Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Mosquito territory

Due to the death threats against named individuals in the Sur de Bolivar region, some were taking advice and considering their future in the region whilst the projects they were involved in faced an uncertain future. With this state of heightened alert I was requested to accompany a member of a community organisation in the area back to their village and spend some time there to show international support.
This meant another overnight coach trip up to Agua Chica but this time we crossed the Magdelena River further north and travelled by lorry all the way across relatively flat terrain to the municipality of Tequisio. The four hour trip passed sites hinting at the past violence and strategic interest of the region for multinationals. We passed Mejiya village where ten years ago paramilitaries had burnt all the houses and murdered a farmer, because guerilla had been based in the area. Some of the villagers had returned and rebuilt simple wooden structures. We passed a hill where mining company Anglogold Ashanti's Colombian subsidiary Kedahda had recently done exploratory excavations but they had moved out their machinery and there is currently no activity. The mining company had bought up excavation rights across the region. Most of the mining activity in the region is in the mountains further south which I visited on my last trip, although there are a few mining villages in the foothills a four hour walk from Tequisio. That the violence in the area is ongoing, although much reduced since the paramilitary onslaught in the late 90s and early 2000, was brought home by reports of the murder earlier the same day and on the road we had been using, of a gold buyer and his two escorts. They had been killed by paramilitaries for alleged links with guerilla. No-one showed particular surprise at the murders. The large military presence in the region seems confined to strategic points with paramilitaries and guerilla still active in the surrounding countryside.
Tiquisio municipality is sparsely populated, with many having left its villages due to the violence and subsequent economic depression of the area. As elsewhere in Sur de Bolivar many are displaced persons from elsewhere in the region. Around 20,000 live in the municipality, the two main villages being Puerto Rico and Coco de Tiquisio. Apart from the dirt road to Rio Viejo on the Magdalena River the area is connected to the rest of the country by a tributary of the Magdelena, along which merchandise is transported to the villages. I was told there was little in the way of agricultural produce exported, the area's remoteness making this unprofitable. The average daytime temperature is 35C.
The local community group, 'El Proceso Ciudadano por Tiquisio' started off as an autonomous initiative in 2003 but became one of the 'Espacios Humanitarios' of the European Union funded 'Laboratorio de Paz del Magdalena Medio' (peace laboratory of the middle Magdalena region) in 2005. The three employees of the Proceso, a priest, who is the director, and his two assistants, were some of those named in the death threats a month ago by the northern branch of the 'Aguilas Negras' paramilitaries. They left the area a few weeks later, just before I arrived, as did others with death threats in the region.
Their work in the municipality involved promoting sustainable development in the form of agricultural cooperatives as well as raising awareness of human rights and International Humanitarian Law (IHL). One local said it was this latter activity that made made them the target of death threats.
As well as running the Proceso the priest carried out his ecclesiastical duties at the church on a mound overlooking the village of Coco de Tiquisio. Another mound was the site of the village primary school until the army occupied it five years ago for their base in the area, infringing IHL - the school had had to move down the hill into smaller buildings with little space for the children to play. I was told the army presence in this small village had just been beefed up to 'strengthen security' in the wake of the death threats. During my stay there the army had apparently asked after me but I was never approached directly and didn't even have my passport checked at the checkpoints when entering and leaving the village. The soldiers on duty did ask what I had been doing there when I left but more out of curiosity. One said 'Ah, eres gringo', as if that settled the matter that yes, I wasn't up to any 'terrorist activity'. When they discovered my nationality a few English football teams were mentioned, due to their recent successes in European competitions.
Despite the absence of the Proceso staff locals were determined to press ahead with the various projects. I visited a cooperative farm near Puerto Rico where rice was being planted in the scorching midday heat. The farm also grows sugar cane and yucca. The Proceso project in Coco de Tiquisio has some cows, pigs and chickens and a fish pond was currently being dug by workers employed by the municipality. They were getting 15,000 pesos (4.30 GBP) for a days work and in the absence of other local sources of employment there were many takers. There are plans for a vegetable plot. At a farm owned by one of the Proceso members we gathered building materials for a chicken enclosure being built. This was being constructed from guadua wood, a strong bamboo like tree. Whilst there we helped outselves to the tropical fruit in abundance - mango, papayo, guayaba - and worked the mechanical mill to extract the sweet resin from sugar cane (guarapo). Despite the heat and strong mosquito presence it felt good to be doing something practically usefully rather than being a symbolic international presence in the community offering a vague kind of support or solidarity, however useful this might also be.
Talking to locals I learnt something of the complex nature of the violence suffered by the area at the hands of paramilitaries, guerilla and army. Heavy fighting between paramilitaries and guerilla 10 years ago led to many farmers being killed by both sides, accused of aiding the other side. A view I have often heard expressed in the countryside is that campesinos are caught in the middle of conflicts and have little choice in how they deal with the armed parties. One campesino who had lived a long time in the area said that most of those killed by paramilitaries did have some kind of dealings with the guerilla, however minor, and only by avoiding any kind of contact with them could people like him hope to stay alive and remain in the area. As well as campesinos, shop owners and small merchants were also targets.
Many campesinos also had their cattle stolen by paramilitaries which led some to leave the area and others to move to the villages of Coco de Tiquisio or Puerto Rico. Guerilla had previously stolen the cattle of large landowners in another area. With families unable to support their children some parents moved to cities in search of work, leaving their children behind with relatives. As the paramilitaries withdrew from the villages around 2001 the army moved in, establishing their permanent base in Coco de Tiquisio in 2003. Despite the greatly reduced levels of violence the army has been responsible for killing campesinos and dressing them up as guerillas, a practice known as 'falsos positivos'. Someone told me of such a case in the neighbouring municipality of Achi last year. Although many knew about the Justice and Peace Law of 2005 which had provisions for denouncing abuses by the army, of around 35,000 families of victims, only around 1,000 had so far registered.
Apparently there is a history of intimidation of the local clergy. The previous priest had been forced out at gunpoint and before that the Franciscans had had to flee dressed as women. It transpired that the current priest and his assistants wouldn't return, following the advice of pretty much everyone who advised them. Two priests from nearby municipalities were also to be relocated.
I heard some criticism of the previous municiple administration, which was said to have distributed funds and resources (computers were mentioned) to family and friends. This practice is called 'serrucho', meaning saw, suggesting the way the pie is divvied up.
When the time came to leave I got up at the crack of dawn as recommended but still managed to miss the only 'chalupa' (what they call passenger boats up there) out of there that day. The only other option was a 3 hour ride on the back of motorbike, without a break, on a stony, pockmarked track without a helmet, an experience I don't wish to repeat. I will never miss another boat again.
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