The people who returned to defend the Cararica basin

19 de Noviembre de 2020
By: Nathalia Salamanca.

The Cacarica Basin in Colombia´s Chocó region, which is home to Afro-descendant, indigenous, and mestizo populations, has been targeted persistently by logging companies and threatened by illegal armed groups. In times of a pandemic, while the community stays put to avoid contagion, Ana del Carmen Martinez, a well-known local leader, lends her voice to tell their story of resistance. This story is part of the international journalistic series #DefenderSinMiedo coordinated by Agenda Propia.

Ana del Carmen Martinez says she did not choose to be a leader, it was inevitable. She simply took “her place in history” when her people found themselves displaced and “cornered” twenty-three years ago in the Turbo Sports Coliseum in Antioquia, which is located two hours by motor boat from Cacarica in the neighboring department of Chocó, in northern Colombia. Then, she simply knew - as did so many others - they had to organize; they had to go back. They had to do it for the children. Approximately 2,000 of the 3,500 people who were displaced arrived in Turbo, and it is estimated at least 250 were minors. 

For Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, their territory is not simply a place they inhabit. It is an indivisible part of their being.
Credit: © 2010 Charlotte Kesl for PBI. www.charlottekesl.com.

The Cacarica River Basin is located in northwest Colombia, in the Pacific region of the Chocó department (in the Riosucio municipal area), along the border with Panama. The collective territory of the Community Council (legalized in 1999) comprises 103,024 hectares of land. The area is bordered to the north by Katíos National Natural Park, to the south by the Salaquí Community Council, to the east by the Atrato River and to the west by Panama. Internally, the Council shares borders with the Perancho, Peranchito and La Raya indigenous reservations (inhabited by members of the Embera-Chamí-Katío and Wounnan people). Geographically and politically speaking, the Council divides its territory into five sub-basins (Balsas, La Raya, Perancho, Bijao, and Peranchito), which include 23 communities and two humanitarian zones: New Life and New Hope in God.  

Like other territories in the Pacific region, the Cacarica Basin “enjoys tremendous cultural diversity represented by indigenous peoples, afro communities and mestizo populations,” says Jefferson Quinto Mosquera, an ecologist at Javeriana University, who indicates the area also is known for its ecosystems and species of flora and fauna, making it “a strategic place for conservation and sustainable environmental management.” 

According to Jefferson, who was born in Cacarica and serves as a member and advisor to the Board of Directors of the Community Council, “multiple interests of an economic and political nature have coexisted in this area since the Spanish Conquest, due to its geostrategic location and supply of natural resources, particularly its forests.” The guandal and catival forests are those most affected by the local timber industry, with the catival forests being fundamental to fish reproduction and life in the wetlands. 

When describing the interests at play in the region and the entrenchment of guerrilla and paramilitary forces, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), which has been working in Colombia since 2006, says it is a territory that has been abandoned by the authorities throughout its history. It is suitable not only for extensive agricultural projects, livestock, illicit crops and mining, but also serves as a corridor for the movement and trafficking of arms and drugs, due to its strategic location near the Gulf of Urabá, on the Colombia-Panama border between South and Central America.

Ana del Carmen during a five-day pilgrimage through the Urabá region of Chocó at the end of February 2016 to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the massacre and forced displacement. 
Credit: Gabriel Galindo for Contagio Radio in 2016. Courtesy of Inter-Faith Commission for Justice and Peace.

The border closures in March 2020 caught Ana del Carmen by surprise. She was on route from her community - the New Hope in God Humanitarian Zone - to Apartadó, a town in the neighboring department of Antioquia, where government institutions have their headquarters, as do national and multinational companies with business in the region. The day Colombia began to “close down” she was traveling to a meeting with representatives from the Ministry of the Interior and, had it not been for the “complicated” route she was obliged to take (“in summer, one goes by trail, not on water”), the call cancelling the meeting would have come too late.  She would have arrived in town by then, and would have been confined there. But no, she breathes a sigh of relief, “Thanks God I just turned around and went back to my house.”  

She has been there ever since. It’s now been seven months. 

Ana del Carmen says her territory was still free of coronavirus by the end of September and the community continues to protect itself to the extent possible, by restricting movement and limiting the entry of outside visitors. Yet, ever since the nationwide quarantine was lifted at the end of August, this has become increasingly difficult to accomplish. In mid-October, the Chocó Department of Health reported 4,066 confirmed cases in the region, 119 of which were concentrated in the Riosucio area.

Cacarica does not have a health center and, according to Ana del Carmen, this is a cause for serious concern. The nearest one is in Riosucio, almost a day’s boat ride away. “If someone catches the virus, we all end up dead because, by the time a person gets to the doctor’s office or goes into quarantine, a lot of people get infected,” she says. However, she indicates the community has herbs on hand to deal with the symptoms of the disease, such as matarratón (a small tree), and ginger taken with traditional brown sugar. 

Restrictions on mobility (flight cancellations and the closure of roads and ports) have also affected the international organizations that lend guidance and support to social projects in the area and protect the community with their presence. For this reason, the inhabitants of the Cacarica Basin have found themselves - for the first time in years - without this support in situ. So, as a precaution, they have reduced their movement within the territory. 

In a mobile phone call, which she can receive thanks to an antenna the community installed in the territory a year ago, Ana del Carmen says her work to defend the rights of her community and to have its territory recognized as a victim of armed conflict is done through WhatsApp. “We write letters and take pictures to send them”. This acknowledgement was one of the commitments in the Peace Agreement reached between the Colombian government, during the administration of former President Juan Manuel Santos, and the now extinct guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). 

A year ago, this pandemic would have left them unable to communicate. 

The “Wonders” of Development - Expulsion

Like many outlying areas in Colombia, Cacarica appeared on the national agenda in February 1997 when a four-day paramilitary raid resulted in the death of 86 people, including Marino López Mena, a peasant leader from the village of Bijao who was accused of being a guerrilla. The massacre drove more than 3,500 people off their land; they fled to Turbo, Bocas del Atrato and Panama. 

The Cacariqueños came to know the government “on its roughest side: the military front. They got to know the military through weapons and when it took part in a joint operation with paramilitary forces: Operation Genesis,” explains Santiago Mera, a human rights defender and member of the Inter-Faith Commission for Justice and Peace, an organization that has been associated with the community ever since it arrived at the coliseum after being displaced.

Two men from the community on one of the ‘river roads’ that characterize much of Colombia’s Chocó region.
Credit: Inter-Faith Commission for Justice and Peace, 2002.

Subsequent judicial investigations proved the Élmer Cárdenas Bloc (BEC) of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the 17th Brigade of the Colombian Army, then under the command of General Rito Alejo Del Río - known as the “Peacemaker of Urabá” - acted in a coordinated way. General Del Río was sentenced to 25 years and 10 months in prison in 2012 for his ties to paramilitary forces and for the death of Lopéz Mena. He was released from prison in 2017, after submitting to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, and has been free ever since. Companies like Maderas del Darién S.A. (formerly a subsidiary of Pizano S.A.), Maderien S.A. and Chiquita Brands have been singled out for financing paramilitary groups in the Urabá region. As documented by social organizations and stated in the Characterization Plan of the Cacarica Basin Community Council, which was published in 2017 by the Ministry of the Interior, companies such as Maderas de Darién and Multifruits CIA S.A. were shown to have benefited directly from expulsion of the population from the region, which enabled them to further exploit its forests and land.

The community was terrorized and evicted from its territory through a strategy known as vaciamiento (“emptying”, when a unit of sociodemographic analysis, be it a municipality, town or village, loses 50 percent or more of its population). This strategy was applied by the AUC in many parts of Colombia and perfected ad nauseam during the group’s more than two decades of activity, as documented in detail by the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH by its acronym in Spanish) in its 2015 report “A Displaced Nation”

As the CNMH study indicates, the marriage between the country’s armed forces and these paramilitary groups “propelled a criminal enterprise that sought to consolidate economic interests linked to the paramilitary project in the region.” This was noted in the final arguments of Case 12,573 before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, IACHR, (known as the Case of Marino López and Others [Operation Genesis] v. Colombia). In fact, the Court determined these companies made irrational use of timber resources, inflicting serious damage on the territory, its forest resources, and the living conditions of the ancestral peoples who inhabited these areas.

As the defendant in this case, the State of Colombia was convicted in December 2013 for having failed to comply with its obligation to the communities of Cacarica in terms of “guaranteeing the right to personal integrity and the right not to be forcibly displaced,” having failed to protect them and ensure their safe return. It also was convicted for collaborating with paramilitary groups; specifically, for having expelled these communities from their land (contrary to Law 70 of 1993, which protects the ancestral territories of Afro-Colombian populations) and for the cruel acts committed against Marino López. 

The IACHR sentence obliged the State of Colombia to grant protective measures and to restore effective use, enjoyment and possession of the territories belonging to the Afro-descendant communities represented by the Community Council of the Cacarica River Basin Communities. According to Katrine Ringhus, a Norwegian who was a Peace Brigades International (PBI) volunteer in Colombia between 2012 and 2014, this is the first sentence handed down by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that convicts a country for the displacement of an Afro-descendant community. As such, it is “highly symbolic and morally important”.

In “Territory as a Victim of the Armed Conflict,” a virtual dialogue held on July 23, 2020 and moderated by Commissioner María Ángela Salazar, it was discussed how projects “brought in from outside” ethnic communities talk about and promote the “wonders” of development: the idea that accelerated exploitation of natural resources brings wealth and progress, when in reality it ends up benefiting a few and harming the original inhabitants of an area. Salazar was an activist who worked with the Truth Commission to vindicate the history of the Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal (native) and Palenquero communities. She died of COVID-19 at the beginning of August 2020.

“A peasant in the city is like a dog that is tied up.” – Going Back

During our halting conversation, Ana del Carmen reflected on how her quest to defend the collective territory has been difficult and persistent. “The inevitable,” as she calls having become a leader, occurred 24 years ago and has not stopped.

“Do you know what made us return? First, because we weren’t used to it. Let’s say that Turbo is a city. A peasant in the city is like a dog that is tied up. And, the children... they cried all the time.  Of course, it’s also because there was no water to bathe in and those who are used to it, just leave and go to the river when it gets hot. That made us return quickly. The truth is we were desperate with the children’s situation. Secondly, you don’t feel at home anywhere else, away from your land. Here, if you plant a banana tree, you’re going to eat bananas; a yucca plant will feed you, as will a stalk of corn. Whatever you plant grows. Over there, what did we do? We were so frustrated we rented a farm to plant cassava. You don’t know how to live without your pacha mama, without the land. She is our mother nature and she is the one who gives us everything,” says Ana del Carmen.

New Hope in God is one of the humanitarian zones established by CAVIDA (Cacarica Communities for Self-Determination, Life, and Dignity). These zones provide a form of protection by prohibiting armed actors from entering the territory.

Credit: Charlotte Kesl for the PBI in 2010. www.charlottekesl.com.

According to Santiago, from Justice and Peace, the community returned because they cannot conceive of living in a territory that is alien to their cultural identity. “The land is a vital element that calls out to them. It is where they can develop their life as a whole and become more and more rooted,” he explains, emphasizing: “Land is everything for the communities of rural Colombia. It provides them with food, health, and guarantees transmission of their culture.”

Thanks to support and guidance from national and international social organizations (such as the Inter-Faith Commission and the PBI), and without assistance from the country’s authorities, some 1,200 families began the process of returning to their land. Others moved to different parts of the country or remained in Turbo, where they settled mainly in the El Pescador I and II, Brisas del Mar and Manuela Beltrán neighborhoods (735 families in 2018). In Turbo, their nature as peasants has been diluted with the passing of time, and those who carried that inheritance - the elders - have taken it to their graves. The adults complain the young people no longer have the same connection with the land and its traditions. Now, they see their future in terms of possibilities for access to education and jobs in urban areas.

Two years after being displaced, the communities of Cacarica gained collective title to their territory, which is one of the rights contemplated in Law 70 of 1993. And, while still in Turbo, they established the Cacarica Community for Self-Determination, Life and Dignity (CAVIDA by its acronym in Spanish). 

Their return occurred in three stages between 2000 and 2001. Accompanied by the PBI, they created the New Life Humanitarian Zone (HZ) in June 2001, which is the first of its kind in Colombia. According to the PBI, a humanitarian zone is a protected area for the exclusive use of the civilian population.

“The model itself does not exist in Colombian legislation, but is based on the normative nature of the right to life and to protection of the civilian population in an internal armed conflict, as established in International Humanitarian Law. Furthermore, the model has been recognized by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,” explains Katrine. 

New Hope in God is one of the humanitarian zones established by CAVIDA (Cacarica Communities for Self-Determination, Life, and Dignity). These zones provide a form of protection by prohibiting armed actors from entering the territory.
Credit: Charlotte Kesl for the PBI in 2010. www.charlottekesl.com.

The humanitarian zones are defined physically by a mesh fence and by signs indicating the entry of armed actors (i.e., guerrillas, paramilitaries or members of the Colombian army) is prohibited. Their power is mainly symbolic and loaded with tacit and explicit international commitments. The communities that take advantage of this model hope the agreements will be strong enough to protect them from bullets.

There is also a peace ecovillage within the territory, where the presence of armed actors of any kind is prohibited. It was built in honor of the more than 86 people who disappeared or were killed during the paramilitary incursion. The humanitarian zones and this ecovillage are in addition to other community strategies used to protect the territory, such as the reforestation work being done by women who founded the group known as Guardians of the Forest.  

Reforestation has been a collective commitment ever since the community returned to the area. According to Ana del Carmen, this is because, “when we left here, two lumber companies came in and logged like crazy. If we had taken longer to return, the forest would no longer be here.”

As described by local leaders and quoted in the Characterization Plan published by the Ministry of the Interior, nearly 35,800 hectares of forest were being logged by Maderas del Darién before the community was displaced (this represents “slightly  more than a third of the collective territory”). After displacement, an additional 7,282 hectares were being exploited by the company. “In all, approximately 43,082 hectares were being logged; that is, 42 percent of the collective territory,” the document states. In addition, Maderas del Darién built several canals to extract water and timber. They have had an impact on the ecosystem by drying out the marshes and draining several bodies of water, “generating sedimentation and deviations in the natural course of streams and rivers.”

Credit. A video produced by the Independent and Alternative Media Alliance for Colombia. #PeriodismodeVerdad with ICTJ support. The alternative and grass-roots media outlets that are part of the Media Committee for Truth and Memory, Journalism for Truth, have joined forces to provide journalistic and educational coverage of the work being done by the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and No Repetition.

“Reborn” – Generational Renewal  

Amin (Jarlenson Angulo), an agronomy student, and Janis (Harold Orjuela), a farmer, are two young people from Cacarica who are part of a hip hop group called Los Renacientes (“The Reborn”). As they told anthropologist and journalist Fabián David Páez in an interview shortly before the 20th anniversary of Operation Genesis, one of the community’s most important achievements has been to return to their territory. When the war in Colombia forced them off their land, Amin was nine years old and Janis was five. 

This musical group was born in 1999, when the community was still in Turbo. Since then, several young people have taken part, wanting to write songs that tell of the violence they have endured and that still exists in their territory. “For those of us who are young and impulsive, rap is a way we can express ourselves in strong words, perhaps better than with a chirimía, an alabao, or other ancestral rhythms that don’t go with the hard words we carry inside,” explains Janis. As for his lyrics, Amin says they speak of resistance and the land: “These territories we protect are the ones that give us our sustenance, our life’s work. The land means a lot to us, as peasants, because we live off it. And, that is the love we feel for it and carry within ourselves. It makes us strong and resilient.”

Santiago, who has known the community since 1997 and closely accompanied their return, says he is pleased to see what was once a generation of children and adolescents in a vulnerable situation is now a generation of young people and adults who have taken the reins of an organized process bent on creating resistance, affirming territorial rights and building peace within their territory. 

“They are young people who assume an important role in terms of leadership and generational renewal. Several of those who were children at the time, when we (Justice and Peace) supported and accompanied the community’s return, are now involved in coordinating the CAVIDA process. It has been a process of qualification, impact and continuous training,” insists Santiago. On this subject, Nathalie Bienfait, who has helped to support and guide the community on several occasions as part of the PBI, insists there is an important intergenerational transmission in Cacarica of what she calls “a sense of the struggle,” which ultimately is an awareness of the importance of defending the land and the need for this to be a joint effort rather than being left in the hands of few. 

A sports event organized in Cacarica as part of “Together We Can Provide the Victims with Reparation,” a nationwide campaign led by the Care and Integral Reparations Unit for Victims.  
Credit: Gabriel Galindo in 2019 for the Inter-Faith Commission for Justice and Peace.

One of the community’s chief commitments is to make sure new generations remain on the land. It hopes to accomplish this by promoting educational experiences such as the Interethnic Youth Leadership School, which existed until 2018 with support from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The University for Peace is a similar initiative. As explained by the ICTJ, it was established when more than sixteen community councils took on the challenge of creating a space within their territories to promote local and ancestral knowledge, and to make way for discussion and recognition of responsibility among victims and all types of ex-combatants.

Ana del Carmen says those who forced them to flee “screamed to high heaven when they realized people had returned. They thought we would not return after the scare they gave us.” The determination to return and their insistence on remaining in the area, despite armed threats, “has been active and passive civil resistance in the midst of war, with symbolic construction of their cultural identity and by making their territory a meeting place,” emphasizes Santiago. 

The Threats Continue 

Father Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest and well-known human rights defender who founded the Inter-Faith Justice and Peace Commission in 1988, says businessmen who are invested in monocultures like palm trees and bananas “have always been supported by paramilitary groups and prompt them to make life impossible for local communities by cutting down their fences, driving cattle onto their land and destroying their crops, all in an effort to wear them down and create frustration. The members of the community complain to the courts and the tribunals. The government sends in the army.  It stays for eight days, then leaves and the paramilitaries come back to destroy the fences, and the entire vicious circle continues.”

Beyond the coronavirus, which ‘hijacked’ the agenda of the national media, Ana del Carmen keeps one of her pre-pandemic concerns very much in mind: the imminent construction of a highway from Medellín, the second most important city in the country, to Turbo, which would facilitate the entry of more companies with an interest in the region. 

By August 2019, Autopistas de Urabá, the concessionaire in charge of building Sea Freeway 2 (Autopista Mar 2), had completed only 1.8 percent of this project, which began with a pre-construction stage three years ago. Press reports on Caracol Radio Medellín claim the project will invest “2.6 billion pesos to refurbish the entire stretch from Cañasgordas to Necoclí, construct bridges and tunnels, and operate the double carriageway between Chigorodó and Turbo. In all, this involves 278 kilometers of roadway.”

While the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Act and the transitional justice processes associated with the 2016 Peace Accords speak of guarantees of no repetition for those who have been victims of the war in Colombia, Afro-Colombian communities insist such guarantees must cover their collective territories. The territory is definitely a victim, says Ana del Carmen. “First, they displaced us and the land was left there alone. Secondly, a lot of blood was shed in this part of the country.  Third, they continue to insist on taking it away from us. Fourth, some left, others arrived, and the territory and the population continue to be victims.” 

Since its return, the challenge for the community has been to stay in the area. The older members defend their permanence to the extent that they even argue their right to choose where to die: on their land. In Colombia, threats against the men and women who defend human rights and their territory are ongoing, and the people in the Cacarica Basin know they have more than individual leadership; they have each other, collectively. This is how adults, young people and children defend what they have recovered and, together, they safeguard this “little piece of land,” a living heritage that belongs to the younger generations and those to come.