“I am also called Magdalena”

An account of the first meeting of women from the Campesino Reserve Zone (ZRC) in the Cimitarra River Valley

Since the month of June and during a number of visits to the office of the Campesino Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC) we noticed that the organisation was completely engrossed in organising this event.[1] We asked Doña Irene if it was the first time that an event of this kind had been organised and led by the women from this region. Apparently it was not. The President of the ACVC told us that there had previously been a number of other such events and that in 1996 they had organised women’s meetings on a large scale with the Popular Women’s Organisation (OFP), but that they unfortunately had to leave this organising to one side after the wave of paramilitary violence meant that they had to concentrate exclusively on defending their lives.

Now the aim was to create new forums and spaces so that rural women could develop their own political proposals as a female collective from the Magdalena Medio region, which in turn would lead to a renewed sense of sisterhood. And all this was to take place in this region, which lies at the heart of the ACVC’s work.

The great day arrived

At first light, down by the water’s edge, the huge sense of excitement is palpable, as we wait for the boat that is going to take us to Cantagallo, which according to its regional hymn is “an up-and-coming sovereign municipality”. There is a feeling of joy in the air and everyone is ready and willing to make the event happen. “We hope that today will be a very important day for women”, says Sonia Nevado, a tireless leader from the region.

Everything has been prepared with great care, with each person given a particular task. In each area an adult is in charge of looking after and playing with the children, so that those who are leading the meeting do not have to play their usual role of mother-caretaker, but can instead concentrate on their role as a leader capable of deciding the direction of her community. During these two days in Cantagallo, women are at the forefront of politics in the municipality, a role which has historically been denied to rural women. I feel satisfaction seeing so many women taking a leading role in the “public sphere”, as the speakers and moderators are women, while the men distribute the refreshments, take care of the children and clean the bathrooms. The world has been turned on its head for 48 hours.

The guests are 200 campesina women from villages in the municipalities of Yondó, San Pablo, Cantagallo and Remedios and also women from the city, and these women from academia and from the field exchange their knowledge and problems, considering together how to generate ways for women’s rights to be respected, designing strategies and communication channels, ways for the community to approach State institutions and vice versa, thereby building trust. All this is set against the backdrop of the tireless struggle for the implementation of the Peace Agreements and their gender component,[2] particularly in terms of political participation, the rural economy and land ownership. The meeting offers an opportunity to recognise and reaffirm women’s leadership, invisible for some time, but nevertheless a fundamental element in guaranteeing food sovereignty and resistance within the Campesino Reserve Zone (ZRC).

The words of Doña Irene, President of the ACVC, are greeted with applause and standing ovations, as she recalls how women drew upon their strength to take on the leadership of the organisation during the most difficult of times, back in 2007, when several of their male colleagues were arrested. Judith Maldonado from Voices of Peace[3] speaks about those victims who did not live to see the end of the conflict negotiated, but for whom “this is the best tribute, it is an act of memory, and that is why we must not falter”. She also highlights the enormous significance of each woman taking part in the event: “I know that you have had to overcome many obstacles”.

137 Magdalena Medio
Campesina women “conceive our body as a territory where care for the environment begins.” Photo: Caldwell Manners/ECAP

Women in the Campesino Reserve Zones

In all the interventions we can hear and also feel that the model of the ZRC is something more than just an economic proposal for those who inhabit it; it is also a symbol in itself that evokes environmental care and campesino culture, with all the accumulated knowledge and countryside traditions which exist because the culture is rooted in the land. From a political point of view, associations such as the ACVC and Cahucopana (accompanied by PBI) work for the recognition of small-scale farmers as political subjects and rights holders, fundamentally the rights to own land and live in their territory, which have been historically denied and which lie at the root of the violence in many parts of the country. The initiative has sought to provide sustenance to the farmers through community crops and farming projects, to ensure a decent way of life which is not harmful to the land.

It is important to remember that the ACVC was founded as a result of small-scale farmers’ protests that took place between 1996-1998, when campesinos were displaced and were seeking refuge from paramilitary persecution.[4] In 2004, Cahucopana was founded from a similar experience in the village of Lejanías, when campesinos from the North East of Antioquia decided to work together to counteract the effects of a humanitarian crisis caused by economic, health and food blockades imposed by legal and illegal armed actors in the area.[5] The role of women in ensuring food sovereignty and resistance in these areas has been fundamental, for example, in caring for seeds and water, which has made it possible to guarantee continuity.

What are Campesino Reserve Zones?

1504 Mina Walter, Magdalena Medio
The Campesino Reserve Zone in the Valle del Río Cimitarra region covers 550 thousand hectares of land, 370 thousand of which are Forest Reserves. Photo: Florian Zeidler

Women and political participation

The accumulated stories of women’s leadership and political contribution in their territories have not been recognised. A study by UN Women and the UNDP indicates that rural women suffer triple discrimination, since they are excluded from economic, social and political life because they are women, because they are rural people and because of the disproportionate impact that the armed conflict and other forms of intimidation and violence have on them,[6] which means that they have been more exposed to violence and have also had their participation limited. During the event the women point out that for reality to change, customs and culture must also change: “In one village in the Catatumbo region, in another event like this, the men did not like their women to participate in these committees. To change that custom, we had to fine all those who did not let their women partners participate”.

138 Caldwell Manners
Photo: Caldwell Manners

In the meeting some women talk about their experiences, while others look for words to try and define what is needed to change this reality. Nuria Martínez, from the Latin American Coordination of Rural Organisations, proposes the need for a small-scale farming grass-roots feminist movement: “many of us campesina women also thought that feminism was just another extreme, but by studying we realised that we were also [feminists]”. The rural women start to use the word “empowerment” more and more during the event. It is exciting to witness the way in which, as the hours pass, each and every one of the attendees is losing their shyness and daring to take a step forward to talk about their experiences, sing a song or recite a poem. The event really is a space for full and safe participation, which many of the women have probably never experienced before.

Doña Ligia, from the village of Camelias in the North East of the Antioquia department, is part of the Human Rights Committee and the Women’s Committee in the organisation Cahucopana. She summarises the participation in the event with these wise yet simple words: “in the meeting we tell the stories we know so that other women can hear them”.

Women and the environment

One of the main objectives of the meeting is to develop joint strategies between the community and State institutions. Nine working groups each composed of around twenty female farmers and members of institutions discuss the main problems identified by rural women for political participation, sexual and reproductive health, the environment, health, education, land, the implementation of the agreements and human rights.

The Environmental Working Group presents in a participative way how the elements of an ecosystem interact and how the water depends on the soil, the flora and the fauna, and what happens when the links between these elements are broken, which is also a metaphor on thinking at the community level, instead of thinking in individual terms. “It is the difference between those of us who feel like we are part of the territory and feel the interdependence and relationship of these elements with ourselves, and those of us who do not feel part of this. Women, in general, have the greatest sense of belonging”. Little by little, the main problems are identified that particularly affect rural women’s activities, in relation to the care of the environment. There is even a debate on whether organic cooking is a specific women’s issue. Some simple strategies are identified to implement significant changes in the villages, such as moving from cooking with wood to cooking with gas thanks to bio-generator technology, and tree-planting projects on the banks of streams and deforested lands. The women also identify that manure from laying hens could be a solution for drylands and there are other exchanges of experiences and knowledge, also contributed by members of the State institutions, which are shared so that they can be replicated in other villages. The Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development offers technical support and comments that they are preparing a guideline for the protection of campesino knowledge for biodiversity.

During the accounts of the problems experienced by rural women in their daily activities on the land and with the environment, it becomes clear that both nature and women themselves have and continue to face oppression. Ángela, of the ACVC, raises the need for an eco-feminism that can overcome this violence and places emphasis on the interdependence between humans and nature, highlighting the caring economy which is traditionally women’s labour. After all, the women say, campesina women “conceive our body as a territory where care for the environment begins”.

Jaqueline, one of the women participating in the event, says that the impact of companies on water is never considered. In the South of Bolivar there are many extensive African palm mono-crops, and one of the main problems associated with this activity is the effect it has on water sources. Each palm tree consumes around 30 litres of water per day, leading to the depletion of water sources, polluting the water and wetlands and affecting vegetation cover. The women also discuss the need to link the protection of the environment with the Peace Agreements. For Luz “these meetings are very important because they can do whatever they want to us, when we do not know our rights”.

The Campesino Reserve Zone in the Cimitarra River Valley and the “Yellow Line”

The territory of the ZRC in the Cimitarra River Valley covers 184,000 hectares in the rural areas of the municipalities of Segovia, Remedios, Yondó, Cantagallo and San Pablo; the rest of the area is not considered legally as a ZRC but as a forest reserve area. The whole area is rich in gold and hydrocarbons and also has the potential for fracking activity. In fact, the day before the meeting the Environmental Ministry gave the green light for the fracking method to begin in Colombia.[7] Some 260,000 hectares within the territory are currently under application (pending approval) for hydrocarbon extraction projects and there are 16 applications for large-scale mining projects. The main problem is that the ZRC protects the land, but not the subsoil.

In the ZRC’s Sustainable Development Plan (2012-2022), the small-scale mining and farming communities prioritised the protection of an area in the Serranía de San Lucas (a mountain range located between Antioquia and the South of Bolívar regions) known as the Yellow Line,[8] to safeguard the virgin rain forest which covers more than 70,000 hectares. The initiative to protect this space from the devastating effects of the war began in the ACVC Working Groups for Dignified Life. This is an example of a development plan built by communities for the protection of the biodiversity in the mountain range and the collective rights of its inhabitants, such as the right to water, food, a healthy environment and seeds. These projects were never seen as money-making ideas, but rather as guarantors of food sovereignty, in the context of an armed conflict that hit the farmers hard over many years in this area of ​​the country. “We have best protected the different species by getting to know them”, says Ángela, a member of the ACVC and facilitator of this project, which has documented the flora and fauna. The organisation is working with the National Parks authority to find a legal model that can protect this area, however, there continue to be delays on the part of the Government to create a strategy for the Yellow Line to be formalised.[9]

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Photo: Delphine Taylor

The Environmental Ministry has also begun working on other projects with the ACVC to protect the environment. The new “Peace Forests” initiative is a policy developed by the small-scale farmers for conservation and coexistence. Ángela explains that they will look for 60 environmental guardians to implement this program “which I hope will include many women guardians”, she comments, with a nod to the women in the room. In addition, among many other activities, the ACVC organises agro-ecological camps and environmental recovery days between the San Lorenzo marsh and the Cimitarra River.

Achievements and commitments

The event closes with a moment of reflection and the reading of the commitments on all the issues, which were collected by the working groups the previous day. With regard to land and the environment, the commitments are as follows: to begin the struggle for the names of both women and men to appear on land titles and not just the men; demand a more agile process in land titling for women; demand that border villages that lie outside of any one municipality may participate in land-use planning schemes; request legal accompaniment for land titling; create women’s committees where there are none at present so that the women can discuss land issues in their area; exchange seeds; promote reforestation; promote meetings between companies, State institutions and the community; promote agro-ecology; seek legal and institutional support for the ZRCs, wetlands and jungles. Last but by no means least, the women create the Magdalena Medio Women’s Coordination, so that they can work together with all the processes in the region on 4 points: education, human rights, agro-ecology and political participation. The event highlights the necessary and inevitable relationship that exists between the points of the Havana Peace Agreement. It clearly shows that in order to guarantee the rights of rural women, progress is needed on land issues, community security, political participation, the concerted and gradual substitution of illicit crops and the recognition of the rights of victims. Ángela Caicedo of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace also adds another dimension: “The Agreement is a great roadmap for overcoming violence against women”.

All the women present come to the front to receive a diploma as recognition, as a symbol of gratitude and to represent their fundamental participation: all the women stand up when the name of their village or municipality is mentioned, proud to be present and to be protagonists. These were two magical days, and I think many of the campesina women must have felt that their voices mattered, that they were as capable as men of identifying, clarifying and solving the problems in their community, and the enthusiasm they brought to one another acted as an empowering spark. “This day was long in coming”; commented one participant, excited after the success of the event.

Clara Ortega Díaz-Aguado


[1] The Meeting of Women from the Campesino Reserve Zone took place in August 2017
[2] The Peace Agreement is the most advanced in the world in terms of gender, which is one of the issues lying at its heart. It contains 122 measures related to gender throughout its text.
[3] ”Voces de Paz” is a citizen’s initiative registered with the National Electoral Council in December 2016 which will have a seat in the Colombian Congress to ensure the implementation of the Peace Agreement.
[4] Prensa Rural: La resistencia campesina en Colombia. La experiencia de la Asociación Campesina del Valle del Río Cimitarra”, 2 February 2005
[5] PBI Colombia: Cahucopana
[6] UNDP and UN Women: Mujeres rurales, gestoras de esperanza, 2011
[7] El Espectador: Ministerio de Ambiente permite el fracking en Colombia, 24 August 2017
[8] Prensa Rural: ¿Sabes qué es La Línea Amarilla?, 10 August 2017
[9] Radio Macondo: A defender la zona de “Línea Amarilla al Sur de la Serranía de San Lucas”, 28 May 2017

*Photo: Caldwell Manners, ECAP

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