Maria Ligia Chaverra reminds me of a famous French saying from when I was young: petit mais costaud, meaning great things come in small packages. She is a small woman with great strength: when she arrives somewhere, everyone goes quiet and looks at her with admiration. She is 77 years old now and has been fighting for the rights of her community, including their land rights, for 20 years, in the midst of the armed conflict which has terrorised the Bajo Atrato region. On 5 September, her lifelong struggle was recognised when she won the National Prize for the Defence of Human Rights awarded by the Church of Sweden and the organisation Diakonia. It was an emotional and important moment for her, and also for her community, after a particularly difficult year.
Despite the signing of the Peace Agreement, violence, threats and terror continue to be felt in the collective territory of Curbaradó. The land restitution process is still frozen and land claims leaders are being killed. Two important leaders from the area were killed at the end of last year; Mario Castaño on 26 November 2017 and Hernán Bedoya on 8 December 2017. Hernán Bedoya was very close to the community in the Las Camelias Humanitarian Zone. Since these killings, the neo-paramilitary group Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) have threatened and intimidated the communities, causing terror. Within this tense situation, the most painful thing for María Ligia has been losing her life partner, Celedonio Martinez, who passed away on 26 July 2017.
That is why winning this prize was such an important and joyful moment, “a privilege” as Maria Ligia says, “recognition for our struggle for our lands, for our community in the Las Camelias Humanitarian Zone in Curbaradó, it represents all the human rights I have had to defend over the past 20 years.”
Talking to Maria Ligia is always fascinating, she never tires of telling stories, like the one about the day she arrived in Curbaradó in 1959, on 20 February to be more precise, in Carmen Del Darién, which in those days was called Curbaradó: “I arrived with my hubby and that’s where we lived, he was by my side in the struggle my whole life until he died last year. He was really scared of the sound of gunfire, and so he had heart problems and that’s what sent him to his grave.” She also tells us that she was one of the founders of Belén de Bajira, “we were in our territory when some of the people living there told us that they were going to build a village on the Timiridó river, the river in Bajira, it was a Sunday I remember, we went there, even though there was no road, we crossed the forest and the rivers until we got there. We found a shop right there on the floor, all the goods were laid out on top of plastic sheets. We bought some shoes from the man who had the shop. And then we stayed and built the village, and the road that leads from the port of Brisas to Belén de Bajira, we built it ourselves, the community, with our own strength.”
Life was calm until 1996, when the military and paramilitary operations began, aimed at taking control of the territory. Maria Ligia remembers the first paramilitary incursion in Brisas on 6 October 1996, saying “those who knew about war left, but we did not know what would happen, so we stayed, because we felt we belonged there, but we had lots of things to sustain us there, our houses, even though they were poor people’s houses they were ours, and there were our animals, and so we stayed”, she remembers.
1997 was a terrible year. The Jiguamiandó and Curbaradó river basin areas were emptied of their civilian population, but Maria Ligia’s family stayed and were then displaced 13 times with their children inside the territory itself, however, as she says with pride “we resisted, I was not going anywhere. We even had to hide in the rainforest for about 6 months with the little ones, living off the sunshine and the water”, remembers Maria, “but we stayed, and then Father Armando Valencia from the Pastoral Social community organisation in Rio Sucio came to find us with a Spanish organisation called Paz y Tercer Mundo (PTM).” That was when they heard about and were inspired by the experience “of our brothers and sisters from Cacarica”, as Maria describes it, a community who had formed the first Humanitarian Zone (HZ) in the country so that they could return to their lands and create a place of refuge for the exclusive use of the civilian population, based on the principle of distinction in International Humanitarian Law. They created a relationship of solidarity and brotherhood with the communities of Jiguamiandó, and when they told them about the experiences in Cacarica, and their wish to create a similar Zone, the community recommended talking to the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz – CIJP). They made contact and the Humanitarian Zones began to extend. “I had to travel to Canada to declare the area a Humanitarian Zone and declare how we were going to live in the territory. The Humanitarian Zones got bigger. They created one in Bella Flor de Mayo, and after that in El Tesoro, Buena Vista and then it was our turn. Then we travelled to Europe to tell people about the situation, we made declarations about the situation we communities from the Bajo Atrato region found ourselves in, and we talked about the creation of the Humanitarian Zones as a protection mechanism for the civilian population. I was always well received, and everyone congratulated me when I received the Prize.”
Maria Ligia’s love for her land lives on, as does her strength of will to stay here and resist by insisting on her rights and those of her community: “if they kill me it will be on my land, I´m not going anywhere else”.
“For ten years I didn’t see the Curbaradó river because I was hiding in the rainforest, and the day I came back to see Curbaradó, I looked at the river and it seemed like an ocean. I thought about the river Curbaradó and then we started to clear an area to build a community, because there wasn’t a single soul there… and when we cleared an area, people came back little by little to see what the situation was like until eventually the population all came back again. The whole territory was planted with oil palm trees, there was only sky, and palm trees, there wasn’t even a guava tree, but little by little we started recovering the land and planting our crops again. You couldn’t find anything in this territory that wasn’t oil palm. And there were signs saying “private property” with chains and locks, the palm growers, the businessmen had taken over our land. We got rid of all the barriers and fences without using bullets, we used dialogue, and we reported what was happening, with the support of international organisations, and here we are today.”
In the middle of the violence and the displacements, to save her and her family’s life, Maria Ligia chose the struggle for life and territory as she herself says, and she does not feel tired yet. As she commented on the day she received her prize, “I will continue the struggle for our children’s future… I want my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren to live in a new Colombia, not this Colombia that I have lived through, but a Colombia at peace.”
Despite the fact that the situation in the collective territory is still of concern due to the control waged by the AGC neo-paramilitary group, Maria Ligia recognises that the Peace Agreement between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC-EP has had a positive impact. There is no longer armed combat, there are no more bombardments, “we have not had to run away”, as she says, “we have been in the Humanitarian Zone with our dreams”. Nevertheless, she also notes the delay in the implementation of the agreement, highlighting the killings against human rights defenders, “it was agreed that there would be no more killings of leaders, that the territories would be returned to their true owners, but this agreement has not yet been fulfilled, although we do keep up our hopes and our faith that it can still happen. Because we know that these things can take time.”
Lately there have been orders for land to be cleared which has been occupied in bad faith, and land to be returned to its true owners, the communities. However, in spite of progress in the land restitution process, there are not many guarantees and the community is afraid of repercussions from people who have occupied land in bad faith, as happened in the case of the Martinez family recently.
Maria Ligia continues her journey as a human rights defender with strength and hope, affirming that she will always “defend human rights with all my might, for all Colombian communities, because we have rights to live a dignified life, we are leaders with a conscience, we stand firm and the community trusts its leaders.” And she is not intimidated by the threats, “they threaten us because we are the thorn in the side of the people who do not want us to defend our rights, and who want to control our resources.”
“In my heart I was glad to struggle to stay in this territory. Because I lived my youth in this territory, I arrived here when I was 17 years old, I worked the land, I had my family here, my husband and I had 8 children who grew up here, and they have had 40 kids of their own, so what I aspire to is to continue the struggle for this land until I die, my wish is for us all to recover our land, not just me, but all of the communities in Curbaradó. They have not returned the land to us yet and so we are still resisting, we have decided not to give in but to fight for our land with the support of the CIJP, and our friends from international organisations, that is how we have gained you (PBI) as friends, you have supported us, you have accompanied us.”
When we ask what peace means to her, what her dreams of peace are for her grandchildren, she replies that for her, peace is first and foremost created in the territories, and that it is “a dignified peace without any war, with everyone living in peace, without weapons or fear of losing our lives, so that when we die it is because God has called us home.” She also highlights the importance of accompanying and giving opportunities to communities so that they can get out of poverty, that the State supports productive projects, that vulnerable communities are not left in isolation, “and that we can survive in our lands with the support of the government without being afraid that it will be taken away again”, she says, her eyes ablaze.
These issues are still present in the region; there are a lot of extensive single crop plantations, because the land here is very fertile, good for that kind of crop. That is what the communities explain when they are asked about the violence and the businessmen’s desire to take over these lands, “that is partly why land restitution leaders are being killed, because they are opposed to the projects and they report what is happening”.
Maria Ligia tells us that international accompaniment is still necessary, to raise awareness of the situation and accompany the communities in their lands “and to support us to build peace”, she tells me.
As we walk through the Humanitarian Zone, saying hello to “los Resistentes”, we see and we feel the strength and togetherness of the community. Some of the young people are following in María Ligia’s footsteps, fighting for their community and their land rights. They have developed an educational project which they have called AFLICOC, a school within the Humanitarian Zone where a number of young people from the area come to get training on different issues related to their history and territory. Hope and perseverance live on.
 Semana Rural: Reclamar tierras en Urabá: conseguirlo o morir en el intento, 24 January 2018; Semana: El laberinto de los líderes de restitución de tierras, 9 May 2017; El Tiempo: Reclamantes de tierras, entre el miedo y la lucha por la restitución, 9 May 2017
 CIJP: Lideresa María Ligia Chaverra es blanco de amenazas, 6 December 2017; CIJP: Plan para atentar contra la vida de líderes y lideresas de Curvaradó, 29 January 2018
 CIJP: Celedonio Martínez, patriarca de las tierras del Curvaradó, 27 July 2017
 Verdad Abierta: La barbarie que rodeó la siembra de palma en Chocó, 6 August 2013
 El Tiempo: Condenan a 16 personas por desplazamientos en Jiguamiandó y Curvaradó, 15 December 2014; CIJP: La lucha por la tierra y la vida en Curvaradó y Jiguamiandó”, 12 June 2013
 CIJP: Nueva ocupación ilegal de tierras y perturbación en la posesión pacífica de la familia Martínez, 10 September 2018