Montes de Maria: learning about land and territorial struggles, resistance and collective empowerment

Eva Reyes (CODECA), Carla Pimentel (CEPES) Rony Morales (UVOC)
Thursday, October 26, 2017

The International Land Coalition Latin America and the Caribbean Internship Program 2017 focused on land governance and brought together six young people from ILC member organizations in Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala and El Salvador.

This internship edition, from August 13th to 27th, was held in Montes de Maria, a northern region of Colombia harshly impacted by armed conflict. We, the participants, had the opportunity to share experiences and diverse knowledge, learning about initiatives of community resistance and collective empowerment related to land and territorial issues.

We witnessed the central role of community and territory in the struggle that takes place, on a daily basis, in Montes de Maria. The efforts are varied and go from experiences of land and water protection, the improvement of production and youth and women empowerment, to reclaiming historical memory and cultural heritage.

Among all the experiences we learnt from, we would like to present three welcoming communities, which allow us to live first-hand their struggle so that we could gain and take back with us invaluable knowledge.

San Cristobal: The ethnic awakening of a community 

San Cristobal is an Afro-Colombian community located in the municipality of San Jacinto. In 2008 and in order to organize themselves, San Cristobal established the Afro-descendant Community Council Elario Ariza, which has as its main objective to defend community´s territory and interests.

We were offered the opportunity, as part of the internship, to visit the Council. We learnt about its rich history and the struggle to protect land and reclaim San Cristobal ´s ethnic Afro-Colombian heritage.

In the context of the armed conflict, San Cristobal´ s population lived massive displacement, which forced farmers to abandon or sell their land at unfair prices, and left the community almost deserted. When the conflict finally ceased and some of the residents began to return, they were faced with different kinds of threats: land-grabbing for major agricultural investments and ongoing monoculture plantations such as palm oil. When San Cristobal´ s inhabitants felt the territory and ancestral heritage of their community were in danger, decided to get organized and to establish a community council, in order to obtain collective entitlement of their land. This was not only done to ensure land protection, but also to reclaim San Cristobal ´s Afro-Colombian heritage, which was closely linked to the territory. According to Victor Castellar, one of the Community Council founders, the community wants to defend its territory not only with "food security and agriculture", but also "with culture, traditions and customs".

Ten years later, the struggle of San Cristobal for land collective entitlement continues. It has been a pathway with many obstacles and the State lack of willpower.  However, last September 1st, the Council filed a lawsuit for ethnic restitution of their land rights, which opens new possibilities for the collective entitlement of 1,818 hectares which, currently, are mostly in private hands. The community, however, has hopes to eventually recover the land.

San Jose del Playon: Land defenders victims of internal armed conflict 

San Jose del Playon is one of eleven Colombian communities –known as corregimientos- from Maria La Baja municipality, located northwest of the Bolivar department, a busy area in Montes de Maria between the Dique Channel -Canal del Dique- and the Zone of Economic and Social Development -Zona de Desarrollo Económica y Social or ZODES-.

During mid-80s, the population of San Jose del Playon began to note in the community the presence of the National Liberation Army – Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional or ELN-, a guerrilla group consolidated northeast of Colombia, in the area of Magdalena Medio and the border zone with Venezuela. At first, the ELN was perceived by inhabitants as “protection”, because the guerrillas were located in the upper part of the mountain range and patrolled at night. There were not attacks or violent acts against the population and the community felt safe.

The first violent act alerting the community took place in 1987, when a couple dressed in military clothing prowled around the village. When they arrived in front of the Police Station they took out their weapons and fired towards the Colombian emblem. From that day on the harassment, pressures and forced recruitment started and residents lived in fear.

Victor Lore Julio was a farmer and shopkeeper forced to move to the city of Cartagena due to pressures and death threats from the guerrillas. During the same period, the guerrillas murdered his brother-in-law Edelvides Agamez in the town of Santo Domingo de Mesa. Those events initiated a period the community called El Primer Miedo or The First Fear.

It was a time of great anxiety in the region. People talked of assassinations in nearby sidewalks, harassment continued and some peasants were forced to "collaborate" with the guerrillas. The corregimiento became a corridor where individual displacements of threatened people occurred, armed groups circulated with abductees and other illegal activities took place.

In 1999, between the evening of August 17th and the early hours of August 18th, San Jose del Playon lived an event nowadays remembered as 'The burning' –La Quema-, due to the electricity power cuts that took place when the heavily armed men arrived in the community. The newcomers identified themselves as members of the Peasant Self-Defenders of Cordoba and Uraba -Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá or ACCU-. Five community residents were murdered in the raid: Joaquin del Toro Arrieta, a 67-year-old farmer and trader; Nelson Florez Prada, a 29-year-old from Betulia, Santander; Ester Florez, who was Nelson´s sister; his brother-in-law Jaider Rodriguez, who had only been in the community for three days; and Nando Navarro.

In order to remember this deadly episode and preventing other tragedies ever happening again, San Jose de Playon commemorates the event every August 18th with the Day of the Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict -Dia de las Victimas del Conflicto Armado Interno or CAI-. During this day of celebration the community pays honours to the victims, and diversity of activities such as walks, meetings and religious gatherings take place.

Paso el Medio: The struggle for water protection

Paso el Medio is a community composed by 30 peasant families mainly engaged in the cultivation of cassava, yam and plantain.

The struggle of Paso el Medio is one of water, land and territorial protection efforts which began with a major conflict caused by the presence of monocultures, -e.g. plantations of palm oil-, diverting and taking the water intended for community use. On a visit we paid to Paso el Medio, we assessed the management of a community well, which benefits the population and it is an element in the conflict with palm oil plantation owners. However, the community of Paso el Medio stays strong and is preserving the water source through resistance mechanisms.

During the internship we had the opportunity to visit Paso el Medio to see and learn first-hand from the historical richness, water protection efforts and land struggles of the community.

In addition to the above, the community of Paso el Medio also counts with a community center, where the 30 families can gather to hold meetings and educational processes for women and youth. These initiatives have the support of host organizations at the forefront of the struggle in Paso el Medio.

Witnessing the empowerment of this community around land issues generates awareness and knowledge. They were all great experiences.