Guacamayas: “Simply Staying on the Land”

The Atrato River starts in the Plateado Hills of the western mountain range in Antioquia. This river, which crosses the departments of Chocó and Antioquia before flowing into the Gulf of Urabá, is one of the region’s most abundant rivers and an irrefutable source of life. It is also one of the areas hardest hit by the armed conflict. In particular, the Bajo Atrato, and the Urabá subregion have registered around 429,820 victims of forced displacement, dispossession, and selective murders, among other serious human rights violations.

The actions of the banana, palm oil, and mining industries, tied to armed actors, have contributed to a dispossession of ethnic communities from their lands amid grave state omissions relative to protection guarantees. Dispossession suffered by the communities of the Bajo Atrato has a common denominator, a violation of their ancestral rights and environmental impacts on their lands. Additionally, there has been violence against men and women land claimant leaders, like Mario Castaño, murdered five years ago, on 26 November 2017, on his farm in the Larga and Tumaradó river basins (Bajo Atrato).

Homage to two leaders assassinated in Bajo Atrato in late 2017: Mario Castaño and Hernán Bedoya.

Mario Castaño was a central leader in the land reclamation processes for disputed lands in the Larga and Tumaradó river basins that, through his denouncements, showed the role of businesses in illegal dispossession along with tight territorial control from the Gaitan Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) paramilitary group, and an absence of state institutions. Due to his leadership, he was a victim of forced displacement on two occasions and experienced multiple threats against his life and integrity, until he was silenced forever.

Mario Castaño, in memoriam

Five years later, the context of violence and dispossession has hardly changed in Larga and Tumaradó, inhabited by 49 Afro-Colombian communities who, in theory, own 107,000 hectares of land. In practice, 95% of productive land is in the hands of ten business owners who acquired the land in the late 90s amid waves of paramilitary violence in the region. This violence caused the displacement of close to 93% of the Larga and Tumaradó’s over 5,000 inhabitants.

The region of La Larga and Tumaradó in Bajo Atrato.

In 2014, the community that makes up the community council[1] of Larga and Tumaradó (COCOLATU), and 21 peasant families, began the difficult process to achieve land restitution and, on 1 September 2017, the Land Restitution Unit registered this collective territory in the registry for dispossessed and forcibly abandoned lands. In 2019, the rural community of Guacamayas, in this same territory, became one of the country’s most emblematic cases relative to land restitution, with the return of 12 farms after a 20 year fight. Nevertheless, when the communities of Guacamayas returned to their land, they found it to have been destroyed by large-scale cattle ranching, deforestation, and monocultures, in addition to a persistent presence and control by armed actors and, therefore, threats and attacks against them.

The Inter-church Commission of Justicia y Paz in the community of Guacamayas.

Alfranio Solano, a land claimant leader of Guacamayas, who has suffered several attacks, states that the greatest challenge continues to be “simply staying on the land.” This isn’t so simple considering that remaining in the territory depends not only on the minimal security conditions but also food security. “If we have food security, we have resistance,” says Alfranio, “eating what we plant gives us the stability that allows us to resist.”

Farmer and community leader Alfranio Solano sharing the Guacamayas food sovereignty project.

There are multiple challenges, in addition to experiencing forced displacement and interminable legal cases to ensure a return, how can a community’s ability to stay in the territory be guaranteed after a return? For many organizations like the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) and Forging Futures (Forjando Futuros),[2] that accompany the process for the Guacamayas community to return and remain on their land, there are close ties between security guarantees for the communities and food security. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) has also spoken of these ties. Recently, the body granted precautionary measures to protect COCOLATU representatives and other land claimant families. The measures include the State obligation to guarantee their food security.

Community work for food sovereignty.

In the case of the communities from Guacamayas, after years of work on dry and spent land, they were able to implement an economic project that provides the land with the abundance it had lost. Food security and the possibility of living off of their harvests are essential elements to guarantee security for these communities and their ongoing presence on the land. Food security was also key, for example, in the return of the communities from the Cacarica River in the Bajo Atrato displaced by “Operation Genesis” in 1997. Something unique about this return, in 2002, was a prioritization of food security in the exploratory phases. They decided to return in several phases, to advance in the planting and harvest, and to ensure a safe return for the rest of the community. Thus, the harvest became a powerful resistance tool for the community.

Activity with the Cacarica Community Council and community leader Alfranio Solano on “best practices” and traditions related to agriculture using native seeds and without chemicals. Forjando Futuros’ workshops are focused on sharing issues such as protecting the environment and community wisdom.

It is impossible to understand total peace in Colombia without including environmental peace, and by extension, food security. In the context of a climate emergency, with the ravages of deforestation and pollution, the communities of rural areas like Guacamayas are protecting the rivers’ water, protecting the land and plants, and they are working to achieve food security after returning to their territories. “Food security is an implicit part of security for these communities,” said a member of the Forjando Futuros team, and it has always had a key role in the strategy to return to the land.  Sharing this collective knowledge shows that with everything they have already achieved, the communities continue fighting to “simply stay on the land.”

Shirin Hesse

Urabá Team, PBI Colombia

[1] In Colombian, a Community Council is an administrative unit that can administer a designated area, typically at the local level.  The most common form is the Community Council for the Lands of Black Communities, officially recognized in Law 70 of 1993.

[2] In addition to providing legal representation to victims for land restitution and access to truth, justice, reparation, and non-repetition, Forjando Futuros also promotes other elements of peacebuilding, focused on the communities’ security and autonomy through food security.

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