Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Planting among landmines

Sitting on our friend's porch in Ocaña, with the mountains in the distance and the early morning sun warming my face, I felt happy to be back in Catatumbo. Yet this contentment was odd, considering that that same day we were heading to an area where the local population live with the daily fear of landmines. Just two weeks before a campesino had to have his left leg amputated after stepping on one.

I wondered, when told, what I could do constructively with this information. Several options came to mind: be worry and be nervous; forget I was ever told; or trust the people I am going with that the paths we will use will be safe. Yet what I thought about most when we were walking these paths was that I know that I would have a much much higher chance of getting a replacement limb (if I survived) than the dear friends from the region I was walking with. And that is fucked up. It hurts me thinking about it; that because of my passport I could get a new leg and they could get a new stick to help them walk. I struggled to think whether there was any value in sharing this reflection with my friends. I didn't. But is silence on an all to apparent privilege useful? Is it kinder to them not to speak the truth, not to remind them of what they already know. That the current global hierarchy based on passport/racialised identity/class puts them pretty low down. And so their right to health and consequently, their very right to life is deemed less important than mine.

Perhaps the question should have been, speak truth to who?

I ponder and I feel that the best option is what I am doing right now, speaking truth to you english speaking priviliged folk. England did not gain their/our/its wealth and fairly good free health care system from just the hard work of the english. Wealth was gained through several hundred years of colonialism, that continues today in the form of multinational corporations controlling and carrying away the wealth of the minerals that rest in the Andean mountains.

People from colonised countries deserve equal standards of health care as us english do.

I was told that the mines are left by both guerilla and army who combat in the area. The farm where we stayed is to become a model farm based on principles ; a seed bank to rescue traditional seeds of the region, many types of local chickens, pigs and cattle and a program to improve the quality of these local breeds. The owner, who has donated the land to this project, a step towards the vision of food sovereignty in the region, showed us where they want to turn some of the wooded areas into fields. Yet it is known that various armed actors use this as a route from one valley to another, and rumours have it that there may be mines, or there may not be.

The presence of land mines has grown as conflict between the army and the guerrilla has intensified. Control of this territory has geo-strategic importance as it borders Venezuela and is rich in oil, gold, coal and land suitable for growing palm. The pipeline carrying oil from Arauca to the Atlantic coast for export also runs through the mountainous region. Yet control of the territory is not just about destroying the guerrilla, for the Colombian state it is also about destroying the social organisations and fabric in the region so that people are left with no possibility of organising to ensure that development means development for and by those who live there, and not for foreign corporations who would control and benefit from the mega-projects.

The paramilitary occupation of the region from 1999 to 2005 destroyed Catatumbo's social organisations and community fabric; communities divided and dispersed, farms and crops abandoned, community shops burnt down by paracos, schools closed for lack of students, community leaders particularly targetted. Campesinos in Catatumbo have never doubted the institutional links between the paramilitaries violence and the Colombian States and slowly information is beginning to coming to light proving what they have always known: that the State and the paramilitaries worked together to terrorise local populations in order to develop the oil, coal and palm oil industry.

On Sunday 5th July, hours before catching the bus from Bogota to the region a friend sent me a link for an article from La Semana, a major weekly national magazine.

“The Army allowed the Paramilitaries into Catatumbo

For the first time a high official publically admits how he participated in one the most bloody paramilitary invasions.

One of the first things that Llorente admitted was the way in which they paramilitaries arrived in Catatumbo. On 29th May 1999, in an unprecendented operation several lorries, carring 200 heavily armed paramilitaries, travelled from Córdoba across five departments to La Gabarra, Catatumbo without any obstacle. Two generals participated in the planning meeting and designed the strategy with Mancuso and Carlos Castaño [leaders of the AUC, national paramilitary group]. His witness statement coincides with those made by demobilised paramilitaries.”

In the first year of the paramilitary incursion in Catatumbo more than 20000 people were displaced, an unknown number of people disappeared, and 800 official murders, the majority of which took place in massacres.

Living with fear of landmines is not a new fear for the Catatumberos.

Yet last week, dancing in Bogota with people from the region who had travelled for 24 hours for the launch of a Campaign for the Victims of Catatumbo, you would not easily spot fear in the room. Hidden deep in layers of resilience, dignity and survival, the victim of Catatumbo is more likely to be found laughing about Bogota people trying to drink boligancho or complaining it is an hour past dinner time and they still haven't eaten.



kal said...

Thanks for your blog which I came across this week - I used to live and work in Ecuador and in other parts of Latin America so have an insight into what is going on - I wish you all the luck and will follow your journey.

kal said...

Just a thought but as a member of the Permaculture Association and having seen what Permculture can offer in Ecuador would you be interested in linking up with the Permaculture contacts out there? It can be a really positive experience for all involved. Let me know and I will try and find out more for you about contacts in Colombia. Best wishes