On June 21st, Luis Alberto, who I know better as ‘Janio’, was walking back to his home in the Humanitarian Zone of El Tesoro when he was assaulted by five illegally armed paramilitaries, who tied him up for half an hour, kicking him and threatening to kill him, accusing him and other community members of being guerrillas. Now, two weeks later I wonder if Janio is, like me, still recovering from the shock of the event. I was not shocked so much by the events of Janio’s story, as it is the same violent tactics practiced against many other members of the communities who protect their ancestral lands, traditional livelihoods and the unique tropical rainforest they live in from agro-industrial development. I was shocked because this time I was living in the community with him and for the first time, this was a victim I knew personally. Janio, one of the best soccer players in El Tesoro, who would make me sing Canadian songs; who steered our boat down the winding river of Caño Claro, tributary of the Curvaradó river; who held on to me as we were tossed around a top an intercity jeep on pot-holed roads; who made me play soccer with the community and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The attack was preceded by a period of relative tranquility. One month earlier a group of 50 military passed by the barbed wire fence surrounding the resistance community, asking to enter and claiming three of the campesino men inside to be guerrillas – members of FARC. But the assault and threats to Janio’s life was nothing new for the communities of Afro-descendants, indigenous and mestizos that continue to struggle against State-backed violence and persecution; it was one more event in a 10 year history of bloody warfare, which has decided the fate of thousands of campesinos, and the worlds richest zone of biodiversity, the jungle of Bajo Atrato Chocoano.
FORCED DISPLACEMENT AND COMMUNITY RESISTANCE
In the recent history of this region of Colombia, the lower Atrato river basin in Urabá, Chocó has seen massive State repression at the hands of concerted military and paramilitary forces, as well as terror tactics from the FARC, a guerrilla group operating in the region. In October of 1996 and through 1997, a coordinated campaign of military and paramilitary forces known as ‘Operation Genesis’ forcibly displaced around 4,000 Afro-descendants, indigenous and mestizo civilian populations from territories collectively titled to Afro-Colombian communities. By land, sea and air, legal and illegal armed forces practiced torture, selective and collective assassination, massacre, disappearances, threats, theft and arson as a means to empty the dense and humid jungles inhabited by peaceable communities under the pretext of guerrilla activity in the area.
In 2000 and 2001, many community members, after suffering from fear, the loss of loved ones, hunger, and living in refugee camp conditions, decided to return to their land and create Peace Communities, only to find the development of agro-industrial mega-projects well underway. Urapalma S.A., the first of 12 private companies to operate in the region, with funding coming internationally from USAID (under the pretext of replacing illegal crops with sustainable agriculture and providing jobs for poor peasants) and nationally from FINAGRO and Fedepalma subsidies, had already sown 2000 hectares in the Curvaradó River basin with African Palm monocultres, with another 6000 hectares being cleared for the same purpose, all in the heart of the territories collectively owned by the communities of Curvaradó.
By way of violence, armed forces had ‘emptied’ the land of its traditional and ancestral inhabitants, although many fled the violence by retreating into the dense jungle, living without a home and without lighting a fire, for fear of both guerrilla forces in the region and the paramilitary and military forces. The violence had cleared the way for heavy machinery to deforest the land, destroying the soil structure and poisoning waterways, to plant greenhouse grown African Palm trees in symmetrical rows that would later be harvested for mass production of palm oil for the world market.
When new waves of incursions, assassinations, attacks and displacements occurred in 2001, the Afro-Colombian community councils of Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó, legally recognized governing bodies of the collective territories, created physically enclosed communities labelled as ‘Humanitarian Zones’ protected at first by Cautionary Measures to preserve the rights to life and physical integrity of community members, solicited by the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights on Nov. 7th 2002, and later by the Provisional Measures of protection of the communities decreed by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights on March 6th, 2003. According to the community members, no armed actors were allowed into the zones, since that would make them targets in the armed conflict.
The Humanitarian Zones were more than Peace Communities because rather than claiming to be neutral, the community councils resisted the presence of all armed actors and demanded justice as victims of massive displacement, continuing violent persecution and fear tactics. They demanded the right to govern the lands that had been stolen by State forces and developed by private enterprises. With accompaniment in the communities by national and international participants, the resistance was mounted on three fronts; to maintain a presence in the Humanitarian Zones and uphold the observance of the Right to Life and Integrity; to denounce the atrocities to the world community and generate pressure on Colombia’s government to observe the Protective Measures declared by the Interamerican Court; and to proceed judicially with cases of fraudulently acquired land titles for palm plantations and investigation into systematic violations of human rights.
Slowly, displaced community members have returned to their lands, and solidarity overcame fear. United by a common history, mestizo, indigenous and Afro-Colombians organized their new Humanitarian Zones as a non-violent resistance to State repression and capitalist development. The communities lived through years of threats, armed incursions into the zones, and continued assassination and disappearances, while direct solidarity and human rights organizations brought international attention to the crisis in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó. The first Humanitarian Zones in the region were located on the Jiguamiandó River, but provided homes for community members of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, including the community council of both territories. Much of the Curvaradó river basin was already sown with African Palm monocultures and swarming with military, paramilitary, police and company employees. In 2006, the first Humanitarian Zone in Curvaradó was created in the midst of over 17,000 hectares (and growing) of palm plantations, by cutting down a a few hectares of palm trees and building the Humanitarian Zone of Andalucia. Since then, new Humanitarian Zones and Biodiversity Zones continue to be created in Curvaradó, including El Tesoro, created in October 2006.
ETHNIC AND CULTURAL MEMORY
Janio, his family and other familias living in El Tesoro and the other resistance communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó are preserving vestiges of an ancient way of life in danger of extinction. Despite waves of colonization in Bajo Atrato, including attempts to develop a navegable waterway between the two oceans, and mining of gold, silver and other metals, The Atrato River and its tributaries have proved difficult for conquistadors, slave-traders and pirate voyages to colonize due to its difficult climate of dense jungle, torrential rains and labyrinthine rivers.
The river names of Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó were known by the Embera, Waunana and Awa peoples, whose ancient way of life, survival and existence, meshed with African rituals and ancestrality when former African slaves bought their freedom and moved to the jungles of Chocó and Bajo Atrato, in search of land, simplicity, and their own methods of development. In the 1980’s, the cultural exchange developed with the arrival of mestizos, fleeing the violence that had left them landless in agrarian struggles from Cordoba to Sucre and Antioquia. Politics, skin colour and mentalities integrated and juxtaposed, but ultimately found harmony in principles of life and territory.
In the 1990’s, the territories became the location and or route of passage for guerrillas of the Popular Liberation Army, EPL; later for the National Liberation Army, ELN, and finally for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC EP, who still exist there today. But the cruel military and covert paramilitary strategies of Brigade XVII of the National Army known as Operation Genesis, was directed not at the guerrillas but at the Afro-descendant, indigenous and mestizo civilian populations.
STOLEN LAND FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó remained, into the 1990’s, one of the last of the unplucked gems of the Americas, having successfully resisted repeated attempts of colonization. The capitalist economic model was eventually imposed on the land and people beginning with Operation Genesis in 1996-97. The war against the civilian communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, begun in ’96, has continued on many fronts; military, judicial, political, psychological and technological. The objective, not only to appropriate the land from the communities, has also been to destroy cultural constructions and ancestral collective mentalities.
The massive displacements, preceded by chains of threats, assassinations, tortures, pillages and hostage-taking, reveal a comprehensive plan of expropriation of territory, under the pretext of controlling insurgent groups, but they cannot hide the aggression against native communities and simultaneous protection of corporations who have taken these territories. The clear motive of the State-led violence, rather than quelling armed resistance, was targeting peasant communities in order to use lands for agro-industrial projects as part of an imposed economic development model.
PLAN COLOMBIA AND IMPUNITY
The palm oil industry currently developing in Bajo Atrato Chocano now with 27,000 hectares of palm plantation in the Cuenca of Curvaradó operated and owned by 12 corporations, figures prominently in government and State policy of economic development under the administration of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Palm oil has traditionally been a highly profitable export used in foods and hygiene products, but the use of palm oil to make biodiesel and the expanding demand for biodiesel in the North as a ‘green’ energy has led Uribe to guarantee an export market of palm oil for biodiesel. He has pledged to increase palm plantation hectares from 175,000 in 2005 to 6 million, as part of State policy recognized in the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement and the U.S. backed Plan Colombia.
The financial profiteers of palm oil production are the same for palm plantations in Colombia, Indonesia and Malaysia, three of the worlds biggest exporters; a handful of elite locals from each respective region and transnational corporations such as Unilever, Procter and Gamble, Henkel, Cognis and Cargill. In Colombia, Law 138 of 1994 sanctions palm oil production, by creating the “Cuota de Fomento Palmero” to financially subsidize palm oil cultivators and encourage development, administered by Fedepalma. Meanwhile, Plan Colombia and the State strategy of Democratic Security has oriented the process of “paramilitary remobilization”, a way of legalizing the history of paramilitary violence and bringing them impunity. Institutional impunity was officially created through Law 975 of 2005: “Law of Justice and Peace”, which demobilizes paramilitaries, leaving criminals unpunished, instead linking them as ‘employees’ to the newly created agro-industrial projects being developed on land stolen through forced displacement. One example is the model of associative enterprises currently employed in agro-industrial projects such as cocoa, lumber, rubber and palm oil. Demobilized paramilitaries, displaced peasants and peasants work with a corporate investor interested in starting a business who “acts as a tutor”. In Urabá, for the paramilitaries who do not demobilize, there continues to exist work opportunities, uniting forces with the military to control local populations in the municipalities of Riosucio, Barranquillita, Belén de Bajirá, Pavarandó and Mutatá.
There are no guarantees of protection of the rights of victims, nor guarantees of returning properties and lands to their rightful owners. Furthermore, the palm plantations themselves are ‘legalized’ through fraudulent mechanisms, including purchasing land titles from landowners who could not have sold the land because they are deceased; drastically augmenting the size of land purchases on paper form 30 to 6000 hectares; inventing fake landowners, or buying land from people who don’t own any land. To secure international funding from USAID, the palm companies claim they are providing work opportunities for Afro-Colombians by substitution illicit crops (coca and marijuana) with a profitable legal alternative, a fraudulent lie puppeted even by President Uribe Vélez.
The Colombian State judicial apparatus only aggravates and confuses the problem, by ignoring the many pending investigations and not recognizing the systematic nature of the human rights violations, instead treating each case individually and unconnected. In effect, different levels of State and government provide guarantees for private enterprise, while persecuting civilians and violating human rights; all of which is legislated by transnational capital.
RESISTANCE FOR LIFE, LAND AND DIGNITY
The communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó have faced remarkable adversity, from massacres and forced displacement to the appropriation of their land and impunity for the criminals, yet have shown incredible resilience. The crimes perpetrated are of such a systematic nature that they can only be understood as crimes against humanity. It has led to a profound deterioration of ethnic and cultural identity. Furthermore, the crimes, committed in a very fragile ecosystem with the world’s highest levels of biodiversity and rainfall, have created irreversible deterioration of the environment. These atrocities have been done in order to install an exclusionary development model, a capitalist model fundamentally opposed to the ethnic communities’ values of life, natural rhythms and sacred relationships to the environment, human life and the eternal.
A testament to the resilience of their traditional way of life has been their ability to create an authentic democracy in the midst of armed conflict. Resistance has been their only option for the reconstruction of truly democratic self-determination. Peace Communities turned into Humanitarian Zones: communities chose, rather than to be neutral, to demand justice. Their method of organizing is to construct concrete guarantees for their life, liberty of thought and land. Internal and international mechanisms of protection and justice are in place to preserve a community, a way of life, an ecosystem and a principle of basic human value and dignity.