COLOMBIA: Garzal and Nueva Esperanza communities resist displacement despite collaboration of authorities with paramilitaries

CPTnet
2 April 2008
COLOMBIA: Garzal and Nueva Esperanza communities resist displacement despite collaboration of authorities with paramilitary infrastructure

by Stewart Vriesinga

Paramilitaries are threatening the homes and livelihoods of the people who live in Garzal (population 346) and Nueva Esperanza (population 284)—communities living under the jurisdiction of Simití municipality in the south of Bolivar province.

In the early 1980s, the Colombian authorities granted legal title to lands—occupied by peasant farmers since the early 1970s—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 Colombian authorities raided his cocaine laboratory and sentenced him to two years in jail. He did not return to the area for 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 titles to their land. Although the inhabitants initiated this process in 1990, they and more recent homesteaders did not received titles until 2005. Today the land once used for cocaine production is sustaining two communities of over 600.

In 2003, Barreto, now calling himself "Don Pedro," reappeared, with paramilitary escorts. He used his political influence to halt the granting of titles to the local residents and get the ones already granted revoked. He said everyone must leave "his" land. Community leaders and residents began receiving death-threats. Ten families, along with the only school teacher of Nueva Esperanza, displaced.

"Don Pedro" has since died, but his son has picked up where his father left off. He sent workers, some of which now occupy the only (former) school of Nueva Esperanza, to prepare the land for sugar cane, and possibly African Palm trees and livestock in the future

CPTers Jessica Phillips and I spent four days visiting both communities. (View photos at http://www.cpt.org/gallery/album223.) We spoke to many long-term residents. Doña Silvia accompanied by two of her forty-three grandchildren, told us she has lived in Garzal for over forty years. Despite the situation, they and their neighbours remain highly committed to various community projects. A women's group –"Por Venir" (The Future)—is running a bread-baking cooperative from out of their homes and is 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, etc.

Some argue that paramilitary demobilization in Colombia is actually a way of legalizing paramilitaries and providing them with the opportunity to launder their ill-gotten gains and consolidate wealth and political power. The experience of the communities of Garzal and Nueva Esperanza lends credence to that argument. CPT calls on the Colombian government to respect and protect these communities' rights to their land, and reward rather than punish their efforts to reclaim these lands for the production of life-sustaining food crops instead of drugs.