Between the jungle and the city

On the shores of the River San Juan near a dense jungle that links the Valle del Cauca and Choco, there is a small Wounaan Nonam indigenous village, called Santa Rosa de Guayacan. Here, in a house built on stilts, made of rustic wooden planks and a zinc roof (the characteristic housing in these lands anchored to the Colombian Pacific), Marcia Mejia Chirimia was born 28 years ago. [1]

As a girl she spent her time playing with her friends in the stream; when she grew up she fell in love and had two children.  As soon as the mist that envelops the jungle each morning lifted, she would go in her canoe to her farmlands in the mountain where she grew bananas, Chinese potato, corn, cassava and sugarcane.  In the afternoon, she carried big buckets of water to her house. It was a peaceful and happy life.  Marcia never left her land and talked almost only in her Wounaan mother tongue, a language which she shares with 9,000 other people on the Pacific coast.[2]  Women are responsible for protecting and transmitting the community’s knowledge.

61 Marcia
Marcia Mejia Chirimia is a recognised leader in her Wounaan Nonam community.

Everything changed in 2010: the violence and threats against leaders had become unbearable, hooded men were seen around the village and no-one dared go to the farmlands to tend their crops, to the rivers to fish, or to the forest to hunt.  The villagers found themselves confined and started to go hungry.  The women were afraid for their children.

In despair, they abandoned their village and sought refuge in the city. They packed a few belongings, abandoned their chickens and geese and left via the River San Juan towards Buenaventura, one of Colombia’s biggest ports.  There they set up in a warehouse, (converted to a refuge, in an industrial area), and they lived there for eleven months. This was a nightmarish time for Marcia. 24 families, men, women, boys and girls, lived, slept and cooked in one overcrowded space covered in mattresses, bundles of food and cooking implements.

“We had a very, very bad life in Buenaventura; we had no electricity, no water, nothing,” she remembers. “The children did not want to eat because what we received through humanitarian aid was food that they had never eaten.  They were not used to the flavour…It was a very frightening thing, and sometimes I wish I never had to remember those times”.

When the Wounaan Nonam families returned to their lands they created a humanitarian reserve and forbade the entrance of armed actors to their village.

The worst thing was the lack of water; very nearby there was a dry creek, contaminated by black water and waste from the industrial plants. The children bathed there and had constant rashes, and the women washed clothes threre. “It caused a lot of illness”.

With a sense of great powerlessness, Marci remembers how they were treated by the authorities. No-one knew how to ask for what they were entitled to, they started knocking on the doors of all the Government intsitutions to get support. Marcia remembers that the officials had “very nice words, very polished,” but that they always came away without any actions to improve their situation. They were demoralised, “everything was going badly”.  Finally, they decided to go back to their lands, knowing that the men with the guns would still be there.

Coming back was hard; their houses had been ransacked in their absence, the jungle had grown over much of the village, and the wooden planks in their houses were rotting from lack of maintenance. The women set down their loads, cleaned the land and looked for seeds to sow food.

During their displacement they had met members of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP), who had talked to them about humanitarian zones that exist in other rural areas in Colombia. They learned about their experiences and mechanisms for resisting in the midst of the armed conflict.

When they came back they created a humanitarian refuge, the women painted big fences and with brightly coloured letters pained “Humanitarian and Biodiversity Reserve, exclusively for the Civilian Population”. From then on the fences have marked the territory and warn the armed actors that they cannot enter. Marcia feels a little more tranquil knowing the Inter-Church Commission denounces the presence of armed actors on their land. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted them precautionary protection measures due to their vulnerable situation.

However, because of fear of fighting between neo-paramilitaries, guerrillas and the Army, they often stop going into the jungle, and stop fishing and hunting. They have seen waves of neighbouring villagers coming down the river, fleeing the violence.

Santa Rosa de Guayacan has 120 inhabitants.

Coming back to Santa Rosa de Guyacan, Marcia decided to get actively involved in claiming the rights of her indigenous people. Since then, her life has changed completely, now she lives in Buenaventura again and is the very visible face of her community before the authorities. Every Saturday, she gets up early in the morning, gets on the chiva bus and then a boat to travel three hours from Buenaventura to Santa Rosa de Guayacan.  When she gets there, she changes her city clothes for a brightly coloured short skirt and a bead necklace and enjoys the weekend with her family.  On Mondays she returns to Buenaventura.

It is a big sacrifice to be separated from her family, from her partner, her two children (who are seven and nine) and the peaceful life of the country, and she misses waking up early with the birdsong. “For me it’s very hard, as a mother, to be far from my children”.  When they ask her “Mama, why don’t you come, when are you coming?” Marcia tells them the story of the Spanish conquest, a history of blood, resistance and survival, she tells them of the sacrifices of their ancestors and the need to keep fighting for the survival of their people.  She tells them about the study of the Colombian Constitutional Court that tells her that hers is one of the 34 indigenous groups in Colombia who are at risk of disappearing.[3]

Luckily, she has the unconditional support of her family who admire her for the work that she does.  When she speaks in public, people listen with interest and admiration.  Her dream is to be an advocate, not just for her community, but for all the indigenous people of Colombia.  “If I stay quiet, who is going to hear us?”  She encourages other women to get involved in leadership, but the potential dangers, like the threats, discourage many of them.  Maria is also afraid of the risks that it implies, but until people in Colombia know what is really happening in the rural communities, she will not give up.

And, how does Marcia imagine peace in Colombia? “Oh God!” she cries, “they’re only putting down some weapons, but peace, really, is still a long way off”.

A very strong effort is needed for peace to come to lands like hers. She sees that a peace that she calls “whole” is still far away.  It is unimaginable that there can be “peace with hunger, without education, without health, without shelter, without land, without water”, and that continues to be the reality that her community is living.

Bianca Bauer


[1] Text based on an interview with Marcia Mejia Chirimia, January 2016
[2] Ministry of the Interior: Plan de salvaguardia étnica, 2012
[3] Constitutional Court: Auto 004, 26 January 2009

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