Pedeguita and Mancilla: disputed territory

We set off from Apartado towards Belen de Bajira, a municipality which has been in the news for several months.  It is the subject of a dispute between Choco and Antioquia departments because of rich mineral deposits in the area and the presence of large agribusinesses producing bananas and palm oil.[1]  We wait for the jeep which arrives finally after half an hour and drops us off at the Pedeguita and Mancilla produce collection centre where we begin our walk to Mi Tierra Biodiversity Zone.  Luckily it hasn’t rained much in recent days and the path is dry.

At the side of the path is a transporter cable to carry the banana bunches to the collection centre (we nickname it the “bananoferico”) which is also used by the young people as a speedy and fun transportation method. The path takes us past some fields and then through banana plantations.  Due to the conflict and the violence, many families were forced to leave the area because of the pressure from paramilitaries, but some have returned to cultivate their lands.[2]  But the fight for their lands it not over by far.  Many of the plantations in the Pedeguita and Mancilla Collective Territory are occupied by “parceleros”, farmers who arrived from other areas and were granted some land to farm, for example bananas, by the Pedeguita and Mancilla Community Council.  The exploitation is part of an agreement between the Community Council’s legal representative and the company Agromar giving it the right to the usufruct or production of parts of the Collective Territory.  The agreement, however, was signed without prior consultation with the ancestral inhabitants of the area.[3]

platano

In Pedeguita and Mancilla, the ancestral inhabitants of these lands are afraid they will lose everything. The land restitution process is taking years and every day more parceleros arrive in the territory.  Because of this, some of the farmers declared their lands as Biodiversity Zones, as a means to protect their habitat founded on international rights and agreements, and to protect their living spaces as well as the biodiversity in their territory.[4] On the way to Mi Tierra Biodiversity Zone, the banana monocrops line the path all the way to the fence marking the start of the Biodiversity Zone. The fence is an attempt to stop the advance of monocrops and deforestation within the Biodiversity Zones.

After an hour walking under the sun, we enter the Biodiversity Zone where they greet us and give us water and a bench to rest on. The family tells us how they returned to their lands in 2012. They have fifty hectares of land, with some set aside for their own food crops and for forests, which they are trying to protect with the Biodiversity Zone.  Near the farm, the once vacant plots are now planted with plantain, banana and corn by parceleros who work for the companies.  The family put up a wire to stop the occupants from cultivating on their territory.

After a rest, we set off with members of different communities to walk around what was, just a few days ago, a beautiful forest where a variety of trees grew, giving the local people fruit, freshness, moisture, air, and which the community looked after and preserved for their children and future generations.[5]  After a while we arrive at a desolate landscape, plagued with cut down trees and ashes, where not even a shrub has been left alive. The deforestation is impressive.  It is tremendously hot, the two o’clock sun beats down on us and leaves us stunned, suffocating with the lack of air. To keep moving forward we must clamber over huge trunks, balancing to cross them, walking between roots and branches.

Pedeguita y Mancilla_foto Cijp3
Photo: Interchurch Justice and Peace Commission

We keep on walking, crossing through an ancient forest that now looks like a battlefield.  All of a sudden one of the group shouts a warning: Careful! Careful! Look here, a small mound of recently disturbed earth. What is it? Nobody knows. They say that so far there haven’t been any antipersonnel mines but you just don’t know… The nervousness is palpable. We all tread carefully past it and keep on walking.  The tremendous heat leaves all of us with dry mouths, exhausted, there isn’t a breath of wind, no air, the sun is so hot!

Isaline
Isaline Merle

After walking for an hour and a half and observing the man-made destruction, we arrive back at the forest. The breeze arrives suddenly, a refreshing relief, we sit in the shade and don’t want to move again, we think of the wonder of these trees that give us shade, freshness, moisture…their fruits, and we think about how nice it would be to bring some of the children and young people here to walk in the midday heat and then suddenly feel the freshness of the forest like we did all over our bodies.

We set off again under the beating sun, but at the forest’s edge the sun isn’t as strong anymore. We see a worker cutting down a tree with a chainsaw. We walk on.  Some men from the communities exchange a few words with him.  A few metres beyond that are piles of wooden planks, all ready to be taken away and sold…. How many trees? How many hectares destroyed? About 30![6] How many water sources disappeared?

When we get back to the farm the women are waiting for us with a big smile and a delicious meal of chicken, banana, yucca and rice, cooked over a wood fire.  Will these families’ dreams of living in peace come true one day?

Javier y Isaline
Javier from the Interchurch Justice and Peace Commission advices the community; in the photo he poses with Isaline.

Isaline Merle


Footnotes:

[1] Verdad Abierta: Los líos no resueltos de Belén de Bajirá, 21 June 2017
[2] Cinep: Los retos de la restitución de tierras para la construcción de paz en el Chocó, 24 July 2015
[3] Contagio Radio: Empresa Agromar provoca desastre ambiental en Chocó, 20 June 2017
[4] Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz: En 2012 se declararon 6 nuevas Zonas de Biodiversidad, 14 March 2013
[5] Cijp: Arrasan bosque primario y bienes para agronegocios ilegales, 30 March 2017
[6] Op. cit. Empresa Agromar provoca desastre ambiental en Chocó

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