It's All About Land!

Report received June 2, 2013 from Barranquilla-based accompaniers Bill and Liz Branch, now safely back in the U.S.


One morning we visited with Antonio, a leader of the displaced community and someone we had met three years ago during our previous accompaniment time. Antonio says that he has been displaced five times, but German says the count should be at least two times five.


Three things that we take away from our visit: 

1. It’s all about land!  Power has to do with who owns the land, with who controls it.  The economy is based on the land and what it produces.  Whoever controls the land, controls the economy.  And whoever controls the economy, has not only economic, but political power.  Former president Uribe owns a huge share of the land in at least one entire “departmento”, or state.  He has used, and is still using, paramilitaries to take more land from the “campesinos”, or small farmers.

2. Another thing that we have deduced is that paramilitaries cause many more problems and are more dangerous than the guerrillas. Paramilitaries, with the help of the Colombian military, are used by people with power:  large landowners, multi-national corporations, narco-traffickers, and large Colombian corporations.  Through violence and intimidation, the paramilitaries take land away from the campesinos.

3. The Colombian government has just signed in Havana, Cuba an agreement with the FARC (one of the most powerful guerrilla groups) that deals with the issue of land use for the multi-nationals, campesinos et al; however, little is known yet about the agreement. The guerrillas have formed Cuban-style (Che Guevara) resistance groups who oppose the oppressive Colombian government. Because the guerrillas are leftist, and the U.S. doesn’t “like” leftists, the U.S. has backed the government with money and military training in its 50-60 year fight against the guerrillas.  Antonio and others hope that there is something in the agreement with the FARC that will allow the campesinos to have land for farming.  He doesn’t want land or a house in the city, only land in the country where he can grow crops to eat and to sell.  “What we need is land in the countryside to continue our way of life.”

“Our way of life” is significant because the large land owners – particularly those with land related to mining (petroleum, coal, and gold) are ruining the land and polluting the rivers.  The campesinos, with their small farms and love of the land, work hard to preserve the environment. 

Already the government has committed itself to returning land to displaced farmers, but the process is painfully slow and tedious.  The bureaucrats don’t care about the campesinos and many are on the take:  “If you want this little piece of land,” the bureaucrats may say, “how much will you give me so you can have it?” 

When and if displaced people receive land, they have no guarantee that either they or their ownership will be safe.  Often it is only a matter of time before paramilitaries arrive, first to threaten the farmers, then to kill the ones who don’t give up their land.  And even when farmers agree to work the land for a powerful new owner, they do so for a low wage and are not allowed to keep the fruits of their labor.  All the bananas, palm oil, corn, or other products “belong” to the owner, “el dueno”.  The poor farmers cannot even cultivate a patch of ground for their own food crops; they have to buy their food at the “company store”.  Their lot resembles that of early coal miners in West Virginia.

Most farmers do not want to leave their small plots or become “slaves” to the big land owners, but they are realists.  A few fight back, but they do so at the risk of their lives.  As Antonio said, “I don’t want to die, but I am ready. I want a house in the countryside, not in town.  I just want to sit under a tree and be at peace.”  I think he would add:  “At night, I would like to sleep in peace.”

Right now, nothing is easy.  Recently he and some other farmers made charcoal by burning wood in ovens made of sand.  They had to take pains so that the ovens didn’t overheat the charcoal.  After they bagged the charcoal, they carried it on their shoulders a great distance to the road where trucks picked up to sell it to restaurants that specialize in broiled chicken.  The farmers made so little profit from their efforts that they still could not afford to feed their families.  In addition, Antonio has received death threats recently, so he is staying away from his house.

But bless Antonio!  He continues to strive for the land and freedom of which he dreams—not just for himself, but for his entire community.  God bless this child of God!