Tag Archives: human rights defenders

Defending the collective

The first time I met German Graciano, or Mello as everyone calls him, I remember his shyness, but above all the strength of his commitment to the principles of the Peace Community and his charisma during his work as the Community’s leader. Throughout the years I have seen his strength and responsibility grow in his role as legal representative of the Peace Community, and his shyness dwindle. It is not an easy role. He receives threats every day, he is stigmatised, and on 29 December 2017 an attempt was made against his life[1]. That day was the first time he had suffered such a direct attack. On 5 September 2018 when German won Defender of the Year in the National Awards for the Defence of Human Rights[2], I felt so happy that his work and the work of the Peace Community had received this recognition. When I ask him how he feels about winning the prize, the first thing he says is: “it is a prize for the Community, recognition for its work and position as a neutral community in a territory in conflict. It is also important to be able to raise awareness about what is happening in this area, and what is also happening in other regions of the country, despite the fact that we are now at peace”.

Mello_2_blog
German Graciano when he received his prize as Defender of the year

German Graciano Posso was 14 years old in 1996 when he was forced into displacement from his farmlands in the village of El Porvenir. That day his life changed forever, that was when the pain began, when his family members were killed, one after another, and they had to look for refuge; “before that we were happy, I lived with my parents and my brothers and sisters, we had not suffered war, we lived on our farm working the land together. There were combats and we heard attacks, but not nearby”. Afterwards, as the months went by after the displacements, other people close to him were killed, including people from his close family, like his older brother and his father. Events that leave marks and scars forever…

After that some of the small-scale farmers from the area started organising to create a neutral, resilient community that did not want to have anything to do with the armed actors, but wanted to stay in their territory[3]. German joined the Peace Community at a young age, “now the Community is my family”, he says with feeling. He joined the Community Council in 2010 and was elected as Legal Representative in 2013, and he says that the role is “a responsibility, but it is an honour to represent the Peace Community at the international level”. He has taken on the role with responsibility and dedication to his Community. He has become a human rights defender, promoting collective life and the defence of the rights of all people. He explains to me the importance of getting away from individualistic models of living promoted by “the empire”, and the importance of protecting the earth, and defending the right to a dignified life. In the town of San José de Apartadó, the situation remains difficult despite the Peace Agreement, as in many regions of the country, after the departure of the FARC-EP guerrilla, which left the territory in the hands of neo-paramilitary groups[4], especially the AGC, who continue to threaten and harass community inhabitants and people who report them, and they are gaining more and more control of the territory. The Peace Community continues resisting and reporting these facts, posting statements about what is happening on its website[5]. However, as the AGC tries to control the territory promising to bring development to the region, this leads to stigmatisation against the Community who are labelled opponents of development. However, this is not the Community’s true position; they merely have a vision of development that is different from the kind that is being imposed in the area: “community development, respecting the land and the environment, life and the rights of people who do not have a voice”, as German says, “and without the participation of armed actors.”


For the love of the land


 

This year has been really tense. After the attempted killing in December 2017 and the constant threats, the community have restricted their movements in the villages and are surviving through solidarity within the Community and working on how to get the message out there, about what is happening in the area. Just after German got back to San José, happy about bringing the prize home to his “family”, the attacks began again: a group of small-scale farmers from the area invaded the farmlands of La Roncona, where the Community cultivates staple crops and cacao[6]. The issue of land is highly complex and causes a great deal of conflict, because the Peace Community defends their right to collective ownership, and does not believe in individual private property, and so they have been acquiring the lands that they use today over the course of many years of resistance, via donations and by acquiring fallow land. Their cacao project generates income for the subsistence of all the families in the Community.

placa permio

 

On 18 September, German Graciano once again received a threatening phone call from an alleged neo-paramilitary from the area.[7] “Why is it that we victims have to live with all these threats for such a long time and despite peace? We want reconciliation, but how can there be reconciliation if those responsible for the attacks, the massacres, continue committing crimes?”

The Peace Community are beneficiaries of precautionary and provisional protection measures from the Inter-American human rights system because of all the attacks and attempted killings they have suffered since 1997. Recently, one of the Community’s longstanding leaders, Jesús Emilio Tuberquia, presented a report before the IACHR in Washington compiling all the attacks that have taken place throughout these 21 years of peaceful resistance[8]. The Colombian justice system has failed them: there are high levels of impunity[9] in relation to all the killings, and the massacre of 8 people, 7 of whom were members of the Peace Community, committed in the villages of La Resbalosa and Mulatos on 21 February 2005[10].


Cacao is sowing life


However, there is hope. While German and I are talking about these years of resistance and about his life in the Community, he points out that the Community will go on, that they believe in and will always defend their project for community life: “we don’t know what the future holds, but we have the present, and we didn’t think we could get over this pain that we carry, but we have converted it into hope and we keep struggling for that hope, so that what has happened never happens again.”

He also says that part of the reason they are still here is thanks to the International Community, and its accompaniment on the ground, but also their support network in Europe. It is true that the Peace Community is an example of peaceful resistance which is well-known and greatly admired internationally, and for him their support network is like “an extended family”.

He says that he greatly values the prize he won, because it offers the Community protection, it reflects and supports their work and their way of life, which is based on the community and on solidarity. And also because it enables them to raise awareness about their process nationally, and because they are being heard.

“Being a human rights defender is exhausting work, but we cannot get tired, that is why we need support”, he tells me as we walk towards the chapel to pay homage to the victims of this peaceful resistance.

Mello y yo
German Graciano y Nathalie Bienfait (PBI)

Nathalie Bienfait

Footnote

[1] PBI Colombia: Neo-paramilitaries attempt to kill Peace Community legal representative, 29 December 2017

[2] Contagio Radio: Ellas y ellos son los ganadores del Premio Nacional a la Defensa de Derechos Humanos 2018, 5 September 2018

[3] El País: El campesinado heroico, 25 August 2018

[4] El Espectador: Denuncian nueva incursión paramilitar en San José de Apartadó, 2 March 2018; Verdad Abierta: En San José de Apartadó exigen verificar presencia paramilitar, 8 November 2018; El Colombiano: Paramilitares o no, con miedo se silencia a Urabá, February 2017

[5] http://www.cdpsanjose.org

[6] Peace Community: Nuestros ojos siguen viendo y nuestros cuerpos siguen sintiendo, 20 September 2018

[7] Ibid.

[8] CNN: Líder social de Colombia denuncia amenazas de seguridad en la CIDH, 19 September 2018

[9] El Colombiano: Colombia, el tercer país con mayor impunidad en el mundo, 21 April 2015

[10] PBI Colombia: “The 2005 massacre was not the end; it was just the beginning”, 21 February 2018

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