The day before we set off for Catatumbo, Colombia’s ministry of defense tried to intimidate us into changing our minds. We received several emails and were invited to a personal meeting, where we were warned that our safety among the region's locals...
Campesinos protesting against government evictions in Catatumbo, Colombia.
On a hot, dusty morning in July, I found myself rattling down a road in the beautiful Colombian countryside. I was there as part of a delegation with the international NGO Justice for Colombia, crashing through virtually unusable roads, over gaping potholes, and dangerously rusted bridges—testament to the government's unwillingness to invest in its countryside regions, which are inhabited mostly by peasants.
At about 7 AM the bus stopped and we disembarked, unaware of what lay ahead. Waiting for us were at least 60 campesinos—the Spanish word for peasant farmers—lining either side of the road. They were standing upright, left hands aloft, right hands behind their backs, shouting demands for justice in a single, unified voice. We walked up the road in the morning sunlight, pausing occasionally to shake their hands and echo their cries of "Viva!"
This is the region of Catatumbo, and the campesinos are its poorest residents. At the moment, Catatumbo is at the frontline of Colombia’s civil war—a war that hasn’t abated, no matter what the country’s tourist board might tell you.
A few weeks before our arrival, security forces turned up and opened fire on a campesinos protest, killing four and wounding 50. The type of bullets the authorities use mean that limbs often explode and have to be amputated. The Colombian government is currently promising an investigation into human rights abuses in Catatumbo, but state repression has yet to deter the region’s residents—they are genuinely the hardest people I've ever met. Despite the threat of security forces returning to rob them of life and limb, during our visit thousands of campesinos were blockading the road to the region’s capital, taking turns to make sure that no vehicle could get through.
When it comes the Colombian civil war, most people imagine a dispute between rival criminal gangs, each vying to stuff the most cocaine into the noses of London bankers and Miami beach-party DJs. However, while coke plays its part in the conflict, it is by no means the main issue. The root of the country’s problems actually lie in land ownership and the state’s penchant for selling off peasant land to multinational companies, who then mine it for resources like oil and gold. Unfortunately for these corporations—who already own up to 75 percent of the land in some regions—the campesinos tend to be fairly reluctant to move from the turf they've spent decades making their home. So what’s the solution? Simple—chuck the campesinos off.
This policy is at least part of the reason why Colombia is currently home to five million displaced people, which accounts for over 10 percent of its entire population and is the highest number of any country in the world. And these people aren't always expelled peacefully; if the army doesn’t scare them away (when I was in Colombia, I met campesinos who told me that the army was intimidating them by shitting in the water supply), right-wing paramilitaries have a tendency to turn up and just massacre everybody instead. In their quest to secure land to grow narcotics on and smuggle munitions across, these paramilitaries basically act as extrajudicial death squads.
According to the UN’s 2012 report, close to 20,000 people have been disappeared in Colombia by right-wing paramilitaries and the army is currently being investigated for 4,716 extrajudicial executions of civilians. Unsurprisingly, then, the demands of Catatumbo’s campesinos revolve mainly around protecting their land. They are calling for a Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone, which would give them enhanced land rights, like those of many indigenous communities in Latin America.
According to ASCAMCAT, a Colombian agricultural union, the proposed Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone would provide small-scale farming opportunities to over 80,000 campesinos. It’s a common misconception that the campesinos are simply poor people who can’t afford to live any other way—campesino life is rich in culture and heritage, and many see their way of living, difficult though it is, as a valued tradition that deserves to be protected.
The campesinos also want the right to farm alternative crops to illegal coca, from which cocaine is made. At the moment, it’s impossible to make a living by farming food products because foreign imports are so cheap and the total lack of decent roads or infrastructure makes transport costs too high. Campesino farmers are becoming increasingly reliant on coca, only to have the army burn down all of their crops, pushing them further into poverty.
Similar scenes to those in Catatumbo are playing out across Colombia, but the region has lately become something of a tinderbox because of the extent of the resistance there. So it comes as no surprise that Catatumbo’s campesinos have made an enemy in the government as a result, which insists that the protests have been infiltrated by the FARC, a left-wing peasant insurgency that has been fighting the Colombian government and its right-wing paramilitary proxies for the better part of 50 years. The government calls the campesinos terrorists, but when I was in Catatumbo, I saw no evidence of that. The campesinos seemed like ordinary people, many of them teenagers, who claimed to have never fired a single shot at the authorities. As one campesino put it, “If we were terrorists with access to weaponry, why would we fight the army with sticks and stones?”
It’s a compelling argument, and one the government doesn’t want people to hear. The day before we set off for Catatumbo, Colombia’s ministry of defense tried to intimidate us into changing our minds. We received several emails and were invited to a personal meeting, where we were warned that our safety among the campesinos couldn’t be guaranteed.
But that was complete bullshit—the biggest threat to our safety was the soaring temperatures. Our interactions with the campesinos consisted mainly of eating lunch together and salsa dancing—hardly the stuff of Jabhat al-Nusra. Nevertheless, the government continues its smears; the leader of the campesino union, Cesar Jerez, is regularly portrayed in the Colombian press as some kind of Latino bin Laden. Anyone with an interest in human rights should be keeping an eye on what happens to him in the coming months.
Eventually the afternoon wore on, the temperatures cooled, and the campesinos returned to work. As we bounced along the roads home, we got word that the campesinos were preparing to lift the road blockades in response to the government agreeing to enter into negotiations. That development doesn’t seem to have stopped the conflict, though—a few days later, the police returned to the region and committed further violence, leading to the hospitalization of a journalist from the Colombian alternative press.
Waiting at the airport to fly back to Colombia’s capital, I saw a billboard from the country’s tourist board that, after spending time in Catatumbo, seemed almost mocking in its message: "Colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay."
Follow Ellie on Twitter: @MissEllieMay
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