Colombia Accompaniment Report: Isolated — or Not?

In 2016, threats and killings by paramilitary successor groups (paramilitary groups were officially disbanded in 2005) have increased. Human rights “defenders” whose activities threaten the status quo are prime targets. During the weekend that accompaniers Janet Lowery and Tricia Lloyd-Sidle spent in La Alemania, there were three assassinations (and two additional attempts) on human rights defenders in Colombia. All five were campesino leaders in organizations that defend the rights of small farmers or protect the land against environmentally-destructive mono-agriculture and mining practices.

Jairo Barriga, General Secretary of the Presbiterio de la Costa, drives us 4 hours south so that he may visit and we may have an extended stay at the farm, La Alemenia. As we turn onto a mud-slick rutted dirt road, we are struck by a sense of isolation. All is quiet except for the birds. A sign tacked on a tree assures us that we are on the right track. The land is verdant following recent rain. We see cattle in fenced fields. Exotic plants flower by the roadside.

Fewer than a dozen families live on this property that is co-owned by 52 families. When we arrive, we go to comfort a mother who has recently lost her adult son. He was shot and killed on the property a week ago. Perhaps drugs are involved, but no one knows the full story. It is a tense time for everyone. A unit of the local military is camping on the property – in fact, soldiers surround the house we are to occupy for the next two days. Their presence with guns brings back bad memories, despite their assignment to protect the settlement from further violence.

La Alemania began as a cooperative enterprise in 1997, the land held in common in an experiment that allowed poor persons to “buy in.” It started out well but shortly was threatened by violence from para-military forces. Some shadow entity did not want these campesinos here. A number of the cooperative’s leaders were murdered, and the people moved away…scattering wherever they could feel safe. Cows, crops, and buildings were destroyed. In 2005, things seemed to calm down enough for the men to return to work the land, but some level of threat continued.

Janet and Juan were enthusiastic when the La Alemania enterprise began. They moved to the farm with two young children. They were living the dream of campesinos: building a life on their own plot of land. They maintained their resolve even when guerillas began to show up asking for water and food, followed by para-militaries who threatened farm members with death for being guerilla sympathizers. But after Janet was bullied in front of the children and Juan was held with a gun at his head, they moved to a small hamlet some distance away. In 2010, with the encouragement and assistance of leader Rogelio Martinez, they were making plans to build a house and move back to the farm. In May 2010, Martinez was murdered, the 15th campesino of La Alemania to die for the dream of living on the land. Janet is on the governing board of the enterprise. Juan is excited about the mango trees he is growing at the farm. But when asked if they will return to live on the farm, their response is vague. Three members of the governing board have received death threats recently. And now, another murder. . .

The initial enthusiasm and unity has never recovered. However, community leaders are passionate in their commitment to the land and the vision. There are other signs of hope as well. The regional court has ruled that payments on the land be reduced because of the time they had no income. Property taxes are under review. A reforestation project is on the horizon. It is a fact that forces beyond the boundaries of La Alemania almost destroyed it. The Presbyterian Church of Colombia and other non-governmental organizations have come alongside this community to help it get justice, to encourage its people, and to work for a future. This place is not as isolated as it seems.