What is more desired that development?
It is odd for someone to say that they don’t want development. Yet, the Peace Community of San José de Apartado has been labeled as “anti-development.” Made up of peasants who were displaced and dispossessed in the 1990s by paramilitary actions, the community now represents territorial resistance and protection in a neutral zone amid the armed conflict, And, in fact, in a way it could be said that the community is anti-development, opposing the concept of “extractivist” development. A development that encourages a draining of the river and depleting natural resources at the expense of the environment. This article will lay out some of the socio-political, environmental, and systematic impacts and violence that the Peace Community’s life project has resisted, opposed, and denounced to build peaceful collective spaces amid the armed conflict.
After breaking relations with the Colombian state, the Peace Community moved to what is now known as San Josecito or La Holandita. This is where the largest group of community members reside, while the rest are distributed in different villages in the 32 rural communities that make up the township of San José de Apartadó. This region of Colombia is characterized by natural wealth, especially mining and water resources. In addition to the prior, this is a territory that, according to the report presented by the Truth Commission, has historically experienced the highest rates of forced displacement due to paramilitary actions and corporate financing for illegal armed structures. This phenomenon led to the territory’s current economic configuration, where banana and plantain monocrop plantations are a symbol of the region.
The Peace Community’s opposition to and complaints against land exploitation projects at the expense of social and environmental wellbeing in the region is the reason it has been branded as anti-development by those with extractive and land control interests. The series of socio-political violence that the Community continues to face has been widely documented by Father Javier Giraldo and publicly denounced through the Community’s social media. However, the community’s historic demands—which have been backed by the Peace Community’s International Solidarity Network—have yet to receive a concrete response.
The township of San José de Apartado is part of a much larger region: Urabá Antiqueño. This region of the country has socioeconomic, geographic, historical, and political characteristics that, by and large, have been the cause of the dispute for land and resources amid the armed conflict. This geostrategic area is a corridor that connects the departments of Chocó, Antioquia, and Córdoba, and is a communications, transportation, and trade route between the Pacific Coast, Caribbean Coast, and the Gulf of Urabá. It is also close to the Panamanian land border by means of the Darien Gap.
This region has historically been hard hit by the armed conflict, where victims include peasants, trade unionists, social leaders, and members of leftist political expressions. Of the Urabá Antioqueño population, 51.4% or 356,690 individuals, are registered as victims of the armed conflict in the Unified Victims Registry (RUV) of the Unit for the Comprehensive Attention and Reparation of Victims. According to data published by Indepaz, between 2016 and 2023, 1,450 leaders and human rights defenders were murdered in Colombia, Antioquia being the department with the second highest numbers: 176 victims.
Economically, it is one of the most important regions of the country due to its productive capacity and its ability to export bananas and plantains to the international market, in addition to mining and timber wealth. According to the Instituto Popular de Capacitación, tourism in the area is focused on agrotourism. As a result, the region is known in manifold sources as the ” best corner of America” and is currently home to multiple infrastructure and development megaprojects. These include the Mar 2 highway connecting Medellín with Urabá between Cañasgordas and Necoclí and the Antioquia and Pisisi ports.
In this regional context, where there is a prevalence of capitalist investment for development, understood as economic growth, and where there has been a historic dispute to control resources and corridors, the legal and political tools that strengthen or hinder social and grassroots struggles become particularly relevant. Thus, the Peace Community has used self-protection strategies, such as public denunciation, solidarity, and International Humanitarian Law to demonstrate the abuses, threats, and violence inflicted by various armed and unarmed actors. However, there is a structure that favors the hegemonic interests that are contrary to the life project the Community defends, especially in relation to mining and timber exploitation, water control, and land grabbing.
In this sense we want to highlight that Antioquia, unlike the country’s other departments, has a certain autonomy related to mining, making it even more difficult to defend and protect the territory, as it is subject to local, regional, and departmental powers. The constitutional legal structure also places ownership of the subsoil in the hands of the State, according to article 332 of the Magna Carta. Hence, although there is private ownership of the land and legislation that encompasses ethnic and peasant rights in relation to economic and agricultural development projects, among others, national interests take precedence when it comes to the subsoil.
In the rest of Colombia, the Agencia Nacional de Minería (ANM- National Mining Agency) is in charge of “administering the State’s mineral resources and granting exploration and exploitation rights,” in Antioquia it is the Secretariat of Mines that is in charge. The Ministry of Mines and Energy delegated the function of overseeing the exploration and exploitation of mineral deposits to the Governor of Antioquia through the Secretary of Mines . This has manifold political and economic implications, since the department has a mining tradition and a representative role relative to profits from national reserves, facilitating continuous extensions in the delegation of oversight.
As seen above, in 2018 the Ministry of Mines was accused of arbitrarily handing out mining titles, as well as payments and extortion related to permits. Corruption within government entities is something that lends itself to business interests. This, together with the Constitutional Court ruling that limits “people’s consultations” makes it difficult for communities and organizations, such as the Peace Community, to access efficient and comprehensive information on land and mining concessions in Antioquia.
According to the ANM’s public information, in Antioquia there are currently 91 beneficiaries of Special Reserve Areas for exploitation, mainly for gold and thermal coal. In turn, there are 1,877 mining titles, five of these are in the municipality of Apartadó, in addition to a request to formalize/legalize the exploitation of construction materials such as clay, gravel, and sand. One of the beneficiaries of these mining titles is C.I. Ladrillera Urabá S.A. Its title covers 1,200 hectares, 96.29% of which is also in Apartadó. The title is valid until 2035. It is important to consider how many and which of the current concessions have an approved environmental instrument.
Given this context, the Peace Community has denounced the socio-environmental impacts of mining exploitation in the territory, such as land grabbing, deforestation, water depletion and contamination, as well as fracturing the social fabric, leading to a clash of interests among peasants. There have been public complaints about arbitrary and abusive incursions on land belonging to the Peace Community, such as La Roncona, to extract minerals. According to comments from the offenders themselves to Community members, these actions have the approval of the Mayor’s Office of San José de Apartadó.
According to information that has reached the Peace Community through different media outlets, the Secretary of the Government of Antioquia, through CorpoUraba, granted the Mayor’s Office of San José de Apartadó a permit to extract gravel and sand from the river in June 2022. However, no public information has been found on the ANM’s Open Data or in the Colombian Historical Mining Registry. In spite of this, there have been invasions and an irregular entry of machinery on private properties, which have been reported. This situation, among others, facilitates the occurrence of exploitation activities that do not comply with environmental licenses.
Another Peace Community property threatened by mining interests is “Las Delicias” located in the rural community of La Esperanza. The impacts to and threats against this property were registered in several public statements issued by the Peace Community throughout the year. The constant threats against members of this community project mean that they are in a constant state of alert due to possible attacks against their lives.
The Community’s political project has tried to put a stop to environmental deterioration, such as river contamination and deforestation, caused by mining and monocrop agricultural development, as well as land grabbing, impoverishment, among other human rights violations. Due to their territorial defense actions, they have faced multiple forms of violence such as stigmatization, constant threats, isolation and confinement, murder, prohibitions, water privatization, and more, by actors who exercise armed and political control.
This year, the Peace Community celebrated 26 years of peaceful resistance in the territory and, as every year, on March 23rd, they celebrated the anniversary with the presence of different individuals and collectives who have been in solidarity with this project of resistance and life over the years. However, on this occasion, in addition to celebrating the achievement of surviving as a community, despite the constant threats, they also commemorated those who believed in a dignified alternative life, free of violence and in harmony with the environment. This is why they have been considered enemies of the hegemonic interests and, consequently, killed. What differentiated this anniversary from others was the declared intention to protect the environment and natural resources.
This year, some women and youth from the Peace Community, together with the work of Sopa de piedras (Stone Soup), a Colombian artistic collective that seeks social transformations, represented a collective creation that resulted in a play. The play showed the type of development that large corporations, with the support of political parties and institutions, seek to implement in the Abibe mountain range.
Thanks to the collective work from those who participated in this activity, it was possible to highlight all the potential, the tools and attitude of the Peace Community, to explore and reappropriate their own, grassroots and collective ideas. By thinking about what territorial defense represents to them, they were able to have a collective reflection to express their feelings and experiences and transform their realities, reconstruing memory so as to create, as a collective, utopias that continue to give them the strength to continue forward in resistance.
They only had two weeks to create the play, but, as one of the members of the group told us, “It was easy, because these are realities that live within them and that they experience in their daily lives.” We were also told that no one imposed any roles and that all the characters were developed and created by the participants themselves, based on their own experience and individual and collective knowledge.
In the evening of March 23rd, after a march in favor of the territory and water, about 100 people gathered at the culture center, called the “House of Dreams.” This project was implemented by the youth themselves, as a space to enjoy theater and art as an expression to denounce human rights abuses, to denounce the extractive practices of businesses who want to extract all the wealth from the mountains, leaving the inhabitants who strive to care for and conserve the environment without a territory or dignified life.
We do not know whether it was the play’s objective, but we can say that it did clearly show the kind of development that is threatening their lives and community project: bulldozers destroying rivers and mountains, people without sovereignty or autonomy begging for food and water from vendors. The infertility left behind by this type of development, with polluted rivers and forests, was made visible.
Upon seeing this destruction of a territory cared for by the community with so much love and effort each day, the public was frightened; the people present saw a possible future life that they do not want and vindicated the Peace Community’s collective project as a way to continue resisting in the territory and to live dignified lives, in peace and within the concept of the “good life.”
Itsaso Palacio Rodríguez y Nátaly López Navarro
Urabá Team, PBI Colombia
 Currently, the La Roncona property, which the Peace Community occupied peacefully and in good faith after being forcibly displaced in 1997, and which is one of the main sources of subsistence, as they grow basic food crops there, is under a land restitution process with the URT.