Colombian Communities Reclaim Land and Life from the Paramilitary-Business Alliance

The first of the displaced people to return to their homes in Curvarado, north Colombia found the forests they had known cut down, the rivers and streams diverted and the native wildlife long gone. It was a desert, they say – not of sand but of African-palm and cattle ranches.

Standing in the shadows behind the palm businesses and ranchers that had taken over the region were the same paramilitaries that had forced them from their homes several years before.

But still the people came. They built new communities known as “Humanitarian Zones,” which are now legally recognized as neutral zones where all armed actors, legal and illegal are prohibited from entering. They also began the process of reclaiming the land exhausted by the agri-business onslaught, dividing recovered territory into “Biodiversity Zones.”

However, over 15 years after they were first displaced, the Humanitarian Zone communities still live with the ever-present threat of violence, while the Biodiversity Zones have become a target for interests looking to force them from their lands again.

The predominantly Afro-Colombian communities of Curvarado were first displaced in the mid-nineties when the Colombian military launched a joint operation with their paramilitary death squads allies, who later would go on to form the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) – the paramilitary umbrella group that terrorized Colombia for nearly a decade.

Enrique Petro was one of the first to return to the region in 2002. “I said ‘I’m going there – to my land – maybe they will kill me, but I’m going’,” he said. As more returnees joined Petro, in 2005 they took their first step towards reclaiming their stolen lands by defying the businesses, the paramilitaries, the army, and the police and staging a public cutting down of the African-palms that covered the land. “They told me ‘for every tree you cut down we’re going cut off a head’,” said Petro. “So I said to them, ‘You have a lot of trees, I’ve just got the one head.”

Petro donated part of the recovered land to be used to build the first Humanitarian Zone, which inspired other displaced families to return. As the new communities grew and proliferated they developed the Biodiversity Zones as a strategy to reclaim their territories as their own.

Much of Curvarado, including the lands where the Humanitarian Zones are located, are constitutionally recognized as collectively titled territories belonging to the region’s Afro-Colombian communities. As a result, the Biodiversity Zones are not individually owned but divided into self-organized family groups. However, the communities have agreed on five principals that guide the use of the lands. According to the agreement, zones should be analyzed and divided into sectors for agriculture, recuperation, conservation, housing and sustainable use. “All of this is a proposal of collective construction” said Jorge Forero, from the Inter-ecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace – a human rights NGO that has accompanied the communities since they returned to the zone. “It is the experience of how people have lived and also a form of organizing in the face of the conflict.”

Agriculture in the zones not only feeds the communities, it is also their economic lifeblood as surplus produce can be sold on. Crops are grown using traditional Afro-Colombian sustainable agriculture methods – which stand in stark contrast to the agri-businesses that the zones have replaced. “We don’t share [methods] with the mega-businesses,” said “Isabel”, a Humanitarian Zone resident, “because what they do is they take the land and they destroy everything in the territory … When they leave, the land produces nothing, it has become infertile.”

The Biodiversity Zones are also intended to allow the lands to begin the slow process of recuperation from the agri-business invasion. “There was enough water, there were enough fish, enough animals,” said Uriel Tuberquia, another resident. “Now, with all the exploitation, what we have to do is start again.”

The process includes reforestation and land recovery projects to encourage the return of the native wildlife, which also fled the para-business assault that destroyed their habitat. “The animals are also alive and they have rights,” said Isabel. For the communities, this plays a central role in creating the environment they want to live in. “Nature is an offering, an offering that we feel here,” she said. “It fills you with joy to live in contact with nature.”

While the Biodiversity Zones have played a practical role in enabling people to return to the region, their social function runs deeper. “It is possible that these communities have their own food source but it is also the possible that they continue resisting, that they don’t have to stay outside of the communities,” said Forero.

Although establishing the Humanitarian and Biodiversity Zones was the first step in returning to Curvarado, it was just the beginning of the struggle for the returnees. Their claims to the land are being fought at every turn by the businesses and by the paramilitaries – who now operate under different names following the demobilization of the AUC but utilize the same methods of violence and terror.

Most of the palm companies they faced in the first confrontations have left the region. Sixteen palm businessmen are currently in prison for their role in displacing the population of Curvarado, while 11 more are fugitives and 22 have been called to trial. Most of their crops were killed off by a mysterious fungal plague that stained the leaves of the plants red. “This was the blood of those they killed here,” said Petro. “It was God himself that sent [the plague].”

However, as the palm companies have retreated, another sector with a long history of paramilitary ties has moved in – banana companies. Several Biodiversity Zones have been occupied by people from outside the region, who have destroyed the crops and reforestation projects of the communities and replaced them with plantain and other monocrops. “Nature was returning but the invaders took over and destroyed everything and it looked like desert once again,” said Isabel.

According to reports from the Lower Councils of Curvarado and the Humanitarian Zones, the “invaders,” as they are known in the region, are landless and displaced people from elsewhere in Colombia who say they answered advertisements promising land, start-up money and equipment, and a guarantee from the banana companies to buy their crops.

“The objective is to repopulate the territory, to fill it with people who will wage war against us,” said Andres, who lives in a zone whose lands have been taken over by invaders. “They do it so the community will be scared, and decide to be displaced again.”

The invaders claim the backing of the paramilitaries in the region, and according to reports complied by Justice and Peace, paramilitaries organize and supervise the occupiers’ work, and threaten those that have denounced them.

The most prominent company allegedly working with the invaders is Banacol – a Colombia based multinational. In a written statement Banacol said it had provided start-up equipment, technical expertise and access to international markets for Afro-Colombian families “from the communities [and] with roots in the zone” as part of a project to “generate work opportunities and development” for the region’s Afro-Colombian population.

However, it did not comment on the legal restrictions placed on commercial development projects in the region put in place by the Constitutional Court, which state that until the restitution process is completed, “such transactions are presumed to be illegal.” Banacol also did not respond to the accusations that paramilitaries are overseeing the farms.

The cattle ranchers remain in the region, even though many of them have been designated as “bad faith occupiers” by local authorities, who discovered that thousands of acres used for ranching had been acquired through fraudulent and illegal land purchases. The ranchers dispute the communities’ claims to the land and, according to residents, have also been targeting the Biodiversity Zones in efforts to force them to leave their lands again.

One of the ranchers’ main tactics is to cut the wire fences marking the Biodiversity Zones and let their cows run loose, eating and trampling the crops the communities have planted. “Their strategy is that we have to get tired of this and sell them the land, or leave the area and leave the land there for them,” said Cristian, whose family has been involved in a long running confrontation with ranchers after reclaiming the farm they abandoned at the height of the paramilitary violence.

Enrique’s family has consistently complained to the authorities, taking police to their zones and showing them the cut wire and the damage caused by the cattle. Despite promises to take action, the police do nothing, he said. “So the question is – what are the security forces in this country, in this region?” he said. “How do they work? What are they for?”

Residents claim the ranchers also have close ties to the paramilitaries and those involved in the land disputes have been heavily threatened. “They are [the ranchers’] private army, their armed support, they are there to kill people,” said Cristian.

In other parts of the region, the Biodiversity Zones have been victim of another paramilitary business interest – drugs. According to residents, some of the more remote zones have been taken over and planted with coca crops. They also believe the rudimentary labs used to process coca leaves into cocaine paste are present in the region, as trucks carrying large quantities of the precursor substances required can be seen heading deep into the zone.

“The cultivation is on a grand scale and it is open,” said Forero. “We’re talking about a monocrop.” According to Forero, the military denies the existence of the plantations, even though there are crops just minutes away from army roadblocks. Residents claim trucks carrying pre-cursor chemicals pass through the roadblocks and into the zone while those carrying drugs pass out unhindered. At the time of publication, the military had not responded to Toward Freedom’s questions about coca cultivation in the region.

While struggling to hold back the invaders, the ranchers and drug cultivation, the communities are also pushing for the Biodiversity Zones to be awarded the type of legal status that protects the Humanitarian Zones. At the same time, a census is currently in progress to determine who can legally lay claim to lands in the collective territories.

With the census now reaching its final stages, the paramilitaries and the businesses have been increasing the pressure on the communities and threats and violence have been on the rise. Last year, Manuel Ruiz, a member of the census committee who had also been involved in a personal land struggler with rancher Victor Rios, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered along with his teenage son, Samir. The names of members of the Humanitarian Zones communities interviewed for this article have all appeared on widely circulated death lists and there have been attempts on the lives of both Enrique Petro and Cristian.

The communities though, remain committed to their right to return. At the heart of that struggle is the communities’ right to their lands and to determine their use, which has found expression in the Biodiversity Zones. “This process has been very hard for us,” said Tuberquia. “But we know that it is a process of life, not a process of death. We are struggling for life here and defending life is defending the land; if we don’t defend the land we are dead.”

The names of some of the people interview for this article have been changed to protect their identities.