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Recibe the news letter with the latest updates
This work is licensed under Creative Commons
By Eva Lewis – IPO
On January 9th through 22nd the Farmers Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC) held its second annual Ecological camp. The event took place in the Magdelena Media region in the Southern part of the department of Bolivar and the Northeast part of the department of Antioquia, and was attended by more then 1200 people from all over Colombia. Although the event was generally a success, the final day was marred by the coordinated efforts of police, military and paramilitaries to disrupt and intimidate.
The idea of the Ecological Camp was to bring people from across the country together in defense of the environment. More than anything it was a meeting between university students and rural farmers, where they shared information and experiences. Melkin Castrillón, a community leader from the ACVC said, “Our objective was to publicize the situation in the region of North East Antioquia, Southern Bolivar and the central region of the Cimitarra River, and to publicize this humanitarian crisis. Economic problems caused by [coca] fumigations and eradications are causing displacements.” The idea was for students to take what they learned and as Melkin put it, “Bring it to their universities and promote joint work in all of Colombia [so that] everyone can learn about the reality of the situation and not just what the commercial media sells us.”
Students from Bogotá, Medellin, Bucaramanga, Pamplona and Barrancabermeja participated in the event. They arrived in Barrancabermeja on January 9th and were subsequently divided into seven groups, which spent the next two weeks on seven different ecological routes. The routes were each named for an endangered species traditionally found along the route, such as the Howler Monkey or the Andean Spectacled Bear. Each group traveled to several different villages, where the students gave workshops to residents on themes ranging from Agro-Ecology and organic farming, to recycling, human rights and sexual and reproductive rights. One farmer from the village of Alto Berlin said, “I liked the workshops very much because… there are things that, as rural farmers, we don’t know, but that are good for us to know. [Such as] how to value our natural resources and to defend ourselves, and how to protect our human rights and our health.” As the students made their way along the routes the idea was for farmers who participated in the workshops to join their groups and travel with them.
The trips were physically difficult and many of the students had to endure unfamiliar conditions. They walked with their backpacks four to five hours a day or more, up steep, un-shaded mountain trails, and many of the villages that they visited did not have electricity or water supplies. These are the conditions in which many rural farmers live for their entire lives, but for many of the university students, who come from the major cities, it was an educational experience to see and feel these conditions first hand. Blanca Díaz, medical student from the Industrial University of Santander, who participated in the Ecological Camp, commented that, “The camp raised a lot of awareness in those of us who participated… I learned a lot to value what you have and to appreciate that we are agents capable of changing the world”.
The students were also able to experience the proximity of the armed conflict in the countryside. They were able to talk and share with the farmers who plant Coca crops and learn about the problems caused by fumigations, as well as to see the damages left by paramilitary incursion and hear firsthand the stories of those who live through continuous human rights violations. Several of the routes also passed through areas with landmines on either side of the road, and all of them passed through areas controlled by either the military, paramilitaries or guerrilla groups. One of the hopes of organizers was that students who had never before participated in activities organized by the ACVC would, by learning about this reality, want to stay connected and ideally go on to become part of the Association’s technical team. This team consists of a group of students who support the ACVC’s work by organizing events in their schools, giving workshops in the countryside and providing technical assistance to the Association.
At the end of the two-week trips, the 7 groups were reunited for a large final event in the municipal capital of Yondó, Antioquía. In addition to the students, over 500 rural residents, inhabitants of Yondó and Barancabermeja, as well as local and national officials, members of social movements and experts on the environment also participated. The huge event began on the morning of the January 21st with a presentation by students representing each of the different routes, including photos, explanations of the workshops they had given and proposals for continuing organization in the region concerning the environment. Next, leaders of the Farmer’s Association elaborated on their regional development plans and the importance of reactivating the Farmer’s Reserve Zone (territory collectively awarded to the farmers of the region in 2002 and subsequently suspended by the Uribe government in 2003). An environmental expert spoke on the dangers to the environment posed by multinational mining companies looking to further exploit the resources of the Magdelena Medio region. Other speakers talked of the situation of human rights in the region and their continuing widespread violation, a theme that tended to tie all of the other issues touched upon together. In the evening, there was a concert and cultural event where various national groups played music about government repression and protecting the environment.
The one black mark on what was otherwise a highly successful event was the interference of the police, the military and the paramilitaries who attempted to intimidate participants. During the day of the final event police and military surrounded the event hall. Soldiers stopped and questioned event participants, trying to forcibly recruit those who had not completed their military service. A policeman entered the event hall to take photos, although members of the ACVC, the International Peace Observatory (IPO) and Peace Brigades International (PBI) prevented him. The tension mounted in the evening, as the actions of the security forces grew more threatening. While the majority of people were outside listening to the concert, police officers entered the school where event participants were staying several times. Next the lights went out, which could have been a coincidence or something more threatening. In either case the power was quickly restored, but shortly thereafter the police mysteriously drew back, and the paramilitaries showed up. During the final concert, there were known paramilitaries on motorcycles, threateningly circling the park where the concert took place. Several unknown men inside the concert were also reported to have asked participants probing questions and tried to provoke the participants before they left. These same unknown men later tried to follow event participants into the school.
This past year in Yondó, paramilitaries have resurfaced, threatening, “social cleansing” operations, installing paramilitary checkpoints just outside of the town and murdering residents. Given this current climate, the events that took place on the last night of the Ecological Camp are not to be taken lightly. They represent a clear threat to the ACVC and all those who participated in the Ecological camp. In Colombia the links between government forces and paramilitaries are no secret. What happened in Yondó during the Second Ecological Camp was a clear example of a coordinated effort between the police and the army to intimidate the population and leave the path clear for paramilitaries to act with impunity once they were gone.
The organizers still consider the Ecological Camp to have been a success. In spite of the threats and persecution that they continue to suffer, they continue to organize and bring hope to those who have never received anything but intimidation and human rights violations from those meant to protect them.