Colombia Accompaniment Report: Living with Uncertainty

In November 2015, Ruth Noel and Chris Lieberman were Peace-keeping Accompaniers in Colombia with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship in association with the World Mission division of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Over the last 50 or so years Colombia has known violence and internal conflict. Colombia has one of the largest populations of displaced persons in the world. Like most accompaniers, Ruth and Chris went to Colombia at their own expense to show solidarity with the Colombian Presbyterian Church (IPC) and with the victims of violence who the IPC accompany. Accompaniers are not there to build anything…except relationships. They are not there to dig ditches or lay water lines…but they are there to dig into and understand the complicated issues of Colombian political life and to stand with the IPC as it stands “against injustice and with the wronged” (Belhar Confession). Here is the second of four reports from Ruth and Chris.

Land is a matter of major dispute in Colombia. Land ownership records are often poor or nonexistent. This leaves the land and its people (“campesinos” means people of the land) vulnerable to any strong and greedy interest. The community of El Tamarindo that accompaniers Ruth Noel and Chris Lieberman visited in November is such a land. Displaced campesinos settled there after being displaced from other land that they had farmed. Since Ruth and Chris’ visit to the community there was an eviction notice by the city of Barranquilla. The issue went before the Federal Courts, and a stay of eviction was ordered. Nevertheless, the city of Barranquilla ignored the court order and sent in bulldozers to destroy the crops and level the houses. A flurry of advocacy and accompaniment (by the IPC, by Sarah Henken of PCUSA, and by other partner organizations such as FOR Colombia and Justicia y Paz) finally led to agreements for partial compensation in the form of land for some, and money for others. Read Chris and Ruth’s report on their visit that occurred before the city moved in.

Imagine that you are given the choice of moving from the land you’ve been working for 7 years? Moving again, after being displaced from where you originally farmed? Moving from where you’ve built your house for your family, and corrals for your animals, on wasteland that everyone else abandoned? Land that, now, the city has expanded towards, making it easy for family members who’ve found work there to visit? Imagine that you are given the choice of moving to land further away; OR, to have all that you’ve worked for be bulldozed and receive nothing in return. Which would you choose? How would you feel?

The community we visited this week, was faced with that choice last month. Not surprisingly, they recognized this as “a choice they couldn’t refuse.” But there is much uncertainty even with the choice to move. The proposed land is not yet owned by the government. Can the community obtain grants for some additional land around what they would be provided, so that each family can have a parcel large enough to provide for more than a subsistence living? Will they be able to disassemble their houses and corrals and take the materials with them to the new land to reassemble? Will the government provide transportation for their animals and belongings? When will the move actually happen? In the midst of this uncertainty, how much work is worth putting into the land they currently have?

For all in the community this is at least the 2nd and for many the 3rd or 4th time they have had to move from the lands they were farming, because the land became desirable for a wealthy person or corporation. This time it is because the government rezoned the land for commerce and wants to build a highway between 2 free trade zones with factories and stores along the road; the result of the United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA) which went into effect on May 15, 2012.

It’s difficult for us to understand the hardships that these campesinos endure. It would be so easy for them to be bitter and yet time and time again we heard that they are able to go on—to have hope for a better future—because of their faith in God. As one of them said, “We live by God’s mercy.” If only our faith were as strong as theirs.

As we learned from these people who hold the land as such a sacred trust, prayer is also a way of planting seeds in the garden of God’s kingdom: Gracious and merciful God, we give thanks for these brothers and sisters who opened their homes and their hearts to the 2 strangers they welcomed into their midst. Be an anchor to them and to others like them in Colombia in these times of uncertainty. Guide and strengthen them as they strive for justice and peace. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Read the third report from Ruth and Chris.