Furrows with seeds of peace

It is almost midnight, and high above in the sky, which is becoming ever cloudier, the stars try to make a hole. The streets are deserted now and the only sounds that are audible are those of mother nature. Some cows are accompanied by a very large ox that wanders majestic through the streets of Cañaveral, a small town in the municipality of Remedios, Antioquia. They appear coming up the street from where the school is, they stop in front of their usual stable, waiting for someone to force them inside.  A few metres away, the technical teams from CAHUCOPANA[1] and the ACVC[2] are still in a meeting under the roof of what looks like a chiva[3] shack. They show no intention of ending this intense day of work, even though it is now dark and a prophetic wind announces the possibility of rain.

It is almost midnight, and they are still there; Giordano, Carlos, Alexandra, Víctor, Moncho, Jonathan, Anny, Milton, Ramiro…, analysing and reflecting on the situation of the communities in the northeast part of Antioquia in the last few days. Both organisations work extensively with these communities. The threats made to some of the peasant farmer leaders are becoming each day more evident, and the people are frightened.  Some get shivers remembering times in the past, these periods are known as “hotter times”, where talking about and working for peace and social justice in these territories was a synonym of collected assassination. This is how the massacre that took place between the 4th and the 12th of August happened. The massacre left a toll of 20 bodies in Cañaveral, in the same spot where we are accompanying the members of CAHUCOPANA now. To mark the place there is a plaque, covered in wild flowers, that commemorates these victims. The plaque occupies a spot in the middle of the town to not allow them to be forgotten.[4]

The Northeast is a region that lives off sugar cane, coffee, plantain, meat, timber and milk from the cows that dot the fields.

Green pastures surround Cañaveral and three roads that are used by motorbikes, cars, chivas and trucks to enter and leave the town. There are a lot of trucks, and they overpower the natural environment that forms the backdrop to this town. The Northeast is a region that lives off sugar cane, coffee, plantain, meat, timber and milk from the cows that dot the fields. Under the moist soil, there are gold mines that have been worked in a traditional way for centuries by the population of the region, and for the last few decades, they have also been exploited by multinational companies. Nearly everybody in the Northeast is informed on the different and laborious techniques of rescuing this precious and sought after metal from the ground. This metal is measured by the “law of gold” in function of its quality and weight and what more, well despite a detailed explanation from Milton I still didn’t understand: “the law goes between 600 and 1100, the more law, the better the price because the quality goes up; and more karats, less quality”. “But what does the law have to do with karats?”, I ask showing my total ignorance on the issue.  But he laughs, takes the last puff on his cigarette and continues: “16 reales is a castellano, and a castellano is five grams, so a hundred castellanos is a pound, and two pounds make a kilo”. Then with a look of horror on my face, I smile and let out a groan to show my unease at such complexity.

Milton and Silvia.

I have the sensation that even in the local school they study the law of gold and that any peladito[5] is skilled in gold measurements and the different forms of production. According to Milton, 80% of the gold that is mined in the Northeast comes from the municipalities of Segovia and Remedios, which is why small-scale mining has always had a fundamental role in the region’s economy. However, this situation has not been liked by everyone, and those who have dedicated themselves to it have been stigmatised and cast off as the “financiers of war”, the motive for which they “have been forcibly displaced, have been killed and have been put on trial”.

80% of the gold that is mined in the Northeast comes from the municipalities of Segovia and Remedios, which is why small-scale mining has always had a fundamental role in the region’s economy.

Carlos Morales, a peasant farmer and one of the leaders of CAHUCOPANA, explains this issue with indignation and it is obvious that he has an underlying passion for the communities that he accompanies. He tells me that he has had this passion since he was young when he learnt from his father the way to counteract the conflict in Colombia from the perspective of territory and the concepts of collectivisation and non-violence.  “We have not financed any wars, the opposite is actually the case, we have always reinvested the benefits of mining in the local communities, generating dignified living conditions in the area, improving the roads, the schools, community centres…, something that the Colombian state entities and the government should be doing, but it has been the local Mining Committees that have carried this work out”. As a human rights defender, he has always insisted on working from the social, community and peasant farmer grassroots sectors, despite the fact that his determination has been damaged on several occasions.

In the last few days, the reports made by CAHUOCOPANA are linked to the presence of neo-paramilitary groups who are intimidating the families who live in the most rural parts of the Northeast. About a 40-minute drive away of where we are, the Transitional Local Zone for Normalisation (Zonas Veredales Transitorias de Normalización – ZVTN) of Carrizal is situated, and a few days ago there were reports of the presence of supposed paramilitary groups very close to the FARC camps.[6] The presence and armed group puts in danger the local community and also what was signed in the Peace Agreement, especially in terms of guarantees of non-repetition.[7]

“Although the government doesn’t want to acknowledge these facts, the communities are reporting the heavy presence of men dressed in black who they identify as paramilitaries. This creates concerns and could cause a humanitarian crisis in the region due to internal displacement from some small towns to others”, Morales warns.  One of these recent displacements has been the leader of CAHUCOPANA, Ricaurte García, who has had to leave the small town of Mina Nueva due to the continuous warnings that these groups who don’t like the fact that these communities are organised.  For Ricaurte, an active young man from the Northeast who laughs at every opportune moment, even at his own situation of risk, to leave his territory means to lose his philosophy and his objectives in life. This is because resisting against the wind and the tide is a synonym of dignity, but above all, he doesn’t want to lose his culture, his roots, his peasant farmer ancestry.

Collective self-protection

The use of traditional forms of self-protection is what has saved these communities from the inherent risks of living in the Northeast. A lot of this is due to solidarity between the small towns, the active participation of Communal Action Councils (Juntas de Acción Comunal, JACs), or the activation of humanitarian refuges, especially in the “hotter times”. These activities have allowed them to stay in their territories and resist forced displacement.

The international accompaniment, which over all these years hasn’t exclusively come from PBI, has made it possible to publicise what is going on in this part of Colombia. The Northeast is battered and forgotten, and with a mishmash of old parts, but it still has the force to carry on telling the world why it won’t give up. It is important that the social and international organisations have a different point of view on the Northeast, and this is why it is fundamental that they come here and realise the problems that the communities have to deal with, this is more important than the communities going there”. Morales tells me this putting emphasis on the “here” and the “there” as if they were two abysses without connection which separate the countryside from the city, the national from the international. It is as if they were extremes from which it is impossible to understand what is going on in the most rural areas in Colombia.

Despite all this, the members of the CAHUCOPAN technical team, even after their marathon agendas working with the rural communities in the upper and lower Northeast region, feel energetic. They don’t hide their worries for the future, especially for the guarantees they need to remain in the territory, but all this work is so that the communities don’t even contemplate the option of displacing themselves. At the end of May, they are planning different activities where they will involve everyone because “they are the ones, the elderly, the youngsters, who have to decide what to do, and how and when to do it, without imposing it on others that have come from outside”.

And so, conjugating the verb to do in all of its forms, CAHUCOPANA and its peasant farmer roots, will keep planting seeds; not only beans, corn and coffee, but those that germinate in the furrows of peace, in the paths of collective dreams and on the roads of the communities that hold on convinced that one day they will live secure and peacefully in a land that sprouts life.

Silvia Arjona


Footnotes

[1] The Corporation for Humanitarian Action, Co-existence, and Peace in Northeast Antioquia – CAHUCOPANA.
[2] The Peasant Farmers’ Association of the Cimitarra River Valley ACVC
[3] Place where one waits for the chiva, the main form of public transport used in rural areas in Colombia.
[4] Routes of Conflict
[5] Pelado in Colombia is a young person
[6] Caracol Radio: Comunidad denuncia presencia de paramilitares cerca de zonas veredales, 10th of March 2017
[7] Prensa Rural: Comunidades de Remedios en riesgo por acciones paramilitares, 8th of May 2017

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