It is barely eight in the evening and darkness shrouds the banks of the River of Gold. We can barely see where to put our feet to refresh them and wash away the dirt from walking all day along a winding and rocky path, the only one between Cucuta and Sapadana Cooperative, a small hamlet in Catatumbo (North Santander), right on the border between Colombia and Venezuela, where we will spend the night. The community comes out to greet us. I never find out how many people live there, maybe twenty families judging by how many houses there are, although one of the leaders tells us that the place fills up on weekends. “Everyone comes down here because we have a shop and they come and spend the day!” Angel Luis Murillo explains and we imagine a much busier Sapadana than it seems right now. Murillo is a tall man, with a strong build and broad shoulders; his facial features look indigenous, but he calls himself a farmer.
In this part of Colombia the mix between farmers and indigenous people is obvious. They have always lived side by side and whilst there are differences in the way they work, and understand the land and territory, they are united in the face of adversity. And it is a threat that brings us here today: an alert from the community in February that neo-paramilitaries have arrived in the area. No-one wants history to repeat itself and people seem more united than ever.
The Luis Carlos Perez Lawyers’ Collective (CCALCP), which is accompanied by PBI, wanted to answer the people’s call and personally gather testimonies about what had appeared in the press a few days earlier. They organised a “Catatumbo Verification and Solidarity Commission” alongside the Catatumbo Farmers’ Association (Ascamcat) and other organisations which have been documenting and reporting human rights violations in the region, to guarantee that the terror of paramilitarism never returns. 1999 was the year everyone remembers in Colombia, because 402 massacres took place, according to data from the Human Rights Ombudsman. In North Santander there were 30 massacres, making it the department where the second highest number of deaths occurred, after Antioquia (108), and followed by Valle (28) and Bolivar (25), all of them linked to factions which sought to take over the land.
This is why the people of this “remote” region value the CCALCP lawyers’ work so much, and greet them with so much enthusiasm, and even the hours it takes them to walk from their villages scattered around Catatumbo won’t keep them away. People want to be heard, and to speak about what they saw and felt when a group of men dressed in black allegedly came, threatened them, and left.
A pound of yucca
The Catatumbo farmers work the land thanks to wisdom passed down through generations, as if keeping that historic memory alive is the work of families and communities. The subsistence crops, “although scarce” (explains Carlos, a man from the capital who has been working with Ascamcat ever since he fell in love with Catatumbo’s abundant natural beauty) consist of yucca, plantain, corn and some papaya trees. But these are grown for everyday consumption, and what people really live off are coca leaves, a plant which is now being substituted in Colombia as the country moves ahead with the terms of the peace agreement between the Government and the FARC. Those who grow it explain that they have no choice but depend on these plants, even if they “only receive 1.4% of the profits”.  It is more profitable than selling a pound of yucca, for example, because the market “pays such a low price that it isn’t worth growing it or transporting it” for days on the winding and rocky paths, which even the best 4×4 cannot handle during the rainy season. This is what a farmer tells me, whom I won’t name for security reasons, whilst we are in one of the hamlets visited by the Commission; his gnarled hands reveal that he works the earth using traditional techniques and the things he tells me could be from a magic realism novel, maybe that way it would be easier to understand all this complex reality. Once we get out here it is clear to see the difficulties the farmers are facing: the paths are inadequate, there are no production methods adapted to the harsh landscape, there are high levels of poverty, institutional weakness, the presence of illicit crops and to top it all, a multitude of groups with far too much interest in expanding over the area like a dark cloud (coal, petroleum, gold mining…).
Seeking refuge as self-protection
Alba Lucero comes across as a very powerful woman. She speaks with a strong voice and her features are hard. She’s making sure the Commission is comfortable in the Caño Indio Humanitarian Refuge, a place created from nothing, to protect people from the danger they have faced since 9 February, to raise awareness on a national level and call for the Peace Agreements to be implemented. We arrive there on the third day of accompaniment, so that CCALCP can gather testimonies. About 1,500 farmers and indigenous people have congregated in the camp. They represent villages and municipalities from all around the region, and they have been working together in meetings and commissions to analyse, discuss, make proposals… We were greeted with so much ease and warmth that we felt comfortable even without any creature comforts. “Alba Lucero, I feel like I’m at home!” I say to her with a smile to thank her, a few hours after we meet and I am feeling nostalgia for my country roots in rural Extremadura, where I am from and which I long for.
She is wearing an Ascamcat jacket and a tag with her name and her job title, and she is making sure that everyone, especially the members of the Community Action Boards (JAC), will be there for the 11.00am meeting; which follows on from the 9.00am meeting, which came right after the 7.00am meeting. People aren’t here to waste their time, and the day is organised to make the most of every minute. And today, Alba Lucero, along with the other women farmers on the organising committee (the members take it in turns every day), is one of the people making sure the whole plan comes off.
She is the president of her community, which is reached by canoe up the Catatumbo River. She explains that they have no electricity or running water, and scant resources, but this won’t stop them from getting together “as a family” with the other communities to demand the right to live in peace. “In Catatumbo, if they attack El Tarra, we all go there, if they do it in Sardinata, we do the same”, she exclaims with pride, demonstrating that in some parts of the country, theory can still be put into practice.
This is partly how this humanitarian refuge came to be. When they felt strong threats in different parts of Catatumbo they started to organise. First they paralised the FARC caravan that was marching towards the Caño Indio Transitional Normalisation Zone, because of the fear their march was causing them and second, they decided to sit down in the middle of nowhere to create, without much effort, a whole camp. This is a means to protect themselves which works through commissions, and where the farmers’ guard has a central role because it is a symbol that represents the defence of the territory.
“We want guarantees that Catatumbo’s history will not be repeated because we know how it happens and what its consequences are”, explains Wilmer Tellez, a member of the farmers’ guard who is constantly moving from one end of the refuge to the other, with his blue shirt as a uniform, a machete and some rubber boots: the best outfit for being in the middle of the Colombian jungle. “Before we would organise ourselves to flee, now we do it to resist and resolve the region’s problems” he explains, his voice rising with the joy brought by those changes, but he knows that peace with social justice has yet to be put into practice.
On Sunday, the refuge was full of people who had come from all over Catatumbo. The meeting: a general assembly to which they had invited local and departmental officials to agree on a course of action with everyone present. A team from the tripartite Monitoring and Verification Mechanism of the Ceasefire and Bilateral and Definitive Cessation of Hostilities was also present at the assembly, together with members of Marcha Patriotica, the North Santander Governor’s Office, a councillor from Teorama, representatives of the Bari indigenous community, Ascamcat members and the CCALCP lawyers. The sun beat down on the black plastic awning, the hall improvised from wooden branches was filled to burst, and everyone was listening in hope of finding solution. Some ideas got applause, especially those where people spoke loud and clear without fear of the possible repercussions their comments might have.
At the end of it, after three days of collective efforts, it was agreed to voluntarily lift the humanitarian refuge whilst the political issues continued to be worked on. That is why, at the beginning of March, four hundred people met in Cucuta to make Catatumbo a priority “in the implementation of the Peace Agreement and for the development of urgent measures to protect its communities”, within a Development Programme with a Territorial Focus, whose objective is to achieve the structural transformation of the countryside and the rural environment, for it to have an equitable relationship with the city.
And so could “they lived happily ever after!” be the end of this story, of the Catatumbo farmers’ resistance? Well, no. The whole “thing” carries one with a lot of dedication, effort and the hope of reaching a happy ending. And maybe, at this time, at this very moment, Angel Luis Murillo, Alba Lucer and Wilmer Tellez, as well as our accompanied CCALCP lawyers, are in some commission in some hamlet, leading their collective processes with strength and courage during these unstable times, with the conviction that they can build a different country, where peace and social justice really become a reality.
Silvia Arjona Martin
His name has been changed to protect his security.
Ccalcp: Boletín 1 de la Comisión de Verificación y Solidaridad con el Catatumbo, 17 February 2017
Caracol Radio: Balance de muertes en Colombia durante 1999, 30 December 1999
In Colombian Spanish pancoger are the products of agriculture and fishing obtained through artisanal methods to meet families’ alimentary needs.
Revista Semana: La coca se dispara, 4 March 2017
Her name has been changed to protect her security.
The region of Extremadura is a rural area in South East Spain where agriculture and cattle farming are the main source of life and work.
The name of her community has been withheld for her security.
El Tiempo: Campesinos del Catatumbo bloquean marcha de las Farc, 10 February 2017
Marcha Patriótica: Comunidades del Catatumbo se irán a Refugio Humanitario, 13 February 2017
Prensa Rural: Fuerzas políticas y sociales avanzan hacia pacto político territorial de paz, 3 March 2017
Acuerdo Final para la Terminación del Conflicto y la Construcción de una Paz estable y Duradera, page 21 of 310