Colombia Accompaniment Report: The True Value of Land

By Janet Lowery and Tricia Lloyd-Sidle 

A large percentage of Colombia’s 6.9 million displaced persons now live in urban areas – far from the land and agricultural lifestyle they know and love. They are disproportionately indigenous and Afro-Colombian and overwhelmingly poor.

Some were “caught in the cross-fire” of the war between guerrillas and the government and fled from the violence. Others fled because of abductions by the guerrillas or killings by government soldiers who then dressed corpses in guerrilla clothing in order to up the body count (“false positives”). Most, however, were deliberately terrorized and forced to flee by paramilitaries who were supported by wealthy landowners and large companies. The peace accords call for 57 companies (including Coca Cola, Chiquita and Drummond) to be tried on terrorism charges for their support of paramilitary groups.   

The families we visited at Maria Jacinta, in the countryside near San Juan de Tocagua, have all been displaced at least twice. Their origins are in various parts of the country, and the particular details of their original displacement vary as well. But they all shared a saga of resistance and eventual displacement from El Tamarindo near Barranquilla. After multiple years of creating homes, farms and community, the 120 families began to be severely harassed. Land had become lucrative in the area, and a group of wealthy families – locally known as the “Cartel de las Tierras” – wanted it. From 2012 – 2015 they suffered persecution in the form of legal actions, threats, destruction of crops, and murder. In violation of a protective order, all remaining homes and crops were bulldozed in December 2015.

Ten families displaced from El Tamarindo arrived at Maria Jacinta days before Christmas last year. Marisol remembers how sad and angry she was. “It was awful to see our house bulldozed,” she told us ten months later. “They took everything: crops, possessions – everything!” “But,” Marisol continued, “Today we are here to laugh, not to cry. We’ve built houses ourselves out of plastic, scrap wood, whatever we could find. We have crops growing. I wake up every day giving thanks for what we have!”

Our host, a 68-year-old campesino with a weathered face, apologized for his wife’s absence. She had traveled to spend time with her ailing mother. He pointedly did not apologize for the condition of the shack they live in. “It’s not the condition of the house that matters. What matters is the land and being able to live in tranquility.” He expressed gratitude for the new beginning made possible for the small community with help from the Presbyterian Church in Colombia – in the form of seeds and a well. He also spoke with pride about the yuca, corn, potatoes, plantains, and peppers that he fed us during our stay. For three days we observed his daily routine. When we expressed admiration for all the varied tasks he performs, he launched into a mini-lecture: “We are agronomists! This isn’t theory; this is practice. All this that you see me do is what any campesino does – we have to know how to do everything!”  His concluding words will remain with us: “They call the land “black gold” and buy it to get money. But we [campesinos] are the ones who know the true value of the land. It is for Life!” And, as he handed us our breakfast: “Yuca for another day of peace!”