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COLOMBIA: Civil Resistance Aimed at Recuperating Biodiverse Lands

Zilia Castrillón* - IPS/IFEJ

CHOCÓ, Colombia, Jun 23 2007 (IPS) - Indigenous and black communities of Colombia’s north-western department of Chocó are trying to recover their lands and food sources, lost to the decades-long civil war that has taken its toll on this area of vast biological diversity.

Youths on the Atrato River. Credit: Zilia Castrillón

Youths on the Atrato River. Credit: Zilia Castrillón

Alirio Mosquera, legal representative of the community councils that unite the 3,000 inhabitants of the Cacarica River basin on the Bajo Atrato (lower Atrato River), is working to combine community production projects with the peaceful resistance to the Colombian internal conflict that has lasted a half-century.

“The people need their land returned in order to recover their traditional practices,” Mosquera said in an interview.

He was elected May 20 after a long struggle as logistical coordinator for the return of more than 700 families displaced in 1997 by violence by the army and right-wing paramilitary groups, which ended in land being seized or illegally purchased by agribusiness and forestry companies.

Known as “Operation Genesis”, it left more than 4,000 people displaced and at least 85 people dead or disappeared, according to the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes.

“All the community councils are allies of the proposals of our organisation CAVIDA (Communities of Self-Determination, Life and Dignity of the Cacarica) because we have always defended the right to land,” says Mosquera.

“The land is the core of our life. When one loses it, gives it up, one is left as a dayworker or as a slave,” he adds.

In this humid, forested zone, surrounded by marshes and swamps, live blacks and indigenous peoples, with constitutional rights to collective lands and to overseeing their management.

Afro-Colombians constitute 85 percent of the Chocó population.

Cacarica is part of the Special Management Area of the Darién Mountains, which separate Colombia from Panama. It is located in the buffer zone of Los Katíos National Nature Park, home to numerous endemic species and whose land is rich in minerals.

The violent displacement and illegal occupation of lands were denounced in the biodiversity hearing held by the non-governmental Permanent People’s Tribunal, Colombia Chapter, on Feb. 26-27.

The tribunal held sessions in humanitarian zones established beginning in 1999 – when the displaced peoples decided to return to their territory of 103,000 hectares – where the families live and try to protect themselves from armed attacks.

Among the conclusions of the hearings, the active participation of paramilitaries in the negotiations and the concession of non-collective lands to returnees were mentioned.

For the members of the community councils of the Cacarica, Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó river basins, food self-sufficiency and land recovery are a form of civil resistance.

“We won’t allow people with weapons or multinational companies in our territory. We aren’t neutral because we are victims of the conflict,” Bernardo Vivas, founding member of CAVIDA and of the humanitarian zones, said in one of the meetings with international organisations that took part in the Tribunal session.

In addition to the food shortage, the granting of land for large-scale cultivation of monoculture crops like banana and African palm is complicating CAVIDA’s goals.

Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Arias recognised in an Executive branch session on the Colombian Pacific, held in Cali on Jun. 3, that there are 17,000 hectares with titles in the Urabá area of Chocó department (of which Cacarica is a part) that pose problems, “given that they are lands claimed by individuals as private.”

Arias acknowledged that there was corruption in the purchase of those lands, and that it was denounced at the time by the inhabitants.

According to the community members, the government has failed to take action towards recuperating the seized lands, which they estimate to be 22,000 hectares – about 25 percent of the collective territory.

A report by the government’s Institute of Rural Development from March 2005 said that “a group of investors associated with the companies Urapalma, Palmas de Curvaradó, Pamadó, Palmas SA, Palmura, Asibicon, La Tukeka, Selva Húmeda and Inversiones Fregni Ochoa carried out a massive buying and selling of lands of different persons” and behind the back of the community, “with the purpose of establishing commercial fields of palm oil and extensive livestock projects.”

The study also underscored that in the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó river basins there were 3,834 hectares planted with palm oil, destined for production of biodiesel.

“The negotiations with the business executives did not occur with equal rights. And they were illegal, because our territory is inalienable and non-embargable,” says Marcos Velásquez, of Nuevo Espacio, one of the humanitarian zones.

The communities hope that, through the partial demobilisation of paramilitaries promoted by the government, their lands will be returned to them as part of the reparations as victims of the illegal armed groups.

But it won’t be that easy – the commercially farmed lands are already in progress.

In a statement issued Jun. 7, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission of Justice and Peace denounced the CI Multifruit company for continuing to expand banana cultivation for export, through the U.S. firm Del Monte.

The local population subsists on their own maize and rice, travelling from the communal humanitarian zones to the plots that belonged to them before they were displaced, and returning at the end of the day, sometimes facing military harassment.

In the CAVIDA community zones they are trying out production of medicinal plants and fruits, but they still lack the capacity to grow crops that assure them a decent livelihood.

“They cut a lot of wood here, although it’s small scale,” says Mosquera, worried about the forests, source of sustenance for the local inhabitants.

As the legal representative and leader of the river basin’s residents, he hopes to develop crops of manioc and maize, among others, and to set up a woodworking project that would use wood from the sustainable management of local lumber.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service, and IFEJ – the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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