Colombia: September 2009 (Las Pavas)

Campesinos and Trees Uprooted in Colombia 

Report of Christian Peacemaker Teams Delegation

September 22-October 5, 2009 

By George Meek, delegation member


“Please tell our story to the world,” pleaded Pedro*, a leader of the Campesinos’ Association of Buenos Aires (ASOCAB). He spoke to our CPT delegation in the displaced persons’ encampment in that remote and dusty town in the Middle Magdalena region of Colombia. This is the story: 123 families—about 500 people, including scores of children—had been working nearby farms in Las Pavas for many years, and were in the process of legalizing ownership, when they were driven off the land by court order on July 14, 2009. Since then they have no means of support.


Who seized the land? Subsidiaries of the Daabon firm, which is planting vast areas in oil palm trees, to be used in production of cosmetics and biodiesel (or agrodiesel as Colombian environmentalists prefer to call it, because they say it is not really eco-friendly). Since July 14, the companies have razed the homes of the Las Pavas farmers and turned the area into a wasteland.


Our seven-member CPT delegation to Colombia ranged in age from 27 to 73, and brought a breadth of faith perspectives and life experiences to the mission. We were well briefed in Bogotá and Barrancabermeja before we arrived in Buenos Aires. Pablo* of CEPALC (the Latin American Center for Popular Communication) told us that land concentration is increasing: 3,200 landowners have 53% of the land, while eight million campesinos do not own any at all. Pablo says peasants have been expelled from more than 7 million hectares of land since 1986, and the current government of President Alvaro Uribe—despite many promises—has not restored even 1% of the lands taken.


Victor* of the Mennonite Church in Colombia said that “under the current government, the doors are closed to reparations for human rights violations.” Representatives of the land rights group Sembrar (to plant) told us that farmers have been pushed off their land in Colombia since colonial times, and that currently 300,000 famers have less than one hectare. While the rich view land as a source of wealth, the poor see it as life itself. Under Colombian law, campesinos who work land that has been abandoned for a period of years can claim legal title to it, but that is often difficult to obtain, as the farmers in Las Pavas painfully discovered.


In torrid Barrancabermeja—a 10-hour bus ride down from chilly Bogotá—we learned from the CPT team that although killings and disappearances have declined, economic violence has intensified. They told us our visit to Las Pavas could be “the spark to light the pilot.” Representatives of the Program for Peace and Development of the Middle Magdalena (PDPMM) said 160,000 people in that region had been displaced in the last seven years, and 70,000 moved in from other areas. They said that mining companies and hydroelectric projects as well as the palm oil plantations are responsible for the forced displacement. 


PDPMM lawyer Ester* said campesinos began occupying Las Pavas in 1993. A decade later right-wing paramilitaries threatened them, but they remained on the land and in 2006 applied to the Colombian Rural Development Institute (INCODER) for eminent domain to confirm their legal ownership. [We later learned from INCODER that it was undergoing reorganization at the time, and the case was sidelined until 2008, when it filed the motion for the campesinos to get title.]


At the end of 2006, according to Ester, paramilitaries forced the peasants out of Las Pavas, threatening them: “We’ll kill you if you don’t go.” In 2007, the palm oil companies bought the property from the former landowner. In January 2009, the peasants, impatient for legal redress of their land claim, returned to farm Las Pavas until they were evicted by a judge’s order on July 14. The municipal police inspector executed the order, although Ester said it was illegal under Colombian law. Now, she said, motions for protection (tutela) are pending in the Constitutional Court. 


Susana* of the Women’s Popular Organization told us that women are threatened with forced displacement and murder of their leaders, who are accused of being guerrilla supporters. She criticized the government policy of giving land to multinational companies, which disrupts subsistence farming necessary for survival.


On September 26, after a five-hour boat ride down the Magdalena and a one-hour truck ride over a rutted track and pastureland, we reached the quiet (except for blasting stereos) town of Buenos Aires, on a branch of the Papayal River. It felt like the end of the world, with its dirt streets occupied by mules, pigs, and chickens—no trucks or cars, just a few motorbikes.


We met with the community in a campground of thatched roof and plastic tarp shelters on the edge of Buenos Aires. We learned that most of the families that had farmed Las Pavas lived in Buenos Aires and traveled to the fields from there, although about 15 or so had built houses or shelters on Las Pavas, which were destroyed after the eviction on July 14. One community member, Teodoro*, described the eviction in song upon our arrival. We saw a few family groups cooking meals at the campground and spending the night in hammocks, while most of the people were living in the town.


The leader of the Campesinos’ Association of Buenos Aires (ASOCAB), Pedro, says when they returned to Las Pavas in January of this year, they reported to the proper authorities, so they would not be considered invaders. They planted squash and plantain, and brought back their animals. When evicted in July, they were not allowed to harvest their crops. Pedro said their resistance has been peaceful, and “Buenos Aires is a laboratory for peace in the region.” He said it was ironic to see on television that President Uribe told the United Nations that Colombia is committed to protecting the environment, when the palm oil companies are clearly destroying it in Las Pavas.


Pedro’s daughter Maria*, a leader of the community women’s association, described the events of July 14: “They knocked down our water and food and made us leave.” Others said the police forced locks and put poison in the houses, and the families were offered a bribe to drop their legal action to prevent eviction. Sara* said: “We felt unprotected. The authorities should have protected us, but they protected the palm oil companies. They only let us drink from a contaminated pond.”


At dawn on September 28, the CPT delegation and members of the community hiked through the forest for 55 minutes to the site of Las Pavas. For many of them, it was their first visit back since the expulsion on July 14. We found a ranch house that was left standing; it is being used by the palm oil company, except for one room reserved for three women who filed a successful protection suit to be allowed to remain. (Legal efforts to extend that authorization to the rest of the community had proved unsuccessful.) The delegation presented the community with a flag it had made, with the legend “The miracle: returning to the promised land,” and depiction of the fish and crops that had been lost to the bulldozers.


Nearby, community members showed the delegation where every vestige of their homes had been destroyed, and huge trees—some perhaps 100 years old—had been felled to make way for the oil palm fields. We bushwhacked in the boiling sun through uncut areas near wetlands that were drying up, and could see the sharp contrast with the areas that had been leveled.


The displaced residents said authorities used the pretext of the lack of a census of pregnant women and mothers to evict them. In their words, “200 riot police came in. They burned and destroyed everything, even fish we had caught. They surrounded us and forced us into the house. They hoped we’d be aggressive, but we didn’t fall into that trap.”


Just beyond Las Pavas, some members of the delegation traveled on motorbikes to see more advanced environmental devastation, with loss of habitat for fish and animals that used to be hunted for food by the residents. A lake (Ciénaga La Escondida) was drained to make room for more palm. Government land officials were unable to explain how public land was sold.


On September 29, the CPT delegation traveled three hours by boat to the municipal seat, El Peñón, on the Magdalena River. We had expected to travel with a group of Las Pavas youth who were going to dramatize the community’s plight in the demonstration, but the larger boat needed to bring them was unavailable. In El Peñon, we met with the mayor who said 70% of the municipality’s land has been taken over by oil palm companies, and small farmers have to move to the cities. He said he is attentive to the situation in Las Pavas, and if INCODER and the court resolve it, the municipality will help re-establish the farmers.


After the meeting with the mayor, the delegation and Las Pavas leaders paraded through El Peñón singing “We Are Marching in the Light of God” and carrying posters such as “Give the land back to the peasants!” and “Woe to you who … add field to field (Isaiah 5:8).” In the main square we told the Las Pavas story in a litany, and illustrated it by three delegation members falling to the ground to symbolize dead fish, cattle, and cacao trees. The ceremony concluded with distribution of “seeds to symbolize hope” to the spectators, including municipal officials.   


Back in Barrancabermeja, the delegation heard from Lorenzo* of the Process of Black Communities that oil palm production has doubled in the last four years in the Middle Magdalena region, and a biodiesel refinery planned for Barrancabermeja will require 100,000 tons of palm oil per day. He said studies have shown that palm oil production can still be profitable while protecting farmers’ rights and the environment, but unfortunately corporate greed predominates.


German* of the Cimitarra River Valley Campesinos’ Association—who with other leaders had been jailed in an attempt to muzzle the group--said that in 2002 the government had approved a law for a campesino forest reserve of small plots, protected from consolidation and takeover, but suspended it the following year under pressure from the business sector and large landowners.


One might think that displaced peasants could make a decent living working for the palm oil companies. Not so, said Sister Tatiana of the Juanist Sisters: “They treat people like things.” The companies impose disadvantageous non-negotiable contracts with fines and penalties, and make workers pay for their own social security and tools. There is much hunger, poisoning by agricultural chemicals, and no training in occupational safety.


The CPT delegation managed to talk their way into the INCODER office and unexpectedly cornered its legal advisor. He said the agency is very aware of the Las Pavas case and tried to arrange a dialogue in August of the peasants and Daabon, but both parties declined to participate. The delegation gave him an advocacy letter, reporting on its visit to Las Pavas and urging INCODER to ensure that the peasants receive due process without further delay, and that there be full restitution and reparations if the case is decided in their favor.


In its final hours in Colombia, the CPT delegation drafted a similar letter to Daabon, calling upon the company to show its good faith by returning the land of Las Pavas to the peasants, and to cease large-scale palm oil exploitation on the site, restoring the damaged woods and wetlands insofar as possible.


The delegation left Colombia shocked to see how corporate greed and inadequate government protection had combined to uproot the people and trees of Las Pavas. These two problems cry out for correction.


*Names changed to protect the security of the people that spoke with the delegation.