Colombian Communities Reclaim Land and Life from the Paramilitary-Business Alliance

The first of the displaced people to return to their homes in Curvarado, north Colombia found the forests they had known cut down, the rivers and streams diverted and the native wildlife long gone. It was a desert, they say – not of sand but of African-palm and cattle ranches.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>But still the people came. They built new communities known as “Humanitarian Zones,” which are now legally recognized as neutral zones where all armed actors, legal and illegal are prohibited from entering. They also began the process of reclaiming the land exhausted by the agri-business onslaught, dividing recovered territory into “Biodiversity Zones.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The predominantly Afro-Colombian communities of Curvarado were first displaced in the mid-nineties when the Colombian military launched a joint operation with their paramilitary death squads allies, who later would go on to form the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) – the paramilitary umbrella group that terrorized Colombia for nearly a decade.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Petro donated part of the recovered land to be used to build the first Humanitarian Zone, which inspired other displaced families to return. As the new communities grew and proliferated they developed the Biodiversity Zones as a strategy to reclaim their territories as their own.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Agriculture in the zones not only feeds the communities, it is also their economic lifeblood as surplus produce can be sold on. Crops are grown using traditional Afro-Colombian sustainable agriculture methods – which stand in stark contrast to the agri-businesses that the zones have replaced. “We don’t share [methods] with the mega-businesses,” said “Isabel”, a Humanitarian Zone resident, “because what they do is they take the land and they destroy everything in the territory … When they leave, the land produces nothing, it has become infertile.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The process includes reforestation and land recovery projects to encourage the return of the native wildlife, which also fled the para-business assault that destroyed their habitat. “The animals are also alive and they have rights,” said Isabel. For the communities, this plays a central role in creating the environment they want to live in. “Nature is an offering, an offering that we feel here,” she said. “It fills you with joy to live in contact with nature.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Although establishing the Humanitarian and Biodiversity Zones was the first step in returning to Curvarado, it was just the beginning of the struggle for the returnees. Their claims to the land are being fought at every turn by the businesses and by the paramilitaries – who now operate under different names following the demobilization of the AUC but utilize the same methods of violence and terror.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>However, as the palm companies have retreated, another sector with a long history of paramilitary ties has moved in – banana companies. Several Biodiversity Zones have been occupied by people from outside the region, who have destroyed the crops and reforestation projects of the communities and replaced them with plantain and other monocrops. “Nature was returning but the invaders took over and destroyed everything and it looked like desert once again,” said Isabel.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>“The objective is to repopulate the territory, to fill it with people who will wage war against us,” said Andres, who lives in a zone whose lands have been taken over by invaders. “They do it so the community will be scared, and decide to be displaced again.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The most prominent company allegedly working with the invaders is Banacol – a Colombia based multinational. In a written statement Banacol said it had provided start-up equipment, technical expertise and access to international markets for Afro-Colombian families “from the communities [and] with roots in the zone” as part of a project to “generate work opportunities and development” for the region’s Afro-Colombian population.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The cattle ranchers remain in the region, even though many of them have been designated as “bad faith occupiers” by local authorities, who discovered that thousands of acres used for ranching had been acquired through fraudulent and illegal land purchases. The ranchers dispute the communities’ claims to the land and, according to residents, have also been targeting the Biodiversity Zones in efforts to force them to leave their lands again.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Enrique’s family has consistently complained to the authorities, taking police to their zones and showing them the cut wire and the damage caused by the cattle. Despite promises to take action, the police do nothing, he said. “So the question is – what are the security forces in this country, in this region?” he said. “How do they work? What are they for?”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>In other parts of the region, the Biodiversity Zones have been victim of another paramilitary business interest – drugs. According to residents, some of the more remote zones have been taken over and planted with coca crops. They also believe the rudimentary labs used to process coca leaves into cocaine paste are present in the region, as trucks carrying large quantities of the precursor substances required can be seen heading deep into the zone.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>While struggling to hold back the invaders, the ranchers and drug cultivation, the communities are also pushing for the Biodiversity Zones to be awarded the type of legal status that protects the Humanitarian Zones. At the same time, a census is currently in progress to determine who can legally lay claim to lands in the collective territories.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The communities though, remain committed to their right to return. At the heart of that struggle is the communities’ right to their lands and to determine their use, which has found expression in the Biodiversity Zones. “This process has been very hard for us,” said Tuberquia. “But we know that it is a process of life, not a process of death. We are struggling for life here and defending life is defending the land; if we don’t defend the land we are dead.”