A born leader

The vastness of green and the majestic Putumayo River are the first things you notice when you leave Jani Silva’s farm. One breathes tranquillity and fresh air, hears the birds and sees the cows running in the fields of the Perla Amazónica Peasant Reserve Zone (ZRCPA). However, these views and this open air are no longer part of their daily lives. Almost three years ago, Jani Silva and her husband Hugo Miramar packed up all their belongings, got on a boat and travelled down the river to Puerto Asis, where they sought refuge. After so many threats and so much stress it was no longer possible to stay on the farm. You have to take care of your life.

Perla Amazónica Peasant Reserve Zone.

Since then they have not returned permanently to Bajo Cuembi. They live in a small house in the town centre, far from their land, their crops, and their community. However, this forced displacement was not recognised by the Prosecutor’s Office. On 3 August 2019, Jani received a letter notifying her that the investigation had been closed for “lack of forced displacement”1. This is in spite of the constant complaints issued by the Justice and Peace Commission (J&P2) about the threats and harassment suffered by Jani for several years. It also ignores the fact that Jani and her husband at the time, are beneficiaries of precautionary measures. In addition, in recent months, a new plan to attempt to kill her was reported3: her name appeared on the list of people illegally tapped by intelligence agents of the National Army. However, the situation of lack of adequate protection continues.

Jani Silva was born in Leticia, Amazonas.

Jani Silva is a great leader. And that leadership, which is in her blood, was passed on to her by her mother, who was a member of the board of directors of the Community Action Board (JAC) of the village where they lived.

“When you go to the farm, the excitement of planting something, a field of beans, of tomatoes, of seeing that crop grows, is a unique emotion and it generates attachment to the land.” Jani Silva

Born in Leticia, Amazonas, Jani and her family left when she was five and was 12 years old when they settled in Putumayo. As she says, although at first she was not a country woman, she quickly became a lover of country life and the community: “When you go to the farm, the excitement of planting something, a field of beans, of tomatoes, of seeing that crop grows, is a unique emotion and it generates attachment to the land. You could say ‘how nice it is to live in the city’ because you have access to many things, you have running water so you can take a shower, but when you live in the country you realize how nice it is to bathe in the river, how cool it is. What a thrill it is to go with the fishing rod and pull out a fish yourself. The thrill of fishing is not the same as going to the supermarket and buying your fish. Obviously in the countryside there are many shortcomings, but the quality of life is very different from that of the city”4.

When she was young, studying at the school, she was a representative on the student council for two consecutive years and at 17, she was appointed secretary of the JAC of her village. Her mother coordinated the community work and passed on to her daughter that love of advocacy and accompaniment of her community. As Jani could write, she took charge of taking minutes and writing reports and gradually became more and more involved. Meanwhile, her popularity rose and people in the community began to ask her for support with their paperwork and to ask her to be their spokesperson. She had an natural ability for public speaking and became fond of this work, so she accepted it and became more empowered over the months, ” The needs that exist in the face of the difficult access to education and health can´t help but make you more supportive of the community, with the people from the countryside”. Then, at the age of 26, she was appointed by the community as a “rural inspector” and took up that post for 13 years, allowing her to get to know all the local towns and hamlets. One of her tasks was to update the civil registers of the communities in the area. It was a large task which had been largely unattended; sometimes within a family only one person was registered and had their identity card. “That´s how I got involved in the issue of protecting people, speaking up for them in some spaces and conveying their needs”. To be the voice of the people who couldn’t go out and speak, “and since then they have not let me give up”.

In photos: Mi Name is Woman Perla Amazonica

Jani then began to take on the role of leader in this area of Putumayo; a representative, a person who generated confidence and therefore the inhabitants sought her out to tell them what was happening in the territory. She listened to them and accepted this new role of leader, of organising the community and demanding their rights to life, to the territory, to health, to education, to the protection of life in the countryside. And they organized themselves. Faced with the complicated situation that Putumayo was experiencing in the 1990s, they began to take steps to request that their territory be designated a Peasant Farmer’s Reserve Zone. It was a long process where they consulted each community if they agreed with the process and if they wanted to be part of it. They had to design a development plan and, although at the beginning they did not know how to do this, they received technical support from the municipality and succeeded. However, this support from the institutions was not to the liking of the illegal armed actors present in the area and they began to threaten the leaders.

Faced with the complicated situation that Putumayo was experiencing in the 1990s, they began to take steps to request that their territory be designated a Peasant Farmer’s Reserve Zone.

Eventually, the Perla Amazónica Peasant Reserve Zone (ZRC) was accepted and declared at the end of 2000. The ZRC aims to promote the protection of the environment and the Association for the Integral Sustainable Development of the Perla Amazónica (ADISPA), of which Jani Silva is president, is the association that manages the ZRCPA, carrying out the work of territorial management and education. Jani says that, for example, in 2012, they realised that the wild animals were becoming increasingly rare and that one of the causes was the presence of hunting dogs. For this reason, the various representatives of the villages agreed in an assembly that for two years these animals could not be hunted, and that special care should be taken with hunting dogs. And the results were positive, little by little the Zona de Reserva Campesina was repopulated by wild animals. Although the properties are individual, decisions are made collectively. Land use is managed in the same way and, for example, each plot of cultivated land must have an equal percentage dedicated to conservation.

The Perla Amazónica Peasant Reserve Zone was declared at the end of 2000. The zone aims to promote the protection of the environment and the Association for the Integral Sustainable Development of the Perla Amazónica.

Over the years, one of the great challenges they have faced has been the arrival and expansion of oil companies. According to Jani, these projects came about in the early 2000s when the people leading the ZRCPA were less active due of the threats they were receiving. Initially, to prevent the contamination of soil and water sources, they asked the companies to use existing oil wells and not to open new ones5. However, this did not happen, and the anonymous threats returned when the communities made their first complaints. While the people of ADISPA want to protect their territory, others see the oil projects as an opportunity for employment and development and consider the members of ADISPA as an obstacle. The difficulties with the oil company continue. The inhabitants of the ZRCPA claim that the company has not respected its commitments to repair the environmental damage caused and that they are planning an expansion of oil exploitation in unauthorised areas of the ZRCPA6. This year, there were several verification missions accompanied by the Justice and Peace Commission7.

And as if that were not enough, Jani showed a great commitment to the 2016 Peace Agreement conducting pedagogy for peace. In a large area of coca cultivation, she conducted workshops and encouraged many families to join the crop substitution project – PNIS. They had developed productive agro-ecological and alternative projects, but the government support never came, and promises were never fulfilled8. This failure of the process has also generated many problems in the communities of the ZRCPA and has caused Jani to receive even more threats.

Jani Silva and Nathalie Bienfait.

Therefore, Jani Silva’s work is not yet over. Despite threats, harassment and forced displacement, she remains committed to defending her community and her territory. She continues to wait for the promises of the Peace Agreement to be fulfilled and to seek solutions to the scarcity of rights in rural life.

“It is not easy to be a leader, you can be accused of being an informant, or a thief… I can’t complain, I received a lot of recognition from the community, but there are also many risks. You quickly realise that there are some people that don’t want someone around who can speak for the community, who can organise. What they are interested in ensuring that the people don´t raise their voices”. But Jani Silva won’t remain silent.

Nathalie Bienfait

2 Comisión de Justicia y Paz, organización acompañada por PBI Colombia.
4 Interview with Jani Silva in Puerto Asis in May 2019.
8 Interview with Jani Silva in Puerto Asis in May 2019

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