Interview: Afro-Colombian Farmers on Displacement and Resistance

Five years after the alleged demobilization of army-backed paramilitaries in Colombia, violence and human rights abuses remain widespread in the countryside, displaced Afro-Colombian farmers and community leaders Juan Sanchez and Roberto Guzman say.
Five years after the alleged demobilization of army-backed paramilitaries in Colombia, violence and human rights abuses remain widespread in the countryside, displaced Afro-Colombian farmers and community leaders Juan Sanchez and Roberto Guzman* say.

Activists working on behalf of Colombia’s internally displaced population are subjected to extrajudicial killings and death threats by paramilitary groups supported by the Colombian army and palm oil firms active in rural areas, Sanchez and Guzman report. “They say we’re guerrillas and that they’re going to kill us,” says Sanchez.

Sanchez and Guzman are members of grassroots community councils representing thousands of Afro-Colombians and Mestizos who have been working to reclaim their land since they were displaced from communities in the river basins of Jiguamiando and Curvarado in the northwestern department of Choco in joint operations carried out by the Colombian army and linked paramilitaries in 1996 and 1997.

Sanchez and Guzman sat down for this interview on a recent afternoon in Washington, D.C., during a U.S. speaking tour. In the conversation, they discuss the link between corporate and paramilitary power, the impacts of palm oil cultivation on local communities, and how displaced people are fighting back.

The Colombian army and allied paramilitary groups forcibly displaced your communities in the name of combating guerrillas. Now your land has been usurped by internationally-financed Colombian oil palm companies and other businesses. How did this happen?

JS: The military came around to the different communities and told the people to get out of the area because they were “going to combat the guerrillas.” We didn’t want to leave because we weren’t part of this problem. But they kept on insisting and saying that “if you don’t leave, the people who cut heads are coming behind us”; they were referring to the AUC [an army-backed paramilitary organization].

Massacres were committed and attacks continued in other parts of the region. We would see bodies floating down the river, and we would see birds that were eating the corpses. Both the military and paramilitaries kept threatening us that we had to leave. This was 1997.

That’s how they got us out of the area. In 2000, 2001, we found out that the real objective of this operation wasn’t to get rid of the guerrillas, but to get rid of us from the area in order to implement large-scale palm oil monocultures, cattle ranching, and other types of monocultures including teak and rubber plantations.

How does the production of palm oil impact the ecological and economic situation in your communities?

JS: First of all, they’ve destroyed our territory environmentally; it’s completely damaged. They clear cut the territories, and river ways have been dried up by palm trees’ consumption of water. The palm is sick; basically the pit of the palm has been infected by some kind of microorganism which is now attacking the coconut plants and other plants we’ve been trying to cultivate. Many people are very traumatized, especially when they go back to their land and see that there’s nothing there.

RG: Palm oil plantations have degraded the soil to point that it doesn’t produce like it used to. They got rid of trees, and all the food and properties we had left behind when we were displaced are gone. When we went back we didn’t see anything; none of the properties were there, none of the trees.

Can you explain the ‘humanitarian and biodiversity zones’ established by displaced communities and what they aim to achieve?

JS: We started organizing ourselves into humanitarian zones and biodiversity zones in order to go back to our territories, because we wanted to defend not only our lives but the territory itself by being in the territory. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has created spaces where only the civilian population can be present. It’s been a protection mechanism that’s allowed us to resist and continue to live in our territories in the midst of an internal armed conflict.

The parallel biodiversity zones are areas where we cultivate food for our daily needs. There we replicate practices of agriculture that are traditional practices. These zones have served as a protection mechanism against the activities of the paramilitaries and military; they’ve been forced to respect these humanitarian zones.

In the Western media it’s often argued that paramilitary groups were ‘demobilized’ during Alvaro Uribe’s tenure and that Colombia is vastly more peaceful now as a result of this. Have the paramilitaries gone away?

JS: In 2005, there was a so-called demobilization effort, but what we say as rural farmers who live there is that there was no demobilization; it was a way to legalize these groups. Because those paramilitaries continue to operate and work in the same things they did before.

The same people are now part of groups such as the Black Eagles, and criminal bands called the Rastrojos and Gaitainistas. There’s a military post near the humanitarian zone of Canedas, and right next to it there’s a paramilitary post, separated by a small river. There’s a lot of collusion [between paramilitaries, the military, and police.]

Is there collaboration between the Colombian army, paramilitaries, and internationally-financed Colombian companies in Afro-Colombian areas?

RG: Oil palm industrialists have paid paramilitaries to kill [activists working for land restitution] because of the announcements we’ve made about the situation. Retired colonel Felipe Molano testified after the murder of community leader Ualberto Hoyos that he was responsible for and guilty of this murder plot. [Molano] admitted that he bought [land that had been forcibly taken from its inhabitants] illegally from paramilitaries, and that he had investments in palm and cattle ranching in Cano Manso region in Curvarado. They continue to threaten the leaders inhabiting communities working to reclaim their territories.

As representatives of displaced communities, what are your demands?

JS: What we want is not only for the lands to be physically returned, but for there to be non-repetition in terms of displacement so that we can actually work on those lands. We also ask for justice for all of these injustices that have taken place in our territory.

* Not their real names


 Photo Courtesy of Peace Brigades International. Sign at the entrance of El Muñeco Cemetery near the humanitarian zone of Caño Claro in the Curvaradó River Basin in Chocó, Colombia. Civilians fled this area in 1997, leaving behind their homes, crops and town infrastructure. After the area was emptied of inhabitants, oil palm companies leveled this cemetery and planted on top of peoples remains. One need only to slightly disturb the earth to uncover bones and clothes of the people buried there. The sign says “In memory of our deceased who live in our hearts, we will continue resisting for our territory that you once worked and left for us as a legacy.”