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April 19 th 2011  PBI Colombia blog

If you ask people in the Curbaradó river valley how they are doing, they will often say: ‘Aquí, luchando’ (here, struggling). During the last several months I’ve been accompanying quite a bit in Curbaradó, and am beginning to understand why they say that.

Getting to Curbaradó in public transport (overcrowded jeeps) from Apartadó, the nearest city, is a 7 hour undertaking over terrible, bumpy roads. Along the road, we see extensive cattle farms, and to our left the mountains of the cordillera Nudo de Paramillo. Periodically, we pass army and police checkpoints.

Arriving in Curbaradó, we visit the Humanitarian Zone of Andalucia, where we meet Don Petro. Despite his leathery, wiry black body, his unusual, bright blue eyes make him seem a lot younger than his 82 years.

His eyes shine brightly behind his thick yellowish spectacles while he gives us a broad, welcoming smile and a strong handshake. The rain brings us together with family members on a dirt floor under a corrugated iron roof, as chickens and pigs scratch around us.

Lands belonging to afro-descendants and campesinos (small-scale farmers) like Don Petro in Curbaradó were usurped at the end of the 1990s by military and paramilitary violence. These communities began to reclaim their land after a 1993 law granted Afro-Colombian and ancestral inhabitants the right to return. When the displaced communities of Curbaradó returned, they found their farms covered in enormous tracts of African palm plants and billboards of banana corporations claiming ownership of the land.

In an effort to protect themselves in their effort to reclaim their lands, the communities in Curbaradó created ‘Humanitarian Zones,’ giving them a way to clearly differentiate between combatants and the civil population; in other words, to declare themselves neutral in the conflict. The nonviolent struggle of these farmers is not without risk: there is often retaliation for those who choose to speak out. Seven campesino leaders were killed in Colombia since last August, and three were killed in March alone.

Right now, in fact, there is particular concern for the safety of Don Petro and the other residents of the humanitarian zones. During the last few years, the Army’s 17th Brigade has provided perimeter protection to the humanitarian zones in accordance with protection measures issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. But the soldiers retreated from their posts last week, leaving the families and particularly the community leaders to their fate. The community members are extremely worried about the Army’s withdrawal due to the presence of illegal armed actors in the Curbaradó basin.

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