Monday, 18 August 2008

Accompaniment mission to Narino

On my way down to Narino, the state in the far south-west of Colombia, I stopped off at Bugalagrande, a few hours north of Cali, and then in Cali. In Bugalagrande, not to be confused with the larger nearby town of Buga, youth groups from Cali came to the social centre, La Otra Esquina (The Other Corner), housed by the trade union Sinaltrainal, to perform some music and dances. This was to mark the anniversary of the murder of Hector Daniel Useche Beron, a local community activist and trade unionist at the local Nestle factory. It was mostly attended by children with a few older local trade unionists giving us some background to labour disputes in the area.

In Cali we were due to attend a hearing against an army sergeant accused of murdering a farmer and dressing him as a guerilla (falso positivo). Jose Orlando Giraldo was tortured and murdered by sergeant Luis Eduardo Mahecha of the Third High Mountain Brigade on March 11th 2006. His commander Bayron Carvajal has been convicted of the murder of other 'falsos positivos' in the Apartado area of northern Antioquia. These cases are usually covered up and rarely make it to court due to army threats and intimidation but the persistence of Jose's family has at least managed to get Mahecha arrested and he is currently in prison. However the hearing was postponed and delaying tactics by the defence mean he may well be released after 6 months - in Colombian law if no charges are brought in this time the case is dropped.

The huge, poor Cali district of Aguablanca has around 500,000 inhabitants (20% of the city's population). We visited Fundacion Semillas de Mostaza (Mustard Seeds Foundation) in the Marroquin barrio, one of the least deprived areas, which has a small library, and puts on activities for children in the holidays and after school during term time. They focus particularly on preserving the country's musical heritage and give classes on Andean music and dances. Despite their tiny space and funds they are a dedicated group of volunteers determined to offer local children something different to the homogenous pop culture.

The state of Narino bordering Ecuador has a population of around 1.75m, with 422,350 in the capital Pasto. 55% live in the country with the rest in urban areas. The village of La Florida, an hour from Pasto, has been declared a disaster zone by the government due to the proximity of the Galeras volcano, and 8,500 locals have been given an ultimatum to leave by December or be evicted by force. The community is split on whether to stay and resist or go along with the government resettlement plan in another part of the municipality. This area is a warmer coffee and fruit growing zone, which the cattle rearing farmers of the colder Florida village area have no experience of. There are also serious reservations about the lack of basic infrastructure in the proposed zone and the inadequate budget set aside for building things like hospitals, schools and roads. The amount of compensation offered for their homes isn't enough to buy even a flat in Pasto. The mayor told us he had a tricky decision to make given the village divisions. Local community groups such as 'Florida Unida' and 'Suyosama' (this means beautiful in Quechua) are against the unilaterally imposed government measures, which lack any kind of previous consultation, and there was talk of recent mining explorations by a German multinational in the area - as in large parts of Narino requests have been made for exploratory drilling in La Florida municipality. The local subsidiary of Anglogold Ashanti, Kedahda, have drilling permits in 28 out of 64 municipalities of Narino. The wooden shelters built nearby in case of an eruption lack water and sanitation and when there was an eruption in January this year only a few families evacuated there.

The village of Ricaurte in the municipality of the same name is about half way along the road to the Pacific coast. This sparsely populated municipality has 11 indigenous reservations, consisting of around 10,000 indigenous Awa. One of the most acultured indigenous groups, the Awa have conserved their identity through occupation of territory, but have in recent years come under increasing pressure from the presence of armed groups on their land. Their indigenous culture had been suppressed for years with teachers being punished for using the Awa language. Some of the youth now learn the language and culture, including use of medicinal plants, in schools in the reservations. We visited a farm in the village with many of these plants. Accused by all sides of supporting others, some have been murdered and around a thousand have been displaced. There haven't been any murders by the army or paramilitaries since 2006, but the death threats and theft of cattle continue. FARC mines continue to kill and maim farmers and their families. Movement within many reservations is severely restricted because of the mines. In the largest displacement in 2005 hundreds lived in the Ricaurte village school during the holidays. Some of these came to an agreement with a local landowner and live in their own shacks while around 40 people still share a hostel with one bathroom.

We met another displaced community of around 100 residents near Ricaurte who have come from the municipality and other areas. They are are soon to be evicted by the landowner. A shelter was built a few miles away by the Italian NGO COPI but it remains empty due to the lack of facilities and distance from employment opportunities. This consists largely of day labour on local farms which pays 10-12,000 daily (3-4GBP) - wages have decreased with the influx of displaced people. Some of these had received a food packet for displaced people while others had received nothing.

The Awa are represented by CAMAWARI (Cabildo Mayor Awa de Ricaurte) whose members now run the local council. They told us of the increased paramilitary and police presence leading to social problems - there has been an increase in crime and teenage pregnancies. Due to debts incurred by previous administrations there is no money for health or education projects in the indigenous reservations. Ricaurte lies in the area of the Pacific-Atlantic development project, from Tumaco on the Pacific to Pasto and on to Puerto Asis in Putumayo and the Amazon basin. This would include the widening of the road in Ricaurte to facilitate the future transport of mineral resources and monocultures like palm oil and cacao. Palm oil plantations are already starting to encroach on indigenous land from the coast and there are suspicions of palm companies financing paramilitaries. The militarization of Narino has accelerated recently with much equipment being transferred from the soon to be evacuated US military in Manta, Ecuador, to the airport in the port of Tumaco, which is also crawling with US DEA advisors and fumigation mercenaries.

The presence of armed groups in the municipality of Samaniego (population 70,000) has increased with the rise of coca production as fumigations in areas such as Putumayo have merely displaced cultivation. As well as the large army presence, the FARC have recently moved into the area and have been fighting the ELN, who have been longer established in the area - many have been killed in recent clashes. A few weeks ago four teachers in a rural area were killed, allegedly by the FARC for being army informants. Locals also suspect that many soldiers' deaths in both clashes and as casualties of mine clearing operations have gone unreported.

In one of the most heavily mined parts of Colombia, by paramilitaries and the army as well as guerilla groups, official figures give over 250 landmine fatalities since 2002 , many of them children. The real figures are more as many victims aren't registered and some die because they can't access medical services for up to a day. In some areas the paths are mined between 6am and 6pm. 800 families are restricted to their homes as their farmland has been mined and hundreds of children are unable to attend school in some rural areas.

The more recent deployment of paramilitaries has brought terror to some villages such as El Decio which was invaded last year by hundreds of paramilitaries, many of them policemen, with one resident killed by being dragged through the streets and others assaulted. There is a manganese mine in the area which guerilla were attacking. More recently in May this year, during a curfew in Samaniego village, a few locals were killed including someone who was found with his eyes gouged out and hands cut off. Many suspect paramilitaries of being behind the flyers which were distributed announcing the curfew. A journalist with the local Diario del Sur who reported the murders was threatened and forced to leave the area.

The previous council negotiated a peace treaty with the ELN (Pacto Local de Paz) who promised not to harm the civilian population, but this has been abandoned by the current administration, who tow the official line that only the president or peace commissioner are authorised to negotiate such treaties. The previous council narrowly lost the elections, claiming that many votes had been bought by the current council. It is hard for humanitarian organisations to operate in the area as guerilla believe that they are collecting information for the army - Operation Jacque only deepened this suspicion. Health workers were recently kidnapped by the guerilla.

Some farmers formed the 'Cooperativa Agrominera del Saspi' in April so they will be better placed to resist future attempts by paramilitaries collaborating with mining companies to displace them. The River Saspi runs through Samaniego and neighbouring municipalities with artesanal mining. Farmers see this type of mining as a viable alternative as fumigations have devasted many of their traditional crops. The destruction of these crops has made coca an even more attractive proposition as it can be harvested every 2-3 months, unlike traditional crops which yield only two harvests yearly.

Click here for photos.

No comments: