On accompanimentRob Hawke spent a year with PBI Colombia in Barrancabermeja.

Accompanying the Cimitarra Valley Rural Association (ACVC) usually means filling the rucksack with a hammock, wellies, insect repellent, then heading off on hair-raising truck rides into the mountains of Sur de Bolívar.

The ACVC has 30,000 members spread throughout the region, the majority of which live without basic services such as electricity, running water, paved roads, and health care. They also have the misfortune to live in a conflict zone, where forced displacement and harassment from armed groups aggravate the instability of daily life.

We accompany the leaders of the ACVC as they try to stimulate organizational processes, sustainable development and food security programs in a region where many are forced to farm the coca plant in order to survive. It is a constant eye-opener to learn about the lives, struggles, realities of those who live here.

Many leaders of the ACVC have suffered political persecution and imprisonment for the work they do. This year we have attended the ongoing trials of two leaders, and one of the happiest and most emotional moments has been the absolution of Miguel Huepa in June 2009.

Working with communities at risk

Some of the most frequent accompaniments in Barranca are with the Popular Women’s Movement (OFP). Like the ACVC, the OFP is a grassroots organisation; the coordinators frequently travel to municipalities along the Magdalena River, working with women from the barrios who suffer from social and gender-based marginalization. The OFP is carrying out a UNIFEM sponsored program of psycho-social-juridical workshops that provide assistance to victims of sexual violence. The interactive nature of the workshops generates enormous enthusiasm among the women, and provides a confidential environment in communities where years of violence have broken down social networks.

I have travelled twice to Catatumbo, bordering Venezuela in North-East Colombia.  Accompaniments with the lawyers of the Luís Carlos Pérez Lawyers’ Collective (CCALCP) are less frequent but always an incredible learning experience. The CCALCP lawyers are legal advisors to the Bari, an indigenous population engaged in dialogue with the government over petitions to exploit oil and carbon within its territory. It is fascinating to spend time getting to know the Bari and the unique way in which they are struggling to preserve and strengthen their culture.

It is also interesting learning how to manage the political side of the work. I have arrived at a time when the problems in the region seem to have intensified, and it is crucial to be able to carry out a detailed analysis of the situation in order to help guarantee the security of those we accompany. It involves a lot of meetings with social organisations, civil and military authorities. In these spaces, one starts to measure the impact that the work of PBI is having.