Thursday, 15 May 2008

A 'Womens Gathering' in Sur de Bolivar

Whilst in Tiquisio I was asked to do an accompaniment for a national capacity building NGO in the south of the Sur de Bolivar region, which was on the way back to Bogota, where I had to return anyway. For once I got to see the main highway up to the north, the Troncal Americana, during the day as I travelled south to Barrancabermeja. For almost the entire journey luscious cattle ranches and industrial-scale palm oil plantations flanked the road, this prime land having been largely cleared of smaller scale farmers. A large hoarding on the edge of the road read 'Quien sembra palma cosecha riqueza y paz' (whoever plants palm reeps wealth and peace). Palm oil has been aggresively promoted by the government in the region, in some areas replacing traditional crops with poor pay and conditions for those who work on the plantations, often displaced farmers.
The 'Tercer Encuentro de Mujeres del Sur de Bolivar' (Third Women's Gathering of southern Bolivar) took place in a village in the hills near the small port of San Pablo. It soon became clear that this was something of a misnomer as it was made up mainly of women from outside the area, from NGOs and groups in the EU-funded 'El Programa de Desarrollo y Paz del Magdelena Medio' (El Programa), as well as local children. There were more local men than women at the workshops, some of whom catered for the entire three day event. The lack of women from the region was attributed to the threats recently made against the regional Federation of Farmers and Miners, and divisions in local communities, although these weren't elaborated on. Some men vowed that next year would be different with men doing the catering. Someone told me that it was always difficult for farmers to attend gatherings even for a day as the demands on their time were just too great, although some would willingly attend if aspects of their daily life could be taken care of, like childcare. Also, communities in the region were very isolated - some young women had had to travel two days to get there.
Workshops were held on the history and problems faced by the region and village we were in, and how they could be addressed through community cooperation. Around 20-30 attended these sessions with the children making their own contributions withthrough colourful drawings.
Far more popular were the evening cultural events and football matches. As well as the ever-popular Vallenato music and slow dancing, there were displays of traditional dance in costume from the Caribbean Coast (Cumbia) and a piece of theatre depicting a paramilitary invasion of the village, which elicited strong reactions from the audience - many professed to having witnessed such scenes. The football matches, men and women playing separately, were divided into locals vs outsiders. The local womens team were well organised with their own kit and trainer and predictably beat the visitors, who resisted valiantly. The visiting men were helped out by the local contingent to make up the numbers, and an evenly matched encounter resulted in a draw, with some, as is usual in such 'friendlies', taking it far too seriously. Perhaps this was due to the large crowds (for such a small place) which gave the games atmosphere and that extra edge.
Coca has been grown in the area for years and the recent aerial fumigations have had little effect other than to wipe out the crops (both coca and traditional)of small farmers without affecting the larger growers. Coca grows a lot more quickly than other crops so farmers who have had their crops erradicated naturally turn to it. Cacao, one of the alternatives to coca promoted by El Programa, takes 2-3 years to bear fruit, whilst yucca and rice yield two yearly harvests. Even a Programa-sponsored cacao project of 60 hectares in the Santa Rosa del Sur municipality has fallen victim to the erradication program set to last until 2020. I was told that due to the isolation of many areas it just wasn't profitable enough to grow traditional crops due to the expense and time needed to transport them to market whereas harvested coca can be carried in a few sacks. Apparently over 20 years ago marijuana was grown but has been almost entirely replaced by coca.
More recently erradication teams have been physically removing the crop. According to locals where some erradicators were injured by mines planted by guerilla a few local farmers' homes were burnt. These teams are made up of soldiers, who often don't wear insignia, as well as freelance elements.
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