by Stewart Vriesinga
Imagine being told that the home you built, or were born in, or lived in all your life is no longer legally yours and that you must leave. Further imagine that all of your relatives and neighbors are being told the same thing, and that failure to leave will result in death. This is what is happening to the communities of Garzal (population 346) and Nueva Esperanza (population 284) in the municipality of Simití in the south of the province of Bolívar, Colombia.
In the early 1980s legal title to lands occupied by peasant farmers since the early 1970s was granted to Enrique Barreto who built a cocaine-processing laboratory on it. On the busiest nights, as many as three planes would leave the local runway loaded with cocaine. Barreto allowed local residents to stay on their farms and work the land. In 1988 the cocaine laboratory was raided and Barreto received a two-year jail sentence. He was not heard from for the next fifteen years.
During his absence the residents of Garzal and Nueva Esperanza took steps to secure titles to their land. Under Colombian law residents who have occupied and worked land at least ten consecutive years have a right to receive legal titles. Although they initiated this process in 1990, it was 2005 before the first titles were finally granted to some of the original residents as well as some of the homesteaders who arrived later. Today two communities of over 600 people are being sustained by land formerly used for cocaine production. But this happy outcome is in jeopardy.
In 2003, Barreto, then calling himself “Don Pedro,” reappeared, this time with paramilitary escorts. He used his political influence to get the few titles that had been granted to local residents revoked and bring the process of granting more land titles to a screeching halt. He made it clear that he would no longer tolerate peasants living on “his” land, and that everyone must leave. Community leaders and residents began receiving death threats. Ten families, along with the only school teacher in Nueva Esperanza, fled.
“Don Pedro” has since died, but his son continued where he left off. The son sent in workers to plant sugar cane and rumor has it he plans to bring in livestock and African Palm trees as well.
CPTers visiting both communities noted that the infrastructure and houses adorned with orchids and fruit trees clearly indicate that these are well established communities. Long-term resident, Doña Silvia, accompanied by two of her 43 grandchildren, said she has lived in Garzal for over forty years.
Despite their precarious situation, she and her neighbors remain highly committed to various community projects. A women’s group called Porvenir (The Future) runs a bread-baking cooperative out of their homes. They are looking for funds to build a bakery. Residents are building new classrooms for the school, extending a dyke to prevent flooding, constructing a grain threshing building, and more.
Victims of paramilitary violence say that the Uribe government’s corrupt project of demobilizing paramilitaries is in reality a way of legalizing them and giving them an opportunity to launder their ill-gotten gains and consolidate their wealth and political power. The experiences of the communities of Garzal and Nueva Esperanza lend a lot of credibility to that argument.
Show support for the people of Garzal and Nueva Esperanza who have struggled for years for their land titles with little outside attention. The Colombia team is collecting letters of support to deliver to the communities. Visit our website at www.cpt.org/work/colombia/updates for a sample letter that you can e-mail (ecapcolombia [at] edatel.net.co) or fax (011-577-602-3617) to the Colombia team. In addition to demonstrating important emotional and spiritual support to community members, leaders will be able to present these letters to various officials as the legal proceedings continue.