Monday, 14 July 2008

"It's not that we don't want to. We simply can't"

These were the words of one villager when confronted by government officials telling them that they wouldn't be receiving coffee and banana plants they had been allocated because they hadn't fulfilled their commitments as part of the project of returning to the land they had been displaced from 9 years ago. The government assisted project, supported by the grassroots organisation AsociaciĆ³n Campesina de Antioquia (ACA), was due to be completed with 22 families returning by the end of July, but has been obstructed by government agencies leading to severe delays.

Landless peasants from other areas in southwest Antioquia arrived in the abandoned village of Promision in 1987 and began to work the land whilst seeking to clarify its legal status. In 1995 they tried to get land rights through the state rural development agency INCORA (now INCODER) and although some decisions went in their favour, many were never informed of this. Some did manage to pay to receive land title.

In 1997 the 38 families of Promision were displaced for the first time by armed conflict and fled to Medellin and the municpality centre of Angelopolis taking their animals with them to sell. They returned in 1998 with the help of the Red Cross and the ACA. They were displaced again in 1999 by paramilitaries when two villagers were killed making any return in the near future impossible.

Seven years later with the withdrawal of armed groups from the area 22 families decided to recover the land with the help of the ACA. Although local police said that security conditions didn't allow for a return locals said that the area had long been peaceful. With the help of the ACA they managed to get official assurances for the construction of 15 small brick houses, as only three of the old ones were habitable, the roofs and walls having collapsed in the others. A contract signed with the local municipality, a local construction company, the humanitarian agency DAPARD, the development agency Accion Social, as well as
the ACA, was to provide food for the first 6 months. The return of children was to be supported by the social welfare agency Bienestar Familia and international organisations agreed to accompany the project.

When some of the villagers initially returned at the beginning of September 2007 they squeezed into the existing houses to help with the construction of the first new houses and plant the first beans, corn banana, sugar cane and yucca. Although the state has provided builders the construction materials (bricks, cements, poles) were deposited at a point much further away than the villagers requested and the mules supplied to transport these materials were old and weak - it takes an hour for one trip instead of the 20 minutes it could have taken. According to some, local officials acted corruptly in the awarding of contracts with materials and mules overpriced.

Three whole families have returned with representives of around 10 others living there helping with construction and planting until their families can return. Four new houses have been built with three others nearing completion. In the next month they will be harvesting the first much needed crops as the state handouts dry out. The roof of one of the new houses leaks, unfortunate given the particularly wet year the area has seen. Although the builders have been alerted to this defect they have yet to rectify it.

The village school was occupied during the displacement by another family who have property elsewhere, meaning that families deciding to return have to leave children behind in other areas if they want an education.

When they returned in 2007 the still habitable structures had been occupied by others who initially refused to leave. When the police did evict them they returned to threaten the retornees but the threats have stopped now. However some of the village forest, which forms a protected habitat, has been burnt illegally by a farmer who occupied the land and is using it for his cattle. Although this farmer is rarely there family members living nearby keep an eye on it. Given the continuing presence of these local landowners who continue to occupy the village land the villagers have much less land than they had before, and they have to struggle to get even this registered. The ACA is currently trying to ensure they don't have to pay to get this land registered. There are understandably suspicions of collusion between local landowners and the municipality, going back a long time.

The villagers have created their own cooperative '
Empresa Comunitaria de PromisiĆ³n' and plan to sell organic coffee and vegetables, but as the food runs out, many houses still have to be built and the unseasonably wet and cold weather takes its toll on their crops, they face a precarious future. They continue to toil in all conditions, with all family members chipping in, crowded into the existing houses to give their families a future other than that as 'living like animals in the city' as one villager commented.

The alternatives in the countryside also don't appeal. Many others in the municipality work in the coal mines, which have an increasingly appaling safety record - two youths recently died when a mine shaft caved in. Apparently many have died in the mines in recent years. Those working on neighbouring farms receive the minimum daily wage for occasional work (15,000 pesos, 4.50 GBP) or 1,000 pesos a kilo of coffee during the harvest which works out about the same.

During my 10 days there I contributed, hacking chunks out of the hillside, loading sacks of concretes onto mules, planting and weeding. During this time many officals from DAPAD turned up and a meeting was held with the villagers who were accused of not meeting their commitments and made to sign forms saying they agreed to renouncing coffee and banana plants which would be provided to nearby villagers instead.

Click here for photos.

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