As the bus bumped along the unpaved roads, recently eroded yet more by the ongoing rains, I ask Ismael to update me on the security situation in Catatumbo. “Since the elections in May things have been quiet, calm. What is really bad are the ongoing rains. There have been lots of floods, and many parts of the region have been cut off due to landslides blocking roads.” We hold our breath as we go slowly round a tight curve with half of the road fallen away - bendy buses might be the solution we joke!
We are making our way to the third assembly of CISCA – Committee for the Social Integration in Catatumbo, a peasant farmer grassroots organization which emerged in 2005 to rebuild the community organizations that were wiped out by more than 7 years of para-military occupation.
I delight to meet with old friends but notice the lack of some. “Many people from Asserrio haven´t come because two girls from the village drowned last week. There was a flood which swept away the houses. They haven´t found the bodies, disappeared” Miriam tells me matter of factly as is her way. “One was my half cousin, but I still wanted to come to the assembly. What can you do. Nothing. She is gone.”
Yet Miriam is a fighter, while we don´t make the connection in this moment, she knows there is much that can be done and is doing it. While the militrisation of this territory rich in natural resources and of geostrategic importance continues to kill, the lack of social development is also killing; roads, hunger, mal nutrition, curable health problems cause unnecessary deaths each day. CISCA´s community life plans are a concrete response to both these realities. They are about deciding together what social development means for us Catatumberos and then implementing concrete autonomous projects to begin this experiment in self-governance. Supporting Miriam as she blossoms into a young talented leader is a joy. She is beginning to take on the huge challenge of actively dreaming of a Catatumbo where deaths like that of her cousin are something of the past. She became involved in CISCA last August through some street theatre we put together as part of the pilgrimage to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the worst massacres in Catatumbo.
The assembly began with a ritual. In groups we wrote down an injustice which prevents children from becoming community leaders. The messages “they don’t know the history of our country” “domestic violence” “fear because of all the violence that has happened to those who spoke out” “education which is technical and lies about the reality” were then ceremoniously burnt on the fire while positive messages were read out.
This was followed with stories about local indigenous resistance to colonization. Up to the 1930´s it was a sport for the white Americans who had arrived to exploit oil in Catatumbo to hunt the “savages” at the weekend. By savages they meant the Bari indigenous community. We heard how indigenous fought back. We heard how they fought back to defend their territory; bows and arrows against lead. Catatumberos are a mix of german, Spanish and Bari heritage yet colonial racist views of the indigenous as being inferior and the European as superior are still embedded strongly in people. These stories play such an important role in challenging this internalized racism. And Luis Antonio, a Bari leader present ended the evening with some important words “The histories that you have heard of persecution, displacement, and resistance is not what it was like. It is what it is like.”
Part 2 to follow. For now I am going to return to the group. I can hear the evening´s cultural activities and the clapping of many compañeras as local musicians, dancers and actors share their local cultures and traditions in opposition to mass produced homogenous entertainment.