The side door of the bus opens and greeted by the happy shouts of Fabian from COS-PACC (The Social Corporation for Community Advisory and Training Services) and Sebastián from the British NGO War on Want, a man with a wide smile and light brown skin enters. He has lively eyes and he wears a black cowboy hat. “What’s up Daniel? How are you doing?” His colleagues lunge towards him. Amidst the handshakes he makes his way to the seat. He is the namesake of a human rights defender from the region of Casanare, who was assassinated in 2015, and whom the “Daniel Abril School of Environmental and Popular Investigation for Human Rights Investigation” is named after. The school is coordinated by COS-PACC, an organisation that PBI accompanies. The school trains human rights defenders from communities that have had their rights infringed by multi-national or state companies. The last session will be carried out today and tomorrow in El Morro, a small town situated on the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental (Eastern Mountain Range). That is where we are heading.
I sense a rejoicing atmosphere inside the bus due to the thought of the diploma ceremony that will happen tomorrow, and of course there surely will be a party afterwards. These human rights defenders seem like they are all good friends and united together, although they are from several different human rights organisations. Addressing each other, they do not use the “señor/señora or “don/ doña” that show respect and formality. Their laughing does not cease when the conversation touches upon the violence and the assassinations of human rights defenders, about a hundred-last year alone.
The sun shines on the stones of the river that we follow on route to El Morro. The turbid waters reveal that there is some kind of construction work or earth removal going on upstream, most probably to do with the oil exploitation in the region. In the fantasies of the American dream, a poor pioneer who finds a field of black gold spurting buckets full is a synonym for wealth found one day after another. But here this phenomenon has not created anything for the local population other than a source of infinite violence. This violence is perpetrated by the Colombian army and the illegal armed groups that arrived like lead rain, and along with them came the petrol companies to take control of the territory: assassinations, repression, struggle. It has been a relentless curse that this viscous black liquid has brought to these lands.
In Colombia, oil doesn’t belong to the population but the Colombian state. To oppose its extraction, even for reasonable arguments such as environmental protection, land dispossession, and the handing over of natural resources to foreign and distant interests, has been a torment. There were many violent deaths and those who stayed remained in the struggle without being able to stop the homicidal exploitation. The Daniel Abril School has the objective to give them tools to investigate and build better criminal cases.
Bit by bit, the road becomes hidden under the foliage and the shores of the river rise. At the sun-drenched tree line, the palm trees are what most shine, their large leaves reflecting a pure light. Suddenly, there appears large bastion made from sand bags and large towers with slits. Behind this fortress, accompanied by soldiers, are several petrol pumps with iron feet. They hug the side of the mountain. Like hard-working mosquitoes, with their monotonous movements, they suck the wretched earth. The National Liberation Army (ELN) operates in the area. They still haven’t signed the Peace Agreement with the Colombian government.
In El Morro, we join the students from the school: about fifty. Their pride can be read on their faces, tomorrow they will receive their diplomas. Some go to the hairdressers in preparation for the ceremony. They will be “Human Rights Investigators” and with this diploma they will return to the communities with better knowledge and greater legitimacy in the eyes of the Colombian state, to investigate and struggle for a healthy environment, basic health services, better education and social services, and the security of a land tenancy.
Throughout the whole day, the students are in the tent presenting their preliminary investigations on real case studies from their own community. Waste recycling, the integrity of indigenous communities, lack of health services, environmental damage due to oil exploitation, development alternatives. The issues keep coming and the studies take us to the departments of Casanare, Boyacá, Meta and Tolima, with the regional accents of the students, accompanied by photos and the explanation of the challenges that each individual community faces. I feel like the groups feed off each other, and with each new presentation, the group becomes more motivated. They share investigation ideas and the day takes its course with a mixture of the happiness of being there combined with the genuine concerns of the investigators.
Early that night we went to sleep in a large school classroom. With simplicity and complicity, we shared the space. Through the window, one can make out the strange green watershed of the forested mountain. In front of the other jet black mountains, an ashen light is reflected as if it was a full moon. Martin, another member of COS-PACC, comes closer and points at the dark hill” “Behind are the gas flares of the oil field. They burn gases night and day, so much so that the whole mountain lights up”.
The next day the students stand up and approach, one after another, the table of the COS-PACC organisers. To a grand applause they receive their prized diploma, and the levels of cordiality and happiness rise even higher. Without a break in the mood, the diploma ceremony becomes a party daylight part in the terrace of the restaurant where we are situated. It seems like a family reunion where everybody enjoys themselves with their cousins, uncles, and grandparents before everybody has to hit the road and separate. Karaoke, meat, beer, dance, poems, songs or anecdotes from each region, everybody is invited to share something of their identity and join the fraternity of this group of individuals who only want to live in peace, without having to worry when the next disaster will come.