Every acompaniment we go on in Colombia is an adventure, pushing us out of our comfort zones and throwing us into unknow situations. Each time I travel into the field I gain a huge amount of respect for the human rights defenders we acompany who, despite hugely challenging conditions, continue to push for social justice in some of the most remote areas of the country.
Recently I was fortunate enough to accompany Camilo, a lawyer from the organisation Aheramigua in the region of Guamocó. Guamocó has been particularly hit by the armed conflict and has suffered complete abandonment by the State for many years which has lead to a strong guerrilla presence in the area and a lack of stability for those living there.1 The land is hugely rich in natural resources meaning that the population in its mayority dedicates itself to artisanal mining, mainly of gold.
This painstaking and often dangerous work remains in the informal sector of the colombian labour market and is often criminalised by the colombian State who refer to the taxes the miners are obliged to pay to the guerrilla or neo-paramilitary groups in the region as an example of their criminal status.2 This has been used as a strategy to remove these small-scale miners from the region in order to sell the land to large mining companies as part of the neo-liberal development plan, heavily based in extractives that Colombia adheres to.3
Aheramigua is an association of small miners and campesinos that works in the area of Bajo Cauca and Guamocó, training the population through human rights workshops with the aim of strengthening the people´s understanding of their rights and the structure of the State so that they can participate in an effective way in the political decisions that affect them. This year Aheramigua has been under constant threat of attack by neo-paramilitary groups in the area that see the work the organisation is carrying out as a threat to their hegemonic control of the territory.4 As the FARC-EP are leaving the areas in which historically they have played the role of the State due to the lack of institucional presence and investment in these areas, the vaccum is being filled by other armed groups.5
On 7th March 2016, founding member of Aheramigua, William Castillo, was killed in El Bagre Antioquia.6 This caused a huge blow to the organisation and meant that many of the leaders has to leave the territory as they were at huge risk of attack themselves.7 In June Aheramigua installed a humanitarian refuge in Puerto Lopez8 in order to draw national and international attention to the dangerous security situation in the area and the desperate need for State intervention in order to guarantee the protection of the local population and of human rights defenders so that they can continue to carry out their work in the area.
In this respect, we accompanied Camilo to the community of La Marisosa on the boarder of Antioquia with Sur de Bolívar so that he could give the local leaders a workshop in democracy and citizenship.
On the day we had scheduled to travel to the community it poured with rain and the local people told us the roads were in such a terrible condition that we wouldn´t be able to travel. The next day we set off on an 8 hour motorbike ride, crossing rivers and up huge hillsides covered in thick mud until finally we arrived at our destination. We were greeted by the community who was waiting patiently for a convoy of trucks carrying food and other essentials which have taken 6 days to arrive from nearby town Santa Rosa beacause of the terrible climatic conditions.
The leaders participating in the workshop express their concerns because recently the army has killed members of the FARC in a small settlement in the Sur de Bolívar, despite being engaged in a cesaefire with the guerrilla group.9 This makes them think that the conflict will continue and the voids left byu the FARC in the region will be filled by other armed groups.
The return journey is even more dramatic than our arrival as we manouever through the colombian jungle on our motorbikes and fix several punctures, the heavens open again and we get drenched in tropical rainfall. It is a true testament to the human rights defenders that we accompany that despite really testing conditions they contiue with their fierce committment to their important work. Were it not for these inspiring orgnisations, these communities would be totally abandonned. As always, its a priviledge and an honour to enter into the world of the human rights defenders we accompany and to play a small part in ensuring they can continue with the fundamental work they carry out in Colombia.
Hannah Matthews, British volunteer
1Corporación Colectivo de Abogados Luis Carlos Peréz (CCALCP), GUAMOCÓ: TERRITORIO DE ESPERANZA, ABANDONO, ORO Y TERROR, Septiembre 2012
2El Tiempo, ‘Las Farc movían $ 20.000 millones en minería ilegal’, 12 de mayo 2015
3Departamento Nacional de Planeación, Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2014-2018: Todos por un Nuevo País, 2014
4Aheramigua, Por presencia paramilitar, desplazamientos masivos en El Bagre, Antioquia, 19 enero 2016
5Verdad Abierta, Los riesgos que enfrentan los acuerdos con las Farc, 28 junio 2016
6Contagio Radio, Asesinan a líder campesino William Castillo en el Bagre, Antioquia, 07 marzo 2016
7El Colombiano, 17 líderes campesinos habrían sido asesinados en El Bagre este año, 17 julio 2016
8Prensa Rural, 200 personas en refugio humanitario en El Bagre (Antioquia), 28 junio 2016
9Pacifista, ¿Primera violación al cese al fuego? Dos guerrilleros muertos en el sur de Bolívar, 16 noviembre 2016