo Atratò) whose people were displaced from Curvarado (neighbouring water basin) who are in the process of returning to their original lands. They were created in 2004, seven years after their forced displacement. It was at the time of Operation Genesis, in 1997, that the farming communities of the region were massively displaced. The national army bombarded the zone with the help of planes and helicopters after which the military and paramilitary attacked jointly on land, under the pretext of guerrilla presence in the region. No less than 4000 people were displaced and forced to seek refuge in other villages. After many months of terror, the people started to organize in order to return to their ancestral lands. After many meetings and thanks to the help of the Justicia y Paz commission, the communities succeeded in returning to the Jiguamiandó river basin in 2000. In 2004 they created three Humanitarian Zones as a civil resistance strategy within the armed conflict. These Zones are exclusive locations for the civilian population where armed persons are denied entrance. The defence of the territory and the struggle for self-determination are the central tenets of the communities. In spite of threats and assassinations that continue to menace the farmers of Jiguamiandó, they have managed to develop their own education system; self-education, also known as ethno-education. It consists of a model based on the history and the culture of the métis and afro-descendant communities. The professors of the primary school are members of the community, and young graduates can equally become teachers at the school. As for secondary school – or college – the national and international aids play an important role on the level of teaching. Decisions concerning the content and method of the teachings are made in a college assembly consisting of teachers and students. Food-producing communities are found scattered around the Humanitarian Zones and a few on the opposite side of the river, where the villages were before 2002. In times of difficulty due to a military or paramilitary presence, harvests are lost because fear stops people from going to work in the fields. Women organize small gardens with the help of doctors abroad to diversify their diet. Cultivation and sale of wood on the banks of the Atrató River is the most profitable economic activity. The men organize themselves into work teams and go for many weeks into the forest to do selective logging, carrying the planks down to the riverbank. The sale of plane trees is not very lucrative, but provides a meagre living for those who have no access to tools for cutting wood. The youth committee organizes inter-community soccer tournaments, music and poetry nights, cultural acts, etc. Each Humanitarian Zone has a musical group that sings romantic country ballads and songs of social struggle. For several months, the communities of Jiguamiando have been affected by judicial proceedings against their leaders. Today, there are orders of arrest for no less than 20 community members. Through the intervention of many irregularities and false testimonies, these people are accused of being members of Front 57 of FARC. In reality their sole crime is to continue to denounce the massacres committed by the military and paramilitaries, as well as the illegal sowing of African palm on their collective Territory.

The Two Humanitarian Zones of Curvaradó, Department of Chocó The 8th of April 2006 citizens of Curvaradó who had been dispersed in different areas of the region, predominantly Belén de Bajira and Chigorodo, returned to their land in a new Humanitarian Zone that was created in the heart of the Curvaradó river basin. The Zone is situated in the middle of African Palm plantations where exist numerous police and army control posts. Paramilitary presence in the region is extremely high: undercover, dressed as civilians, they carry small guns and radio communication devices, continually circulating by motorcycle. In october, a new zone El Tesoro was created by families of Curvaradó who were leaving in the zone of Bella Flor Remacho in the Jiguamiandó. Besides the Humanitarian Zones, the families of Curvaradó also decided to create, with the help of Justicia y Paz, Natural Reserve and Biodiversity Zones. The concept of Reserve Zone has its judicial foundations in the Colombian Environment Report, which makes reference to ‘civil society reserve zones’. Thus the first Reserve Zone was created in 2006 and others will be created in coming months, growing like little pockets of resistance and of affirmation of human rights despite adversity. They serve foremost as spaces to cultivate subsistence agriculture products and to protect sections of the tropical rainforest. But above all, the creation of the Reserve Zone and the two Humanitarian Zones in Curvaradó signifies for the peasants a new step in their collective resistance: from the defensive stage of protecting themselves from armed incursions and to denouncing the theft of their land, they have now passed to an offensive stage for the direct recovery of their lands.

The Two Humanitarian Zones of Cacaríca, department of Chocó The Zones of Esperanza en Dios and Nueva Vida are situated in the Bajo Atrató region, close to the Panamanian border. They were the first two Humanitarian Zones to be created in Columbia. A large majority of the farmers that live there are afro-descendants. They consist of communities that were also struck by Operation Genesis in 1997. The military and paramilitaries arrived and demanded that everyone leave their ancestral lands. Many men were massacred by mechanical saw in front of members of their own family and in total more than 80 people were assassinated or disappeared. The majority of the farmers were transported by boat to the village of Turbo where the municipal authorities were awaiting them (one of the indications that this operation was a planned displacement by the Columbian authorities). Some of the residents fled towards Panama by walking for many days while still others refused to leave their Land and survived by continually retreating into the forest. Thanks to a constant effort of organization, after they had been displaced to Turbo, the farmers of Cacaríca returned to their ancestral Land in 2000, once they received collective entitlement to their ancestral Territory in 1999. They created there the first two Humanitarian Zones of Columbia. They also created their own organization CAVIDA (Communities for Self-determination, Life and Dignity of Cacaríca). The communities brought to life their own autonomous public and secondary schools, autonomous radio, their own flag and political declaration. They have written a book about their history and recorded two music albums of songs of their resistance, developed subsistence agriculture and wood commerce. Despite difficulties, easier roads to small towns and easier access to the Atrató River has made the economy of Cacaríca more viable than Jiguamiandó’s. The communities of Cacaríca denounce the illegal supplying of wood on their collective Territory by the forestry enterprise “Madera del Darien” who have been cutting this virgin forest for more than 40 years. They must equally struggle against agri-business projects of African palm and mini-bananas as well as infrastructure mega-projects like the new inter-oceanic canal, the pan-American highway, an electric transmission line and a gas pipeline that would go from Venezuela to Guajira in Columbia. Despite strong military and paramilitary control in this region, the communities of Cacaríca pursue their struggle for the defence of their Territory and their ancestral culture. In 2004 the military was installed on the outskirts of the Humanitarian Zone of Nueva Esperanza en Dios, occupying the terrain, harassing young men to join the army and young women for sexual services. The situation of the community has become critical and the majority of the families have fled to another Humanitarian Zone. Nevertheless, some families have stayed, tired of fleeing and sometimes seduced by the comfort of a new hospital and military financial help. A few months later, the situation between the military and civilians at the site “el Limon” became dramatic; rape, drugs and threats. The families that stayed can only go into the new Humanitarian Zones with difficulty, as the original families to form the Humanitarian Zone are suspicious of informants.

The CIVIPAZ Humanitarian Zone, department of Meta In 2002, on the heels of the rupture of dialogue between FARC-EP and the Pastrana government, a vast military operation was deployed on the entire north side of the municipality of El Castillo. The military and paramilitary arriving in the villages started to destroy houses, steal animals, computers, radios and other personal items. Many farmers were arbitrarily detained, tortured and assassinated as in the case of Eyder Quianas, 14 years old, assassinated on the 29th of January 2002. Within the framework of many other operations throughout the year of 2002, the majority of the residents of the north of El Castillo were forcibly displaced towards the city of Villavicencio and its surroundings. The context of this repression, as well as a massive paramilitary presence, made it impossible for the families to be organized as they were forced to leave their homes in an individual manner. Since 2002, the families displaced have since settled in Villavicencio where they have attempted to survive in deplorable conditions. All along these four years, they have had to face insults from the locals as well as threats of another displacement by the municipal authorities of El Castillo. Despite everything, they have proven to possess a determination without limits and have started to unite and to organize. Through the medium of constant weekly meetings, the farmers have succeeded in vanquishing their fear, and all of a sudden, the will has arisen to return to their Territory. The 45 families started by acquiring a land of five hectares through the financial support of Spanish organizations. They have also carefully worked out their life goals, their criteria for organization and for community living. By means of a few punctual voyages on their new land, they have started to build community houses and to clear the earth for agriculture. Today, many families are settled permanently in the Humanitarian Zone. They cultivate yucca, plane tree, cocoa, broad bean, and others. They must continually face an economic sanction that largely affects their food supply. When the people go to market at Medellin del Ariari, they must first pass through a paramilitary control post, where they must have their invoices signed by the chief in command. The amount of the invoice must be less than a very low fixed sum. The civil authorities and Colombian military tolerate this incredibly perverse type of food trade repression. The communities continue nevertheless to resist and to organize in the Humanitarian Zone with the ultimate objective of being able to return to the parcels of land where they once lived.

The Humanitarian Zone LA BALSITA, department of Antioquia This Humanitarian Zone is situated amongst the mountains of Antioquia, close to the village of Dabeiba, halfway between Medellin and Apartadó. It gathers together around 100 people that were displaced in 1997, who decided to reorganize and to form the community of Vida Y Trabajo La Balsita. In 1996, a delegation from the municipality of Dabeiba visited some rural villages to announce the possibility of purchasing lands for the construction of a hydroelectric dam. The people were to be subject to a census and they were told to prepare themselves for the arrival of another delegation. But this second delegation never came, and instead the paramilitaries came to the region. In the month of November 1997, the paramilitaries arrived, identifying themselves as the “Farmer’s Self-Defense of Cordoba and Uraba”. They assassinated or abducted 34 people in front of their families, burned down more than 40 houses, stole the majority of the farmer’s livestock and destroyed a good quantity of the bridges. A large part of the population of the region – around 400 people – were forced to leave their lands to seek refuge in the village of Dabeiba. In total, the region has seen more than 250 people kidnapped or assassinated between1996 and 1999. After two long years in the refuges of Dabeiba, suffering threats and humiliations, the farmers decided to reorganize and to work out a life plan. They were able to acquire a parcel of land of 100 hectares where they formed the Humanitarian Zone in 2001, where they now live and cultivate the land collectively. Half of the price of the acquisition needs to be paid in the next five years, which is practically economically impossible. They are currently developing their own plans of subsistence agriculture and are attempting to eliminate all forms of chemical fertilizer and pesticides in order to practice a more sustainable form of agriculture. The youth play an integral role in the civil resistance process on the levels of organization, culture and art. The community highly values the salvaging of memory, and sees the necessity of full compensation. They demand compensation for all the victims of repression and for all the goods that were lost, and equally for all the years of work and sacrifice that were lost. The youth are attempting to work out new goals, conscious of the fact that once their children are grown, 100 hectares will no longer be sufficient to house and nourish their community. They have organized their own college, theatre troupe, dance and craft making groups.


-- One Form of Resistance It is important to mention that the Humanitarian Zone does not represent the only type of resistance or organization inside the armed conflict of Columbia. It corresponds to a strategy that was developed by certain communities in the regions mentioned under a given context. Elsewhere, many other types of resistance are practiced in different regions of Columbia. Furthermore, farmer’s struggles have a much longer and diverse history that goes beyond the Humanitarian Zones. It must be also noted that the communities of the Humanitarian Zones do not declare themselves neutral or ‘caught in the crossfire’. On the contrary, the communities assert themselves as victims of repression at the hands of the State and it’s paramilitary strategy. They know full well that this violence aims to impose an exclusive economic model and a single way of life. They group therefore within the Humanitarian Zones to be able to resist this state violence and to put forward their own way of life and of organization.