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.
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).
One of Northeastern Antioquía’s (Nordeste Antioqueño) most emblematic human rights organizations is the Humanitarian Action Corporation for Coexistence and Peace in Northeastern Antioquia (Cahucopana). Since its foundation, in 2004, its main aim has been to defend the rights of peasant and miner communities and to generate protection mechanisms to live in peace, amid an armed conflict that has been perpetuated over time.
In 2022 several human rights organizations raised the alert to the humanitarian crises that are ravishing the territories. As in many regions of Colombia, in Northeastern Antioquia, it is not only the inhabitants who face risks but also those who speak up to defend minimum guarantees for life and to remain in the territory. This is the case of Cahucopana president, Carlos Morales, who suffered a serious attack on 27 February when armed men shot at him, his partner, and his son—a minor—while they traveled by motorcycle in the city of Barrancabermeja. Morales, a recognized peasant leader for the last 16 years, choose to resist displacement despite the attacks against him and the serious threats against other members of Cahucopana, an organization that continues to stand alongside the communities of Northeastern Antioquia.
According to the emblematic peasant leader, the dispute for this region is due to all of its natural wealth, such as lumber, gold, and fertile soils with big landowners wanting to implement large-scale cattle ranching. “All this wealth calls the of armed actors” where “major state abandonment” can also be seen, in the sincere words of human rights defender. A return “to the time between 2004 and 2008” is a real fear. This was an era when extrajudicial executions and mass displacement were daily events in Northeastern Antioquia. It is worrisome, as Morals explains, that since the Peace Agreement, there was a return “to confrontations between the armed groups, aerial bombings, murders, and an increase in human rights violations suffered by peasant communities”.
Given the lack of institutions that guarantee minimum protections for the communities, for decades Cahucopana has promoted collective protection measures, such as humanitarian actions. These actions can be used not only by community leaders but also by the peasant and miner communities who are exposed to serious risks in a conflict-ridden territory. These humanitarian actions aim to accompany and make visible, nationally and internationally, the serious human rights violations experienced by the communities, who resist the armed conflict amid oblivion and state abandonment. Attending a doctor’s appointment, filing a complaint at the Prosecutor’s Office, or registering to vote can be extremely complicated and, sometimes, even unattainable tasks for the communities. To complete these common tasks, the rural inhabitants of Northeastern Antioquia must travel to the village of Remedios on exhaustingly long trips over roads that lack adequate infrastructure. Additionally, traveling these roads can signify serious risks due to the presence of multiple armed actors.
Humanitarian Action, collective measures to reach the areas forgotten by the state
At the end of March 2022, we accompanied a humanitarian action convened by Cahucopana in Carrizal, township of Remedios. There was participation from institutions such as the National Ombud’s Office, the Governor’s Office of Antioquia, the Ministry of the Interior, the Inspector General’s Office, and the Civil Registry Office; as well as members of the international community, including MAPP-OAS, UNHCHR, and UN Mission II.
The most notable aspect of this humanitarian action was the participation of approximately 2000 people who traveled from Tamar Alto, Panamá Nueve, El Piñal, El Carmen, and other rural areas to participate. These are likely places that are unknown to the readers, they often do not even appear on a map, but this mass participation exceeded expectations. Trucks, cars, and motorcycles started arriving in the morning. Despite the early morning rains—which had raised concern among the organizers—the participants were able to reach the village of Carrizal.
Carlos Morales stated that an essential piece of the collective protection measures, is the international community’s role in “supporting the communities and organizations so that they can continue defending the territory”. Fortunately, incidents such as the attack against the leader and the recent threats against members of Cahucopana—which seek to impede the efforts of the human rights organization—have not produced the effect sought by the victimizers. Instead, it has led to a series of responses and actions from the international community to back the organization.
Thanks to Cahucopana’s work, more and more leaders are taking on a protagonist role in the defense and protection of the territory. Nevertheless, as Carlos Morales notes, it continues to be essential that “the Colombian state safeguard the communities’ security and ability to remain in the territories. It must recognize these protection mechanisms from the differential, gender, and cultural perspective of the mining, peasant, Indigenous, and Afro communities because we are the communities who truly live the conflict”. What is clear is that Colombia’s historic debt continues with the communities, and with human rights organizations like Cahucopana, that preserve life, protect the territory, and resist for peace, in the middle of recurrent attacks and threats.
The 17th of December 2021, social leader Huber Velásquez was murdered in the rural community of La Balsa, township of San José. The incident occurred in “La Batea,” a place that is just a few meters from what was at one point his brother Iván Velásquez’s estuary. Iván was murdered on 2 January 2002 after refusing to participate in a food blockade imposed by the army as a strategy to pressure the Peace Community.
Just like his brother, Huber sympathized with and had a close relationship with the Community, supporting its cacao commercialization. He also belonged to the peasant oversight board in his municipality and at the time of his death was participating in the inspection process for the paving project for the road between Apartadó and the township of San José. This project has generated major protests from the population due to delays in its execution and the damages caused to the surrounding homes and roads, among other issues. This situation led him to make several public complaints against the municipal administration, laying out how they were not taking steps concerning the irregularities.
For years, Huber had been attacked because of his role as a community leader and he underwent an attempt to expel him from his land. However, in recent months, and due to his complaints about the paving project, he had mentioned a significant increase, to the point of receiving death threats from the paramilitaries at his house. It should be noted that in addition to the intensification of violence and reconfiguration of the armed conflict that occurred nationally after the signing of the Peace Agreement, Otoniel’s capture has also marked an increase in the paramilitary presence and actions in the region and the township of San José. This has been reflected in denouncements made by the Peace Community with their public statements, which refer to an increase in practices such as the forced recruitment of minors, death threats, murders, and territorial and social control, all amid a strong presence from the state security forces.
According to data from Indepaz, including Huber, 165 leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered in 2021 and 1,280 since the Peace Agreement’s signature. The Ombuds Office had warned of of systematic human rights violations and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) infringements in its December 2020 Early Alert. Within this complex context of insecurity, the members of the Peace Community have decided to once again show the bravery and dignity with which they have been characterized throughout their history, convening peasants from all corners of San José to firmly condemn Huber’s murder. Thus, early in the morning on 23 December, dozens of people congregated in front of the Community to walk to the home of social leader Huber Velásquez, in a march for life and the defense of the territory.
People of all ages attended: children, youth, adults, and seniors, some on foot and others by mule. Everyone demanded respect for life in honor of the murdered gentleman, but they also marched as one more example of active resistance to those who today continue attempting, in vain, to silence their voices with violence. And they did this by filling the morning with colorful posters of protest, which they showed to neighbors along the way and then placed at the entrance of the house where Huber was murdered.
Despite the pain, there were also words of hope and fraternal solidarity because, as was stated by those who spoke at the event, even though today it is a place of emptiness and desolation, it was always a house inhabited by a smiling family that believes in the possibility of building a more just world, and there is no greater tribute than “continuing this journey to defend life, to fight against the silencing of truth, and for the memory of those who dared to defend the principles of justice and solidarity.”