by Bill Weinberg
Leaving Barrancabermeja in a canoa — a small launch with an outboard motor — the perilous patchwork of armed groups that vie for control of Colombia’s Medio Magdalena region becomes immediately obvious. Navy gunboats painted in camo line the shore along the huge oil refinery that looms over the Rio Magdalena. Just a few minutes later, a little past the edge of the city, paramilitary checkpoints on either bank survey the river traffic. They don’t stop our boat because we are flying the flag of Peace Brigades International from the bow, and the paras like to give foreign human rights observers a wide berth. There are practically no suburbs — just past the para checkpoint we find ourselves in an endless expanse of wetlands and jungle broken only by the most primitive of campesino settlements. Herons laze on the green banks as we make our way north to the Rio Cimitarra — a tributary of the Magdalena where coca growers, paras and guerillas have all staked their turf.
I’ve come to this remote and conflicted region with a commission from the Colombian rights group Humanidades Vigentes, accompanied by two representatives of the Peace Brigades for our protection. We spend a mosquito-haunted night at Puerto Machete, the little riverside settlement where the canoa drops us off. Then it is a four-hour hike along an unimproved dirt road and jungle trails to our destination: the little campesino vereda (settlement) of La Floresta. The last hour on the trail seems endless. We wade streams, sink knee-deep into mud, crawl under barbed-wire fences, climb and descend hill after hill. When a campesino from La Floresta passes us on his mule, I ask hopefully "Falta mucho?" (Is it much further?) He nods gravely and answers "Si, siempre." Yes, always.
Poison from the Skies, Fear on the Land
There is no electricity in La Floresta, and no running water. The only sign of any government presence is in the form of destroyed land.
Our commission has come to document the impact of aerial glyphosate fumigation of the settlement’s lands to wipe out coca crops. The impacts are obvious as soon as we arrive. Marina Salguero, the official health promoter for Floresta and nearby settlements, who is licensed by the local municipal government of Cantagallo, maintains an extremely makeshift clinic in a little hilltop hut. A thin old man with big rash on his leg sits in the hut with a penicillin IV in his arm. His skin irritation, a result of being caught in his fields when the fumigation overflight swooped down, has become infected, Salguero says.
"I get cases like this all the time," she says. "Children with head pain, vomiting, diaorrhea, skin irritation. Every time the planes come." She points out a stretch of land on a nearby hill glaringly brown and dead in the green landscape — the result of the last fumigation, 15 days earlier. The brown stretch is right beside to a house. "Their home, their kitchen was fumigated. Their crops all destroyed–maize, platano, yucca."
Salguero admits that coca is grown at La Floresta — "just to have a little money," she says. "You saw how bad the road is here." She notes that having to haul out legal crops on the road–followed by a river trip to nearest town, with paras sometimes stealing whatever goods the campesinos carry — means the cost of getting crops to market eats virtually all profits. In contrast, men come to the vereda to buy the coca and carry it out themselves.
"We are completely abandoned by the government here–municipal, departmental, national," Salguero protests. "What alternative do we have? I’m responsible for three veredas, and I don’t even have a thermometer."
On this recently-settled agricultural frontier, where land is cleared from the rainforest with no oversight, the campesinos have no ability to interact with the bureaucracy for credit or aid. "Here the land is not titled," says Salguero. "Everyone has his predio (plot) and works it."
When the campesinos take us on a tour of the vereda, showing us the plots which have been destroyed by fumigation flights, they all tell same story — legal food crops and forest destroyed along with the coca bushes. They pull up the dead stalks of yucca, killed before they could be harvested. They claim over 100 chickens have been killed by glyphosate spraying in the village since first fumigation flights in 2001. Sometimes it is clear that the legal crops were destroyed because they were planted amid coca crops. Sometimes it looks as if the glyphosate drifted, or was sprayed wildly wide of its target. Everywhere it is clear that the spraying is degrading these hard-won lands not only by direct poisoning, but by destroying the plant cover the holds down the soil, leading to erosion and muddy streams.
The fumigation flights, carried out by planes from the private firm Dyncorp under contract to the US State Department, are accompanied by up to seven helicopters from the Colombian army or National Police. They take off from airport in Barrancabermeja. Army ground troops also come to burn down coca paste labs from time to time, or to search for guerillas. The campesinos complain that the troops demand mules for transport and chickens for food without compensation.
But it is the paramilitaries from the Central Bolivar Bloc (BCB) of the notorious Colombian United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) that have a far tighter grip on the community, and demand periodic payments of war taxes. The campesinos show us a document from the BCB’s local "Frente Conquistadores of Yondo" ordering the president of Floresta’s peasant council, the Junta de Accion Comunal, to show up in paramilitary-controlled Yondo town on Sept. 7 to make a "declaration" about production on their lands for taxes to the outlaw army. The campesinos also pay taxes to the guerillas — "Whoever has guns," says Uriel Nieto, a member of the peasant council.
La Floresta is one of several communities that make up the Cimitarra Valley Campesino Association (ACVC), which has been pressuring for a better deal for the marginal region since it was founded in 1996. Yondo’s mayor Saul Rodriguez calls ACVC a front for the guerillas. "Itâ€ss a lie," says Uriel. "We work as a community, not as an arm of the guerilla."
Government Targets Campesino Activists, Not Paras
In 1998, following a series of cross-country marches and other protest campaigns, the ACVC worked out plan for the "Integral Development and Protection of Human Rights in the Magdalena Medio." The plan was drawn up with the allied Federation of Agricultural Workers and Miners of Southern Bolivar (Fedeagromisbol), an alliance of campesinos and small-scale gold miners in the Sierra San Lucas who have been increasingly pushed out of the region by corporate gold interests in recent years. The plan was conceived as an alternative to government plans to forcibly eradicate coca in the region. The ACVC argued that with government investment in the region and a crackdown on paras, the campesinos could wean themselves off the coca economy.
Things have worked out differently. A special army unit called the Bloque de Busqueda, or Search Bloc, was formed specifically to target the paras, but never accomplished much. And since President Alvaro Uribe came to power last year, the paras have increased their hold on the region — while the ACVC itself has been the target of a crackdown.
Since March of this year, ACVC leaders Gilberto Guerra and Andres Gil have been wanted on "rebellion" charges related to past protest campaigns and alleged collaboration with the guerillas. They are currently in hiding. Says Miguel Cifuentes, secretary of the ACVC’s governing junta: "There are paras and assassins in the prisons. They are worth more alive than dead."
Cifuentes denies that the ACVC has ever collaborated with the guerillas. "This is part of the Uribe government strategy to debilitate the movement," he says. "They use denunciations in the press, charges against us — and when that fails, they try to kill us."
Cifuentes speaks from experience. On March 4, days before charges brought against Guerra and Gil, Cifuentes was on the Rio Magdalena on his way to the Cimitarra Valley, when he was the target of an assassination attempt. He was just 15 minutes past the Navy presence at Barrancabermeja when paras opened fire on his canoa from their shoreline checkpoint. Cifuentes was only on the river because he had been given bad information that there was no para checkpoint up that day. "I knew if we stopped they’d kill me," he says. His finger was grazed by a bullet, and his cellular radio hit, but he managed to get away to a nearby island, where he hid for 12 hours — at one point, while paras searched the island for him with flashlights. Local human rights workers finally rescued him. He has not ventured back into the Cimitarra Valley since, but helps staff the ACVC’s office in Barrancabermeja.
Laboratory of the Counter-Reform
The Medio Magdalena region, which includes the Cimitarra Valley and straddles the departments of Antioquia. Santander, Cesar and Bolivar, has ironically been dubbed by the Colombian government and foreign aid agencies a "Laboratory of Peace." The program includes a European Union-backed proposal to promote African palm oil as an alternative crop and a spur to economic development in the region. Cifuentes opposes the African palm proposal as a technocratic pseudo-solution. "It is a monoculture, and it displaces traditional crops, worsening the food crisis in region and increasing campesino debt," he says.
Jorge Enrique Gomez is Medio Magdalena regional chief of the Defensoria del Pueblo, an official human rights watchdog created by Colombia’s 1991 constitutional reform. He has been at his post since February 2002, when he returned to the Medio Magdalena alter ten years in exile in El Salvador and Guatemala. He fled Colombia after receiving death threats for his work documenting local human rights abuses with CREDHOS, the Barrancabermeja-based non-governmental watchdog. Gomez believes that as long as fumigation continues, no alternative crop program will make much difference.
"To fumigate licit crops is a bad investment and a mixed message to the campesinos," he says. "Cultivation of illicit crops is a result of the lack of any government presence in the zone. Fumigations affect the poorest sector of the populace." He argues that the fumigations are not only counter-productive, but illegal.
"Itâ€ss the position of the Defensoria del Pueblo that the fumigations are against international humanitarian law. Article 93 of the Colombian constitution recognizes the Geneva Conventions and other international codes. So the fumigations are also illegal under Colombian law." He cites the Defensoria’s Resolution 026-02, issued in response to fumigations in Putumayo department, which officially found the program illegal. He acknowledges that the Defensoria’s resolutions are nonbinding, but says they have "moral power."
The ACVC’s 1998 accord with the government was supposed to instate a more meaningful alternative development program. The accord, signed by Gil and Guerra with President Andres Pastrana, established the Cimitarra Valley as a "Campesino Reserve Zone," or ZRC, where small holdings are protected by law, and large holdings or latifundios are banned. The ZRC proposal set maximum holdings based on 72-hectare Family Agricultural Units, with no more than three allowed in a single private holding within the Zone. The Cimitarra ZRC, which covered the municipalities of Remedios and Yondo in Antioquia and San Pablo and Cantagallo in Bolivar, was officially declared in December 2002, in accordance with the 1998 accord. It was one of five declared throughout Colombia, with the other four in Meta and Guaviare departments. But in April 2003, the Cimitarra ZRC was eliminated by official decree of the Colombian National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INCORA), on the grounds it was exacerbating conflict in the region.
The INCORA decree disbanding zone, Resolution 046-03, was protested by dissident members of INCORA’s governing junta, who sent a letter to the body arguing that overturning the ZRC was illegal. INCORA was a semi-democratic body, with junta members representing campesinos elected via the National Association of Campesino Land Users (ANUC) and the National Federation of Agriculture (FANAL); members representing Indians elected via the Colombian Indigenous Organization (ONIC); members representing Afro-Colombians elected via the Process of Black Communities (PCN); and members representing women elected via National Association of Campesino, Black and Indigenous Women (ANMUCIC). But the majority on the INCORA junta–representing government agricultural agencies and the landed elite (via the National Ranchers Federation, or FEDEGAN, and the Colombian Farmers Society, or SAC)–voted in favor of overturning the Cimitarra ZRC.
In May, shortly after the vote, INCORA, established in the 1960s, was officially dissolved by President Uribe. It has been replaced by the Colombian National Institute of Rural Development (INCODER), which is charged with titling colonized lands, rather than land redistribution. Campesino organizations charge that the bureaucratic change is the final nail in the coffin of Colombia’s tentative agrarian reform measures.
Big ranches in Yondo municipality which existed before the ZRC was declared are still intact. Under the ZRC, they were supposed to be bought by the government and redistributed to campesinos — but they never were before the ZRC was overturned. ACVC’s Miguel Cifuentes claims these ranches both launder narco profits and serve as a base of support for paramilitary activity.
"We developed our own plan for a sustainable economic alternative," says Cifuentes. "We called for roads, schools, hospitals, mills for sugar and rice, local cooperatives to exploit fish and timber, so the campesinos can take their product directly to the market without intermediaries. We called for rational exploitation of gold that doesn’t pollute the water. These solutions could work. But there is no political will to provide the resources. The region means nothing to those in power."
(August 27, 2003)