Urabá is the epicentre of the Colombian conflict. It was where paramilitarism was born, where it solidified, and it still continues its reign of terror, social control and land acquisition through the post-demobilisation armed groups.
But it is also a centre of community resistance to the decades-old conflict, and of initiatives that try to break the cycle of violence with pacific alternatives, such as humanitarian zones, peace communities and sustainable living.
The humanitarian zones along the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó rivers are involved in a complex land restitution process, and are home to returned Afro-Colombian communities who are waiting for their collective territory title, and meantime are subject to threats by those who oppose their ancestral right to this land which is so fertile that several large mono-culture companies are interested in its exploitation.
In March 2012, Manuel Ruíz Gallo and his 15-year-old son Samir were assassinated by paramilitaries associated with land exploitation because he was a community leader and in charge of guiding a government agency around the area he lived in to indicate the illegal occupation of land by non-ancestral farmers who sell exclusively to big companies.
The risk involved for these communities to campaign for what is rightfully theirs is huge. The risk in not campaigning for it, equally so, for they might be forcibly displaced again.
Learning from rural communities
During the year that I spent as a volunteer in Urabá I generally went on three or four field trips per month, to each of the three communities that we accompany.
Sometimes these trips involved a lot of travel – in jeeps, on motorbike taxis, in boats, walking or on a mule – as the community leaders who risk their lives to claim justice and work for peace often are most exposed when they are travelling. Sometimes it was roads and paths and rivers for days on end.
Other times, the protective presence of volunteers was needed for a few days in a specific community, and this represented an amazing chance to spend time with the families who live in these remote, complex places and hear about their lives – their stories of forced displacement and suffering, but also about how they farm their crops, what their land means to them, their stories of witches and their traditional riddles.
Once, in the river basin of Curvaradó, we walked hours in dusty tracks under a burning sun, through the banana plantations of bad-faith occupiers with their waving fronds and the glittering blue plastic bags around the banana fruit, sweating into our wellington boots (an Urabá essential) and our loaded backpacks, crossing streams on thin slippery logs (the rural farmers have an enviable natural balance and quite often I had to throw dignity to the wind and take someone’s hand to cross these poles), until we finally arrived at a humanitarian zone where we were to stay for two nights.
We slipped gratefully into the stream where the community children were playing and their mothers washing their clothes, and sloughed off the dust and sweat into the cool water, a glittering black from the fertile earth below, tree roots and mud between our toes.
PBI: an emblem of international solidarity
We fixed our PBI flag next to the humanitarian zone sign which designates the area as civilian population only, with provisional protection measures from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The flag ensured that anyone nearby knew that PBI was present and that behind our presence was a network of political support interested in ensuring the security of the community.
Then we volunteers hung our hammocks in the wooden house of one of the community leaders, and we talked with her until night fell over a dinner she prepared of rice and river fish, about the threats to the community, her children and how the women of the humanitarian zone were going to surprise their husbands by organising a party for Father’s Day.
She became one of my favourite people to accompany, with her bright humour and her strong commitment to fighting for the rights of her people.
It is moments like this, and the direct contact with the people that working in the field gives you, that makes the hard work of the ‘brigadista’, the hours on the road, the longer hours in the office, all worthwhile.
I learned so much during my year as a volunteer in Urabá, about Colombia, its people and myself. That’s why I’m going back for a second year.