Having arriving in Colombia a few days before, received some crash-course training and dashed around sorting out essentials like a mobile phone I was off on my first accompaniment to Tolima state, which on the map doesn't look far from Bogota, and isn't in distance but the many mountains to be negotiated and poor roads and weather meant the trip took 14 hours.
Not having come across the name of Tolima in my mugging up on Colombia beforehand the area was a blank page so what I learned of its important mountainous setting in the rise of armed groups and more recent paramilitary activity was new to me. What surprised me on the winding journey down from the plateau of Bogota (2600m) through the neighbouring state of Cundinamarca were the empty roads. Apart from an army checkpoint and a few quick stops this made for smooth progress to the regional centre for the north of Tolima, Libano. However, from there things were far from smooth. In the morning much rain had fallen in this area, turning the hillside dirt tracks into seeemingly impassable and muddy deathtraps. The good humour of the others crammed into the jeep amid the weekly supplies reassured me and it seemed that we would make it in tact and in reasonable time as we slid across and through the mud always at least a few inches clear of the increasingly steep precipice. Our luck ran out half way up as numerous attempts to tug the jeep clear of its woeful predicament failed and we were left on the edge of the road in the cold and dark for an hour until back up arrived in the form of another jeep which managed to free ours. Arriving at 10pm at our host family, within minutes a much welcome meal with cups of steaming coffee was laid out for me and the local NGO guy I was accompanying.
The 'vereda' (village of scattered farms like a township of the past in Ireland) I was to spend the next 8 days in, was being supported in the process of rebuilding community structures and participation by the local NGO. A few years ago foreign NGOs had provided the finance for the construction of community buildings which house a school, shop, health clinic and butchers for the 70 or so families of the 'vereda'. With the help of the local NGO, community participation aimed at created some autonomy developed - a communal farm was set up, profits from the shop were invested in the health clinic, school and farm, overseen by the 'Junta de la Tienda Comunitaria' (communal shop committee). Somewhere along the line communal processes broke down and the community became divided leading to less participation in these communal processes. The killing of the shop committee president 4 years ago by paramilitaries and the recent murder of the shop committee president in a nearby 'vereda' in January in unclear circumstances haven't helped.
Despite this breakdown some families are still committed to communal structures and repairing community relations. When no teachers were sent to the primary school at the beginning of last term classes continued with volunteers - inexplicably some in the community oppose this, arguing that as the school was built for teachers sent by the local government to give classes in and none have been sent it should stay shut. Thus the community is divided with about half the number of children now attending as previously. Similarly local governement has withdrawn funding for the nurse in the health clinic, claiming lack of funds.
The purpose of the visit was to assist in the slow process of rebuilding community relations in the face of mutual recriminations concerning events stretching back around a year, in which time the two sides - that of the communal shop committee and the 'Junta Accion Communitaria' (the official village committee) - didn't meet. Fortunately I was able to assist in more concrete ways by helping to gather some of the coffee harvest of the community farm (not that easy on 45 degree slopes in the mud, at least not for novices) and repair the dirt-road linking the area's 'veredas' with the regional centre. Despite the urgency of this work if the locals are not to revert to using mules to cross the mountains a disappointing number turned up for this community activity.
The local NGO managed to facilitate two meetings in the local school - the first one between representatives of the opposing sides and the second one a village meeting open to everyone, to which the NGO personally invited many families. Despite not understanding many of the actual points made, it was clear that there is a lot of work ahead if the village is to reach the high level of community participation which I was told was the case a few years ago. First signs were encouraging with the two sides actually airing their grievances in front of each other for the first time in a year and recognising the common ground of urgent health and education problems. The NGO facilitator did a good job of ensuring these heated debates never went beyond this.
A fair number eventually turned up to the open meeting, although it was disappointing to see some scoff the free lunch only to resume their Sunday drinking ritual afterwards. As at home alcohol plays a large role in this community and it was commented that it was a shame not as many made it to the meeting as turn up to the regular parties or cockfights in the area.
Although difficult for me to judge the usefulness of the trip the NGO felt things went well in what will be a slow process. The general sense of community discouragement was offset by the commitment of the few community members still dedicated to communal processes and making sure some children don't miss out on an education.
Another feature of the week was the presence of two women part of the Coordinador Nacional Agrario (CNA), an NGO set up in 1997 to promote food sovereignty, environmental issues and the rights of small farmers. They gave a few workshops on composting which even fewer attended than did the community meeting - most just have no time to spare with the demands of agricultural life. Also with the village being scattered around a hill it is a fair trek for many to attend these community activities.
The family who hosted us in their already cramped house were welcoming throughout and patient with my limited understanding, unfamiliar as I still am with many local words and expressions, which aren't used in Mexico. I was even given instruction on grinding and moulding corn to make 'arepas' so I could help with food preparation (cornmeal rolls) which made me feel better about being catered for. Meat plays a large part of their diet, unlike in the Zapatista community where I was living in Chiapas, so being vegetarian surprised many and caused many an amused remark. I was also told that I shouldn't eat eggs if I believed eating animals was wrong, an argument I had to concede. However, with a daily diet of rice, beans, yucca, arepa, and eggs, renouncing the latter was a sacrifice I wasn't going to make.