The beginning of the trip
The flight from BogotÃ¡ to ApartadÃ² is more of a teleport than a normal trip. Only one hour and the cold highland of the capital is a memory, the modern city is slowly replaced by the forest. We are now with the warm people of the coast and the composed Bogotanos seem to live on another planet. The sounds of BogotÃ¡, the modern music and the noises of the city, gives way to Vallenato and CosteÃ±o dances. Here even the concept of time is different, here it flows slowly, relaxed. Upon arrival the sultriness and the dampness of Apartado invade you; mosquitoes of every type pass whispering, "There is fresh meat in town." But they are not the only ones, as in all the areas under strong paramilitary influence in this country, the atmosphere is heavy, you feel yourself observed, judged, you feel that whatever you do is because they are allowing you to do it . . .
In the small town of Turbo in the "Peace Brigades" (PB) office we arrange for passage the following day. PB is an organization that deals with accompaniment in conflict areas. Among them all decisions are made collectively through a method of mutual consent. But when they are dealing with hostile armed actors the use of persuasion allows them to solve even the most complex of situations. In PB work many Italians, one of them will be in the boat with us tomorrow, the others are old friends with which it is a pleasure to drink a beer and speak about the trip and of course the situation in the area.
The purpose of the trip is to reach the "JiguamiandÃ² basin" in the low Atrato, where three communities of Desplazados live, coming from two areas: CurvaradÃ² and JiguamiandÃ². The invitation has arrived to me from "Justicia y Paz." This organization, more than any other, has helped these people, despite receiving countless threats and the risk of being kidnapped. Justica y Paz wants to show to a group of "international people" and journalists the conditions in which they live, to tell the histories of the Desplazados (refugee victims of the internal conflict); the people no one is interested in and nobody listens to, and to see the condition of the land that they have been forced to abandon.
We are in one of the reddest areas of Colombian territory; all the actors of this absurd war are present. The guerrilla, in the collective imagination, is installed behind the river JiguamiandÃ² where the communities live. The paramilitaries and the army live instead on the other side of the river in the ancestral earths of the "African descendents" and as I will be told repeatedly even in this part of the country they are "married," or at least they live together.
This trip will not be easy, I'll never forget the histories the people will tell, their faces, their land.
The following morning the small harbor on the gulf of UrabÃ (On the Atlantic) seems an ant hill, with boats that come and go and frantic movements of commodities, at six sharp the boat of PB arrives and the trip begins. The lance quickly ploughs through the gulf and inserts itself in the river Atrato from the mouth, a large river that has one of the largest capacities in the world. Before meeting the canoes of the communities, with which we will continue the trip in the shoal of the river, we must navigate for five hours. The entrance to the river also marks the entrance to the ChocÃ² region. This is the most unknown region of the country, a stripe of virgin forest along the Pacific and the Atlantic that converges North with PanamÃ (up to 100 years ago part of Colombia). Rich in rivers, this is the only way of transportation since a network of roads is nonexistent.
In the communities I will meet some Spanish activists that make me notice it is faster to go from Madrid to BogotÃ¡ than from Turbo to the communities of the basin.
This region has lived in almost total abandonment until 1996. It has been inhabited for more than 500 years by the communities of African descendents of ex-slaves brought by the Spaniards to work in the mines of the Pacific coast of the country.
The social statistics tell of a level of development nearer to a poor African country than to a South American one.
The names of rivers, villages and cities are taken from African countries of origin and with it that remembrance of a culture, a type of organization and community life, that seems alien to Colombia.
Since 1991, the Colombian constitution, among the most advanced of the region, has recognized very wide rights to these communities and since 1993 the famous Law 70 establishes the inalienable collective ownership of the territories belongs to these communities.
But in 1996 something changed, the people started to speak out about massive public works initiatives in the area.
The "Pan-American road," which is interrupted in the area of the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, could be joined; some voices also speak of a second inter-oceanic channel that should pass exactly in the river where we are sailing. These investments belong to the IIRSA (continental program of infrastructural integration) which invests enormous amounts of money in a poor and underdeveloped area, creating new channels of communication at the mercy of the commercial logistics of the large companies much bigger than some African communities transplanted in America. These channels are the instruments of the FTAA (free trade area of the Americas) or of the various agreements of free commerce. Communication roads are being designed to make raw materials run north and the industrial products toward the south.
The enormous biodiversity of the pluvial forest that covers the region is starting to whet the appetite of big investors and now the trees that have been growing in this forest for centuries are becoming a source of profit for investors without scruples. What is happening subsequently is the typical dynamic of the Colombian conflict. A conflict where the "displacement" of enormous masses of peoples is not a disagreeable consequence but a studied reason.
Under the name of "operation Genesis," the XVII Brigade of the army begins an articulated military action with the announced purpose of striking the powerful 57th front of the guerrillas of the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed forces). Because of this one of the biggest displacements of the country occurs which involves also areas that then will become a symbol of the Colombian peace resistance: S.josÃ¨ de Apartado, Cacarica and of course the communities of the Basin of JiguamiandÃ² and CurvaradÃ². A wave of terror was started with deaths and the escape of refugees that it involves, according to the ACNUR, between 15,000 and 20,000 people. Another theft of land disguised as struggle against the guerrillas.
The army was supported by the ACCU (former self-defence forces of Cordoba and UrabÃ ) that in a short time will flow into the AUC, the most bloodthirsty and powerful paramilitary group of the country. The ACCU were born then with the proven support of the governor of Antioquia: Alvaro Uribe Velez, now president of the country, busy in dialogues (from some defined monologues) of peace between the state and the AUC.
Many of the desplazados have decided to go to join the groups of miserable refugees at the borders of the great or small cities (Rio Suchio, Turbo, ApartadÃ² and up to Medellin). Others have decided to declare themselves communities of peace, or in resistance and they have returned to their land or in the close areas to demand its restitution from the state.
After a stop in "Rio Suchio", the first big city on the river, the boat of PB continues its trip, the Atrato seems a mass of dense chocolate, a tortuous snake that ploughs the forest, impenetrable, at times calm and placid and at times strong and violent. After a short time the landscape changes; the area becomes marshy when we enter the JiguamiandÃ² river, a curious tributary that begins as a mighty river which starts to lose strength to come to die in the Atrato with a wide shoal. For PB it is impossible to continue, but there the inhabitants of the communities wait for us with a canoe.
They load the baggage and start to push the boat by hand; there is not enough water for the canoe. We continue afoot instead along a path that follows the river. The heat is suffocating and the mosquitoes unstoppable. There are with me some people from "Justicia y paz" and some representatives of the community in resistance of the whole country. Speaking, the long hours of walking go faster. Muddy areas alternate with slopes and puddles of stagnant water. Finally a second canoe appears. We are at the end of the shoal. We can now proceed by boat.
Slowly comes the sunset, the forest starts to darken, its voices become stronger, surer. The canoes evidently have not gotten used to carrying so many people. In fact the one that I am in sinks, after having taking on too much water, we try to launch ourselves toward a bank and to save the baggage. A collective laughter bursts out as soon as we resurface seizing a trunk next to the marshy bank of the river. The mosquitoes seem to prefer the meat "flavoured" with the repellent, perhaps the only bourgeois item that we brought and that we won't use from this point on. After redistributing the weight in the canoe, the trip starts again and by now it is night. The starry sky is marvellous. Here is a world that defies description, that can only be reached by imagination, but we are here for real.
We finally reach the first community: "Pueblo Nuevo." An hour of navigation is still ahead of us, before arrival in "Bella Flor", where we are expected for the night which has arrived faster than us. The inhabitants receive us, they help us to get out of the boats and to climb up the muddy slant. Some rice and so many people wait us. A word strikes me, I hear it for the first time since the start of the trip: Gracias. Thanks for what? For being there with them? For wishing to know their histories? For wanting to tell them? For being interested? For wanting to help? To have faced an amazing trip that the people of Pueblo Nuevo simply call their "way home". A road where, they tell me, has seen the deaths of so many people in attempts to make it to the hospital.
Another thing that will accompany me in the days that follow are the children, so many, they appear from everywhere, they float in the rivers, they hang from the trees, they race between hens and pigs, they laugh in front of the camera, but also behind when they see each other in the digital monitors, the biggest ones transport the smallest and all they seem very happy and curious to see us. I imagine they are not used to visitors.
When we arrive to "Bella Flor" it is by now deep night, the generator of the community roars furnishing enough energy to turn on 3-4 light bulbs and a stereo. A thing that I have learned in the years since moving to Colombia is that it doesn't matter how bad the situation is, there is always a motive to throw a party. This time the motivation is us. After a bath in the river, we join the party and for a moment it seems to be a normal place without so much violence. I would like to sleep, but after a trip of the kind we had some aguardiente (fire water) cannot be refused. Joy is contagious and the rhythms capturing.
The day after
When the first rooster sings the women are already in the kitchen, again rice, this time with some eggs. I have breakfast in the kitchen of one of the houses built a half meter away from the muddy ground, if there were doubts this confirms of how rainy the area is... A short moment later the stories begin.
The source of sadness for these people is that they live on land selected for the mega-project of the cultivation of the African palm or palm tree. A type of cultivation of high profitability, they succeed in drawing 20 tons of clusters per hectare each year, from which it is possible to extract 5 tons of palm oil and one of palm kernel oil (no other plant produces a superior quantity of oil per hectare). The palm oil is used in a lot of different ways: in vegetable oil for food, in cosmetic products, in the herbal industry, in pharmaceuticals and also as combustible oil. Primarily, the palm kernel oil is used for integrating animal foods and the rest of the processed seeds are used as fertilizer or as fuel in the ovens for the workmanship of the seeds. Nothing goes to waste.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization Colombia is the fifth world producer of palm oil, after Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Thailand. The variety of products in which the oil of palm is present makes it difficult to trace where exactly they go after production. Therefore it is not clear which country is the greatest importer of the Colombian oil, literally produced on the bodies of so many afro descendent farmers. In general the palm oil represents more than half the commerce of vegetable oil in the world.
The histories that we listen to are riddled with violence, theft and of an indifferent government when it is not directly guilty. Almost all the components of the community have a similar history. Sent away by the paramilitary, killed, or forced to suffer abuses they have abandoned their land, some have been forced to sign contracts selling their land at ridiculously low prices under heavy threats, "You can sign today or we come back tomorrow to talk to the widow." To some it has been proposed to return to their lands to work for the great companies of the palm as labourers, in situations that are basically slavery. Once the paramilitary have "cleared away the areas" the great entrepreneurs arrive with the army to protect them from the "guerrillas."
"I was six years old," says Enrique "we escaped at night, with only what we wore, they wanted to kill us, we walked for 15 days in the forest, with nothing to eat. We reached the Pacific coast, my parents live there still, my father is unemployed and my mother works as a housemaid. My sister and I have returned to reclaim our land." Another victim, Anna Rosa: "when the paramilitary arrived we decided not to escape. We were hidden in the mountains, we held the muzzle of the dog tied up with a cloth not to make him bark, the day later my husband went down to check the situation of the house, they waited for him hidden in the kitchen and they killed him in front of the eyes of my 9 year-old child, who was unarmed. Then they set the house on fire and they climbed up looking for me, they found my clothes that were hidden in a hole and they burnt them. I have lost everything; I had just what I was wearing and my child." Don Petro has deep blue small eyes, almost seventy years, a white messy beard and a big straw hat, his hands are as black as the ground that he cultivates and broken by the job. Our trip will finish in a few days in his land, in the heart of the palm cultivations. We are now in the second Humanitarian area, "Nueva Esperanza" the "old one" is on the other side of the river, abandoned in 2001 during the displacement in a night of fear, families crossing the river swimming, deaths, summary executions, shots, explosions fire and a fear never forgotten.
He starts to tell his history, he had been living for 40 years on that propriety. He tells of his animals, of the corn he was cultivating, of the farmer life with his wife and his children. His dream was to take the electricity up to his house. The light was never powered, but in ' 96 the paramilitary arrived instead, they accused him of being a guerrilla, and threatened to kill him together with his family.
They have escaped. His family don't want to return anymore, he lives alone now in what is the ghost of his house, the animals have been killed, they took away his land, broken the water system to collect the raining water, and stolen the electric motor. It doesn't have anything anymore, he just wants his land back, wants it for himself and to leave it to his sons. When he thinks about them his eyes become bigger, they inflate, the voice trembles, he could be the dad of all us that are listening, it is easy to understand what he wants to say, even if the words don't come out, the only one is that usual one, "Gracias."
The 300 families that live in 3 humanitarian areas declared themselves in resistance, they fight to get back their land, they live in communities that are neutral in respect to the armed actors of the conflict: the guerrilla, the paramilitary and also the army. "It is difficult to live like this, we don't have anything, but at least we don't beg for food in a big city." And it is true, it is a hard life, but decent, they cultivate the rice that they eat every day and the nature offers them fruit and fish. They only ask to be respected and to get back what belongs to them.
I also discover that the young teachers of the school of Nueva Esperanza have good melodious dowries and on the notes of a Vallenato song they sing the history of their displaced people in 1996, of the people they lost, of the struggles, of their hopes.
The "storyteller" effect enriches the feeling of being in a parallel world, lost in the past, where the historical memory is left to oral tradition, but it is a wrong impression. Manuel Denis Blandon, the legal representative of the council of the Basin of JiguamiandÃ², talks with boldness of international relationships, new-liberalism and globalization. Like others, they travel around the world to talk about the problems and the abuses suffered by his land and people. As he tells us, his purpose is "to let the Europeans and north Americans know that the oil of palm they use grows on the blood of the farmers of the basin."
In the following days we dedicate ourselves to an inspection of the lands of these people, those that the state through the constitution and Law 70 recognize as inalienable collective ownership and also those instead that correspond to the private ownership of some of them.
Those that the same commission of verification of Incoder (Colombian institute of the rural development before the institution of the land reform) attribute to the desplazados, and on which the cultivation of palm is prohibited, Incoder has verified that 95% of the cultivations of palm have happened in an illegal way. In the year 2000 the state has recognized the areas of the basin as inalienable territory of the community: 55,000 hectares to the communities of CurvaradÃ² and 45,000 to those of JiguamiandÃ², composed respectively of 3400 and 2400 people before the violence of 1997. Also, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has studied the situation and convict the present palm-growing companies, pointing out the cultivations of illegal palm on community land put in danger the existence itself of the communities, IACHR has asked the Colombian government to implement all the necessary measures to guarantee the safety of the humanitarian zones.
The purpose of the trip is also to accompany the farmers up to their lands that are on the other side of the river, an area forbidden to them. Thanks to the presence of international companions these farmers can return for the first time after years to see the condition of their lands. It's a 3 day long trip, under an oppressive sun left free to strike us on the head because of the disappearance of the pluvial forest sold trunk to trunk to make place for the palms. The cultivations of palm are much closer than what was thought; the cultivated area grows every day, the channels to drain the soil appear and the old farms disappear.
The soil is now infested by small or great palms, ploughed by channels to drain the ground and to allow cultivation, the once fertile earth impoverishes, deprived of the forest that covered it. Ancient trees are knocked down and sold without any respect for the laws and the environment. Houses, cemeteries and small villages disappeared to make place for the palm. The land submitted to these intense cultivations still have between 10 and 15 years before desertification. The army, with great use of men and weapons, was lined up to protect the stolen land. They check the roads to ensure the safe transit of the clusters of the fruits of palm, but not the transit of the legal owners of the land. An officer tells me that the area is infested by guerrillas, but to the question of if he had seen them he answers "no," he doesn't even know how to explain why he grasps a M60, a good weapon to make a hole in an armored tank. After some shaking he convinced himself and tries to do the same with me, that it is a weapon of ordinance and necessary in a dangerous area like this. They allow me to climb on a control tower, that rises tall above the palms. The show is disarming, palms, only palms as far away I can see. I exchange some wisecrack with the soldiers that relax up there, I shoot some photos and I go down.
We are by now at the end of the trip, a bus races on a dirt road, we are tired, physically and emotionally for what we have heard and verified with our eyes
The shadow of the new entrepreneurial Paramilitarism is very strong and some declarations of Vicente CastaÃ±o to the magazine Semana don't leave doubts on which are the powers that move the "project of the African palm,": "In the Uraba region we own palm cultivations. I found myself the entrepreneurs to invest in these projects that are lasting and productive." Vicente is the brother of the more famous Carlos CastaÃ±o, and has been for a long time the real mind of the AUC. His declarations have recently been confirmed by other important paramilitary members like Miguel Arroyave and the commander Rodrigo, alias Doblecero, military trainer for one decade of the AUC who was recently killed in an inside war among the paramilitaries. Ã‰lmer CÃ¡rdenas' block of the AUC, under the guide of the powerful commander AlÃ¨man, has set as condition for its re-entry to civil life a support without restrictions by Uribe's government for their project of social alternative (PASO), precisely founded in the consolidation of the project of the palm for the whole region. In short commander AlÃ¨man would like, once he gets impunity for his men, to use them in the cultivation of African palm and in its protection, under entrepreneurs, whose ties with paramilitarism are evident. All this legitimizes theft of land perpetrated with violence, death, false actions of sale or sales under heavy threats.
The principal enterprise involved in the cultivation of palm is Urapalma, that by the last surveys had planted 7000 hectares of palm and is preparing 10.000 more, all in the area of collective ownership.
President Uribe in his speech to Colombians last December from Guaviare (a region in the great lowland in east south Colombia) said these words that throw an even darker shade on the connections among state, palm planting companies and paramilitaries. "â€¦I have a dream that we can make reality, imagine this path: Villavicencio, Granada, San JosÃ© Guaviare, land with conditions of the ground, rain and topography that are ideal for the African palm. Can you imagine all this cultivated with African palm? The creation of places of employment, earnings for our compatriots, bio-diesel productionâ€¦"