We arrived to stay

“The situation we have at the moment is critical,” states Erasmo Sierra, a strong man of 74 years old, who has been with his wife Agrepina for 47 years. They live in Jiguamiandó, in the department of Chocó. “I arrived here when I was a small kid,” Don Erasmo laughs gazing, eyes filled with nostalgia, at his wife. There were so many mosquitoes flying around that I didn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning”, Agrepina adds. At that time this was all native forest and Agrepina tells us how she could get lost in the forest walking for hours, climbing up small hills until eventually, she would with relief spot her house from the top.

Erasmo Sierra
Erasmo Sierra

They were lucky enough to have the money to buy 130 hectares of land, which was covered in thick rainforest, for which they only paid $27,000 Colombian pesos. Now it is not much money, but in the seventies, it was a small fortune, “a man earned 20 cents a week in order to feed himself” he points out.

During the last 18 years, the Sierra family have held out through war: armed incursions, forced displacement, food blockades…. And now, after the demobilisation of the FARC, who operated in this area until last year, a new stage has begun as there is an increasing presence of the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces (AGC). “You hear rumours all over the place that the paras are coming,” Erasmo says firmly without an intonation of fear in his voice. This is because he is used to coping with such violence, a type of violence that seems to be increasing. In May this year, the local population spotted about 300 uniformed men with high calibre weapons moving through the territory of Jiguamiandó[1], and in June the son of a local land claimant was assassinated[2].

Two men painted graffiti on the fence of Erasmo’s Biodiversity Zone that stated: “AGC we arrived to stay”. They painted other similar messages on a nearby bridge.

Erasmo and Agrepina live in the Nueva Esperanza Humanitarian Zone and just last week, the 7th of July, relived their fearful memories of the past because two young men arrived on a motorbike and started taking photos of the boats that were floating down the calm waters of the Jiguamiandó river. The same men later painted graffiti on the fence of Erasmo’s Biodiversity Zone that stated: “AGC we arrived to stay”. They painted other similar messages on a nearby bridge.

It is even more worrying that these individuals enter into a Humanitarian or Biodiversity Zone because these areas were created to protect the civil population and therefore prevent the entrance of any type of armed individual. A recent article about the peace process in Colombia stated that “in Colombia, more than ever, the past weighs over the present like the corpse of a giant.”[3] And this is what we sense when we speak to Erasmo and his neighbours. The graffiti takes us back to another moment in this conflict: the arrival of the paramilitary groups in the nineties and the fear of internal displacement and violence. For the community, this act is blackmail, a warning, a threat, a hard blow to what the Humanitarian Zone means.  What is the government doing to protect the territories that have been abandoned by the FARC? Many people ask themselves this question.

Jiguamiando perro
During the last 18 years, the Sierra family have held out through war: armed incursions, forced displacement, food blockades.

The reconfiguration of the armed conflict isn’t the only problem that is affecting the Sierra family and the community in which they live. The land situation is still ambiguous despite the fact that in 2000 the INCORA (Colombian Institute for Land Reform, now under the name of INCODER) titled 54,973 hectares of land to the Community Council of Jiguamiandó in the context of authorising collective titles to Afrocolombian communities in the framework of the 70 Law.[4] And according to this legislation, the collective territory can’t be sold.

But the local population have observed that the land is, in fact, being sold. Erasmo tells us disconcertingly that “there is a man buying land here, and don’t I know what his plan is”. Many years ago, the Colombian government made a promise to hand over lands in this region “free of previous debts and problems” Erasmo highlights. A lot of land occupiers have acted in bad faith; they have come from other parts of Colombia and they are actually working for large-scale cattle farms or banana or palm oil plantations.  For the environment, this has been a disaster, “here you can’t find lumber to build a house with.”

ZH Nueva Esperanza_Jigua
The Humanitarian Zones and the Biodiversity Zones were created by the displaced communities when they returned back to their land in order to protect themselves from the armed conflict. They are based on the principle of distinction in International Humanitarian Law that states that they are places of exclusive use of the civilian population and do not allow the entrance of armed individuals.

The department of Chocó has been one of the most affected by deforestation according to the IDEAM (the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies) which analyses these scenarios. Colombia went from having 64,417,000 hectares of forest in 1990 to 58,501,700 in 2015. A loss of 5,915,300 hectares in 25 years. The causes named by the IDEAM are exactly the ones being lived in Jiguamiandó: the hoarding of land, the cultivation of illicit crops, extensive cattle farming and mining.[5]

The situation is difficult, but Don Erasmo has faith that one-day things could change.  Remember that in 2005 the people from Jiguamiandó armed themselves with machetes and they went into the palm plantations that had invaded their land and they cut the palm trees down. Now they want to strengthen the concept of the Humanitarian Zone and claim their rights: And how? Putting a barbed wire fence up outside the Zone, building a House of Memory and keeping together as a community.

Nathalie Bienfait and Bianca Bauer


[1] Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission: Presencia de AGC en cercanías de Resguardos Embera y comunidades negras de Jiguamiandó, 5th of May 2017
[2] Cijp, AGC responsables del asesinato de Duberney Gómez, 7th of June 2017
[3] Les Inrockuptibles, Colombie : comment la guérilla des FARC va réintégrer la vie civile ?, 8th of July 2017
[4] La Silla Vacía Curvaradó y Jiguamiandó: La gran prueba de la restitución de tierras de Santos, 18th of March
[5] Semana Deforestación en Colombia aumentó un 44% entre 2015 y 2016, 6th of July

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