Colombian Land Defenders: "They're Killing Us One By One"

In western Colombia's Humanitarian Zone, outspoken community leaders fear for their lives after 32 other environmental activists and land defenders were murdered last year alone in their country

María Chaverra, a social leader in the Curvaradó river basin, at home last month. Photo credit: Pablo Cuellar / Mongabay

Community leaders in Colombia's western Chocó are calling on the government to provide security after receiving ongoing threats from individuals they accuse of working for local and national industrial agricultural business owners. They say those business interests are occupying and invading their land, and they refuse to say silent despite recent violence in the area.

In November and December 2017, two land defenders in nearby communities were allegedly killed by paramilitary hitmen within about ten days of each other: Mario Castaño and Hernan Bedoya.

Following deaths of Castaño and Bedoya, representatives from the region traveled to the capital city of Bogotá this past December with the Colombian human rights group Intercelestial Commission for Justice and Peace in Colombia (CIJP). Their aim was to denounce widely-circulated threats against other leading land defenders, much like a recent report co-published by The Guardian and Global Witness, part of an effort to document every single such murder around the world. The report noted that 32 environmental and land defenders were murdered in 2017 alone in Colombia, second only to Brazil.

Particularly in western Chocó's municipalities of Carmen del Darién and Riosucio, violent pressure of all kinds continue to increase.

On January 28, the Colombian Ombudsman issued an early warning for the "imminent risk" posed to 32,000 people due to armed confrontation between ELN guerrilla and Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC), a neo-paramilitary group. The report said both illegal armed groups have taken advantage of the demobilization of the FARC guerrillas to consolidate territorial control in the region that is inhabited by six indigenous communities and 12 collective Afro-Colombian territories.

Additionally, the report called on the military, police and local government entities to provide "protection mechanisms" for threatened community leaders in the region.

According to CIPJ, cattle ranchers and palm oil and banana growers have counted on the support of the AGC to intimidate, threaten and kill the community leaders who are defending their land from the expansion of agribusiness and commercial logging interests in the region. Chocó is where almost half of all the forest cover loss in Colombia from mining activities happens.

A representative of CIPJ who works in the area but asked not to be named for security reasons said that agribusiness concerns in the area are sending proxy growers into collective territory with the aim of invading land claimants' farms. According to the CIPJ staffer, the goal is to "expand the agricultural frontier and extract wood" at the largely undeveloped entryway to the remote, roadless rainforests of the Darién Gap.

The Darién Gap national park is a 60-mile stretch of tropical rainforest, marshland and mountains that runs between Colombia and Panama. It is an unfinished gap in the Pan-American Highway that will someday connect North and South America.

Security measures

Back in Carmen del Darién, Maria Chaverra is one of the names that the CIPJ and other members of the community have said was singled out as a target by paramilitary hitmen and industrial agriculturalists. At 67 years-old, Chaverra is an outspoken leader and advocate for the land rights of the displaced campesinos of Curvaradó. CIPJ refers to her as a "matriarch of the community."

As explained by her son Wilson Martinez, "There's no one else like [Chaverra]...we go where the old woman tells us, we all respect her and follow her word."

Chaverra said there were threatening calls made in December to the shared community telephone. An anonymous caller singled Chaverra out as "one of the leaders" that they were pursuing.

Some security has been put in place, but it may not be enough.

The local ombudsman has provided Chaverra and a handful of other threatened land claimants with bodyguards and armored cars for protection. Others have been provided with bullet-proof vests and cellphones by the Victims Protection Unit (UNP). However, Chaverra said the bodyguards only work 10-hour shifts, which means the social leaders are often left alone without protection during the night.

"Providing protection measures for a few hours per day doesn't get to the root of the problem," Chaverra said.

Chaverra contends that the removal of land defenders benefits the industrial agricultural landowners who took advantage of Colombia's years-long armed conflict and their connections to paramilitary groups to expand their commercial ventures into the region after the farmer families were displaced.

"The business people are the ones who want us out of here because we're claiming our rights and our land. We're like a rock in their shoe," Chaverra said. "They want us gone, and to make sure we leave, they're killing us one by one."

Land restitution issues

Juan Guillermo is a legal representative of palm cultivation company Cultivos Recife S.A. The palm company arrived in Curvaradó river basin in 2002 when the campesinos were displaced from the territory. Guillermo said the campesinos are reclaiming land that was "legally purchased in good faith agreements."

Guillermo said he rejected any association between the palm company and the paramilitaries.

"They sold the land and then they come back to reclaim it a few years later," Guillermo said. "The land wasn't rented, it was sold."

Guillermo pointed out that his company has documentation and titles to prove their land purchases, "something that the campesinos don't have."

Another threatened land defender in the region, Alfredo Mendez, who asked for a name change due to security concerns, conceded that many of the land claimants did end up selling their lands in the late 90's and early 2000's. However, he said the they sold the land because they had been displaced from the region by violence.

"We had left the territory because the paramilitaries were slaughtering campesinos," Mendez said. "[The agribusinesses] would show up and say, here is $10, $20, $100 per hectare…we [felt we] had no choice but to sell at whatever price they gave us."

Through pressure by land defenders and human rights groups, at least 18 palm growers who took over campesino lands in the Curvaradó river basin have been charged in court and are serving between seven and 12-year sentences. The country's supreme Constitutional Court in 2009 ordered that the lands usurped by the paramilitary-connected agribusinesses be returned to the collective Afro-Colombian territories in the region, which are administered by communal councils.

According to newspaper El Espectador, Guillermo was arrested in 2010 on charges related to forced displacement, but was released days after surrendering to an investigation. The company Cultivos Recife was ordered to return land to the Curvaradó and Pedeguita-Mancilla communal councils in the 2009 Constitutional Court ruling.

CIPJ accuses the communal council of Pedeguita-Mancilla in the adjacent collective Afro-Colombian territory of electoral irregularity, and ignoring the land restitution rights of displaced campesinos within the collective territory. Activist Hernan Bedoya was recently killed in the area.

Mendez and CIPJ said that the communal council had struck a deal with industrial agriculturalists to maintain commercial cattle, logging and palm presence in the territory. He said the communal council along with business owners are promoting further expansion through proxy invasions of biodiversity reserves. Hey said they are destroying virgin forests and family-run subsistence farms.

Mongabay reached out to the legal representative for the Pedeguita-Mancilla council for comment, but received no response by time of publication.

Curvaradó community member Uriel Tuberquia said many agribusinesses still have their eyes set on the region because "anything you plant here will grow."

"It's a unique place for growing food, for agriculture, animal husbandry," Tuberquia said. "These are very rich lands."

The northwestern region of Colombia is also strategically important trade zone with its close proximity to the Urabá, a banana-growing area with international export routes at its Caribbean ports near the Panama Canal.

But the area is under threat.

The Urabá region was listed a deforestation hotspot in 2016 by the country's environmental monitoring agency IDEAM. Close to the land bridge connecting to North America, the combined Urabá and Choco region houses rich biodiversity with endemic organisms such as the sooty-capped puffbird (Bucco noanamae).

The sooty-capped puffbird appears on the IUCN Red List as a near threatened species facing ongoing population decline due to deforestation associated with "logging and conversion to banana and oil palm plantations… with human settlement, infrastructure development, cattle ranching and other agricultural land use also significant threats."

Recovering ancestral seeds

In 2005, the displaced campesinos returned to their land with the accompaniment of non-profit organizations and international observers. The international and national aid helped them to form collective villages known as "Humanitarian Zones," which achieved legal recognition by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2011 as neutral zones that prohibit the entry of all armed actors.

Additionally, the land claimants organized biodiversity reserves that are small parcels of land that are managed and cultivated by a single family, although the land remains under collective title.

Land reclaimant Uriel Tuberquia invited Mongabay on his Biodiversity Reserve named "Isaac Tuberquia," after his father. With kind eyes and an easy laugh, Tuberquia says he still remembers the first tree he planted after returning to the territory.

"It was that avocado tree," he said, gesturing to a 15-foot tall tree with bright green, smooth-skinned avocados scattered around on the ground under its branches. Since then, Tuberquia has planted many other fruit trees like mango, coconut and sapota.

"Next year is going to be a big year for us because many of the trees just started producing fruit for the first time," Tuberquia said. "The life here is returning. It's wonderful to see the birds are finally coming back."

Tuberquia said that it was necessary to get rid of the palm and cattle to settle back down and return to their formal way of life.

In the presence of international observers and the military, the community cut down the oil palm with axes, machete and chainsaws to have land where they could plant their food crops. Most of the remaining oil palms died shortly thereafter of disease.

"Under the roots of the palms laid the remains of our brothers, fathers, children," said Tuberquia. "We saw [oil palm] as something evil."

History of conflict

Land defenders Chaverra and Mendez live in a collectively-titled Afro-Colombian territory. Historically, it was populated by escaped African slaves who ran away from 16th century Spanish colonies to form independent settlements in the dense jungle region.

The FARC guerrillas were the first illegal armed group to enter the region starting in the early 1970's to support Communist movements among the region's banana plantation workers and campesino farmers. In 1996, the Colombian military joined the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) paramilitaries in launching a fierce attack to wrest control of the territory from the FARC guerrillas.

ACCU leader Vicente Castaño actively aimed to displace thousands of campesino farmers from Curvaradó under the auspices of eradicating guerrilla sympathizers from the region. However, his true aim was to develop lucrative agribusiness projects in the productive farmlands left behind by the displaced campesinos, according to court testimony by various lower-ranking paramilitary commanders.

In 2000, the Colombian government granted 46,084 hectares in the Curvaradó river basin along with other nearby territories as collective titles to Afro-Colombian campesinos based on their ancestral claim.

Even with the ruling, it wasn't until in 2005-06 when a group of displaced campesinos returned to their territory alongside non-profit Justicia y Paz without state accompaniment. When they returned, they found it had been destroyed by the paramilitary-connected businesses to make way for palm oil and cattle ranching.

In Chaverra's, she said her small farm and the nearby forests had been transformed into unrecognizable rows of oil palms.

"They dried out the wetlands, tore down the forest, the birds had also been displaced. Now it was just sky and palms," Chaverra said. "There was nothing left we could eat."

Trouble for Colombia's peace prospects

In 2016, Colombia signed an historic peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas. Praised as the end of the Western Hemisphere's longest-running armed conflict, the FARC demobilized in 2017 and converted into a legally recognized political party.

While peace with the FARC has initially resulted in a reduction in violence in certain regions of the country, human right groups have denounced that social leaders and land defenders are increasingly threatened and killed since the government signed the 2016 peace deal and the rebels abandoned the remote countryside regions where they were the de facto authority.

According to Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (PARES), 173 social leaders were killed across Colombia in 2017. Other observers have found lower numbers, but most track over 100 killed over the course of the year.

With international observers concerned for the long-term prospects for peace, President Juan Manuel Santos has responded saying that his government lacks evidence that the killings of human rights defenders follows a "pattern or a systematic policy."

PARES rejected the president's statement in an interview with Mongabay Latam, stating that: "Systematic policy implies the government has responsibility… it has been a recurrent practice in the country to deny the circumstances surrounding the violence."

Under the peace agreement, Colombia vowed to combat the paramilitary groups, which predate the Marxist-inspired FARC rebels. The country's first paramilitary groups rose in the 1950's during a decade of war between the Liberal Party and the Conservative party when wealthy rural elites hired private militias to protect their property and businesses.

By the mid-1980s, so-called "self-defense" groups in collusion with the military had taken on a prominent role in Colombia's armed conflict, as well as become major drug trafficking organizations. In 1997, the country's many paramilitary groups coalesced under the name "United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC)."

The AUC committed massive human right abuses — by 2000 the groups committed one massacre every two days. At the same time, the illegal armed group benefited from extensive ties to Colombia's political powerhouses, commonly known as "parapolitics," and businesses, a practice called "para-economics."

Former President Alvaro Uribe formally dismantled the AUC between 2003 and 2006, but the paramilitary phenomenon failed to disappear. Instead, dozens of mid-level commanders from the AUC dissented, recruited other demobilizing fighters and started a new generation of paramilitary groups.

The largest neo-paramilitary group in Colombia today is the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC), which are now fighting with the ELN guerrillas for territorial control in Curvaradó and the wider Bajo Atrato and Urabá region in Chocó.

"We need the president to carry through with the peace agreement signed in Havana, and to sweep up the paramilitaries once and for all," said Chaverra. "Until then [social leaders] won't be safe."

She believes that the government must also go after the agribusiness leaders and corrupt politicians who protect the paramilitaries. "They're the ones who are behind this, the ones who keep the paramilitaries around to kill us."

Which side are the authorities on?

Curvaradó-based land defender Mendez said that he joined the community when they started to reclaim their territorial rights in 2005. Mendez's voice wavers as he talks about how he lost his brother, who was allegedly shot down for reclaiming his land against the cattle ranchers.

"When we started this, the military, the paramilitaries and the palm growers were all mixed up and working together to keep the guerrillas out of the territory," he said.

The 62-year-old farmer said he's called on the government to provide military and police, but it never seems to arrive. "It doesn't seem like the military sees campesinos as worthy of their protection even though they used to protect the palm growers when they needed it," he said.

Without the protection of the military, Mendez says he is afraid to work or even stay at his farm.

"I'm not working right now because every moment I'm at my farm, I have to be looking back and forth over my shoulder to see who's coming,” he said. "Every motorcycle that passes by makes me anxious."

Police Commander Oscar Vargas in Carmen del Darien told Mongabay that the local police are investigating the threats against the social leaders and the assassination of Bedoya with the Prosecutor General's Office. The police commander said they are also investigating within their organization for infiltration by illegal armed groups including the ELN and AGC.

Vargas said the police were providing the threatened social leaders with protection. "We have established check points around the communities to monitor against the illegal armed groups."

Military Commander Coronel Rafael Antonio Montealegre in charge of Jungle Battalion 54 said he was not authorized to discuss the matter of threatened social leaders with the press. The Colombian Inspector General's Office and Ombudsman did not respond to interview requests before publication.

Mendez said that he doesn't trust the authorities to protect him, and that he has only received a bullet-proof vest and a cell phone as security measures from the government.

"How do they expect us to feel safe with a bullet-proof vest?" he asked. "Look at how Mario [fellow activist] was killed. He wasn't shot in the chest, he was shot in the head."

Mendez added that he believes his government is not telling the whole story since the peace agreement was signed with the FARC.

"They go on television saying that everything in Colombia is fine, that the war is over. The truth is that public order is only fine for those who have money, but for campesinos like us, it's worse than it was before."

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