We accompany the most threatened communities and organisations in Colombia 365 days of the year; this means that we are also in the field during the Christmas holidays. This year we visited the family and community of land restitution leader Mario Castaño, who was recently killed in La Larga Tumaradó.
We take a diversion from the main road and continue by motorbike, until the track becomes so bad that we have to make the rest of the journey on foot, until we arrive at La Madre Unión, a small hamlet converted into a Biodiversity Zone, a mechanism used by communities in Colombia to protect their fundamental rights, lands and the ecosystem. We pass by large-scale rice fields, which shine an irridescent green in the sunlight. A group of children comes towards us on horseback. We are half-way there and I am really grateful when they offer to carry our heavy rucksacks on the horses.
At the entrance to La Madre Unión the people receive us with warmth and a sense of relief. Rosemary limps slowly towards us. She has tears in her eyes and is smiling all at the same time. She gives us a bear hug, as though she has known us all her life, yet neither myself nor Fernando has been here before. This is really an accumulated hug, a thanks to the dozens of brigadistas who have visited this beautiful green plateau.
In the centre of the village is a football field. Around it sit single-storey houses made of wood with metal roofs, some uninhabited because the families have gone back to their farms, Rosemary explains. “I prefer to carry on living here, it is a haven of peace”, she tells us, happy to have our attention. “I would be really scared to live in my house in the countryside”, she confesses.
Even though it is 24 December, a group of men are building a two-storey house. “They will put the roof on tomorrow”, says Rosemary. They are behind with the construction work because of everything that has happened this month, as nobody was expecting Hernán Bedoya, another leader from the region, to be killed just ten days after the murder of Mario Castaño. The new building will be inaugurated in January as the House of Remembrance (Casa de la Memoria) in honour of Mario Castaño and all the other people who have lost their lives defending their land. Castaño played an important role in the creation of this and other Biodiversity Zones in La Larga Tumaradó, and in speaking with the government so that one day the community can own the collective titles to these lands, where they have lived for generations.
To celebrate Christmas, the women have cooked tamales – chicken and rice wrapped inside plantain leaves – and the traditional sweet natilla con buñuelos, as is customary throughout Colombia. “We would have liked to do a lot more”, confesses Rosemary, a little embarrassed. Nevertheless, they have managed to get together some presents for the children. During the sunny afternoon dozens of girls and a few boys appear out of nowhere and Rosemary gives balls, toy airplanes and cars to the boys and hairdressing and cooking sets to the girls. “I want an airplane too”, says one girl, disappointed to receive the set of pink plates and oven, and Rosemary good humouredly exchanges her gift. “She’s going to be an air hostess”, she says with pleasure. She also gives them some illustrated books about the declaration of human rights and she spends time with each child, explaining how important it is that they know their rights.
At nightfall we meet with the whole community on the upper floor of the future House of Remembrance. The half-light shines brightly through the clouds. Aggressive mosquitoes fly down and eat us alive as we listen to the stories of those who have gathered here. They talk about Mario Castaño, his murder, the gap that his death has left in the community leadership. “We have lost a leader, but he has enabled us to move forward with the restitution process in La Larga Tumaradó”. Over and over again they express their thanks for our presence here. “I feel protected and encouraged with you here”, says one woman shyly. “We would like it if you could come more often”, adds a man sitting beside her. This is something we have heard repeatedly in these last few months of uncertainty and of increased violence against land claimants. Mario’s death has undoubtedly left a vacuum and the people are thinking twice about taking over his role as spokesperson. The meeting finishes and we end Christmas Eve by watching a Will Smith action film. The children break into fits of laughter and eat more buñuelos con natilla. By 10pm they are all in bed, and Fernando and I put our hammocks up. We can hear music coming from the first house in the village. The itchy rashes caused by bites from mosquitoes and other flying insects make it impossible to sleep. I lie in my hammock, thinking about the small dreams of these people from the countryside, their struggle for land bringing a new challenge each day, surrounded by armed actors who fight for territorial control and economic interests that seek to exploit the natural resources on the land without restriction. Here in La Larga Tumaradó, extensive cattle farming and African palm crops cover a considerable part of the surroundings, and Anglogold Ashanti has obtained a mining permit to exploit copper, silver and gold in these lands.
We get up early on Christmas Day. Rosemary prepares us a tinto (coffee with sugarloaf) and a fruit salad. A group of men have started building work again on the House of Remembrance. We say goodbye, promising to come back for the inauguration, and begin our journey to our house in Apartadó, first of all walking back along the track through the mud, and then by motorbike, bus and taxi.
More than anything, this was an emotional accompaniment, to show the community that they are not alone, that the eyes of the world are observing all human rights violations in this remote place.
Text and photos: Bianca Bauer