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We went through the war, and anyone who experiences war never wants to do so again — so we made the decision to return to our territory after the displacements. (Confidential testimony)

In the dense jungles of northern Chocó sits the region of Bajo Atrato, named for its intimate connection with the Atrato River, which is of great importance to the department for the food delivery and transportation possibilities it offers. Chocó is the department with the highest level of unmet basic needs in Colombia. The Bajo Atrato region comprises the towns of Apartadó, Chigorodó, Turbo, and Carepa in the Urabá subregion of the department of Antioquia. Across the departmental boundary in Chocó, Riosucio and El Carmen del Darién boast immense biodiversity, with swamps, marshes, mangrove ecosystems, coasts, and mountains. The environment is humid, with temperatures ranging from 25 to 34°C, and rainfall is torrential.

Bajo Atrato is a focus of operations for the timber, banana, oil palm, and more recently mining industries. When this is combined with the presence of armed elements and the absence of decent living conditions, the scene is set for conflict, fear, sorrow, pain, and plunder. Time and again, the history of the struggle for land, with all its vicissitudes, has unfolded against a backdrop of the communities’ fierce determination to defend their lives and territories.

The beauty of the countryside, the rough power of Bajo Atrato, contrasts with rangeland for cattle and vestiges of the oil palm groves that once inundated the region — before they were cut down by the communities at a cost of numerous lives. Military repression of the inhabitants of this territory has been cruel and merciless. The government’s deliberate neglect of these people remains scandalous and the economic interests in play are becoming new actors in the armed conflict. This dark panorama is reflected in the faces of the people. The suffering and joy of these Afro-Colombian, mestizo, and indigenous people fuse into an amalgam of laughter, pain, sadness, and hope. The fear and poverty induced by the government are palpable; the people, in spite of their natural assets, are apparently condemned to human exile, silence, neglect, and exploitation.

The arrival of agribusiness was preceded historically by the entrance of armed elements such as the AUC paramilitaries. In coordination with businesspeople and landowners, these groups set about expropriating the communities’ land, thereby expanding their own holdings and sowing death and exile. Much has been written about this and it is no secret to anyone, just as it is a matter of public record that the paramilitaries have worked hand in hand with the police and the army in protecting private capital while forcibly displacing the communities. They have created a theatre of war and territorial conflict in which the local people are the losers.

The arrival of armed men in this region dates back to the mid-1960s, but the security and human rights situation worsened with the deployment of counterinsurgency operations by the army and national police in conjunction with the paramilitaries. Selective assassinations, massacres, torture, confinement, and harassment were perpetrated from the mid-1990s until 2005, causing a wave of displacement. (Confidential testimony)

Those communities that had trusted the peace process to produce significant changes in their living conditions now fear the consequences of the reopening of the Mandé Norte mining megaproject [1], formerly operated by the Muriel Mining Corporation and now by AngloGold Ashanti. These two multinationals used the war as a shield behind which to move into the area. The Mandé Norte project already has some history in this region; its object is to mine the Care Perro or Usa Kirandarra peak, which is sacred for the Embera communities.

In 2009, Mandé Norte obtained an exploration and extraction permit for an area covering 160 km2 (16,000 ha) smack in the middle of indigenous reserves and territories collectively owned by the black communities of Jiguamiandó and Murindó. A portion of the jungle was cleared and holes were drilled down to depths of 300–400 m. The company commenced to excavate, build camps, and bribe public officials and community members. No prior informed consent was ever obtained.

That same year, judgment T-769 of the Constitutional Court ordered the suspension of exploration and mining under the concession for this project, [2] which covered copper, gold, molybdenum, and other minerals, as a result of irregularities related to due process and the rights of 11 indigenous and 2 Afro-Colombian communities.

But despite this decision, a February 2018 online article in the business magazine Portafolio stated that Mandé Norte is one of four national projects constituting milestones in the history of copper production in this country. According to one source, “the government considers copper to be a mineral of strategic national interest, so the government agencies in charge of issuing environmental and other operating permits must be diligent in issuing them without delay so as to guarantee investment in copper production.”[3] The article states that according to the studies conducted, operating permits must be good for periods of at least 30 years. This news sounds alarm bells for the communities; they can see that with the changes brought in by the new government and the transfer of titles by Muriel and AngloGold, the project looks likely to resume, and will surely be backed by military and paramilitary occupation if it does.

This year alone, the Interfaith Justice and Peace Commission has published over a dozen reports denouncing security conditions in Bajo Atrato. The Commission has documented persecution, intimidation, assassinations, forced displacements and disappearances, threats, illegal land expropriation, the general humanitarian crisis, harassment, and the presence of landmines and paramilitaries, causing panic among community members. This reaction is justified given the violence of the 1990s, in which the same armed groups displaced the communities and grabbed their land for purely economic purposes. While some of the communities are now protected as so-called “humanitarian zones” and are recognized as such by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, it is also true that the paramilitaries have kept up a constantly growing presence in the area, striking fear into the hearts of the communities.

Beyond staying on the land and maintaining an antiwar stance, the communities of Bajo Atrato must now strengthen their social fabric so that the problems plaguing them can be made visible at the national and international levels. This work must bring together social movement organizations, human rights bodies, international actors, and members of the media willing to visit the area even as the far right’s strategy of developing economic projects is intensifying and the communities are once again, as in the recent past, being victimized by war and expropriation.

[1] Mandé Norte project, Murindó, Colombia
[2] Judgment T-769 of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Colombia
[3] Chocó celebrates a milestone in Colombian copper production

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