This is the second in a series of less-than-obsessively-edited posts about my recent experience on delegation in Colombia with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. The first post in the series is here. My goals are to share the stories I heard and to more fully process the experience. Thanks for reading (goal #1!) and I hope you’ll leave thoughts or questions in the comments below to join this community of process (goal #2!).
Today was my third guitar lesson. My teacher, generous human being that she is, greets me each time with a print out of a song she has selected just for me and the YAV sing-alongs I will someday lead. This week it was Woody Guthrie. You know, “this land is your land, this land is my land,” and “this land was made for you and me.” I immediately thought of Colombia.
The Colombian conflict is all about land.
That’s it, that’s the whole message. If you understand that, you understand the whole thing.
Of course, there’s a chance you don’t understand it, not fully. I certainly didn’t. Not until I sat in a circle with a whole community driven off their land, not until I heard ex-combatant members of the FARC talk about land with their own voices, did I understand a fraction of what it really means. It’s possible I still don’t.
I have a theory that it’s nearly impossible for someone brought up in my circumstances to really understand what land means to a campesino. I’ll go through the identity markers again - white, U.S. passport, middle class, highly educated - and throw in a few more: raised in the suburbs, only distantly related to farmers (I don’t think my grandpa’s dog breeding place counts), nearly always have bought my groceries from a supermarket, lived in four different states.
If you share some or all of those labels, my theory is that you can’t understand the deep relationship a person has with land that they rely on to sustain their life, either. Or the deep trauma of displacement and loss of that land. Maybe it’s a U.S./Majority World disconnect.
Issues of land reform motivated the campesinos who would become the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to take up arms in the 60s. Land reform is one of the six major pillars of the Peace Accords. Issues of land reform motivate ex-combatant members of the FARC into active political life today. Issues of land reform impact the daily life and plans for the future of thousands of Colombians.
One woman in Currulao estimates that 60% of all Colombia has been displaced. Documented percentages vary - the UNHCR counts 7.7 million people displaced within Colombia, about 21% of Colombia’s total population - but 60% rings true to her, from her experience. In 1991, three of her brothers-in-law were killed by armed groups. When the armed groups came back, her family was forced to leave their land. In 2000 or 2002, her family was forced to sign a paper that said they voluntarily sold their land.
Her pastor interjects - “The government says land will go back to those who lost it, but that’s mostly not true. A few have returned to their lands, but most won’t.” He adds, “Recently, maybe last year, they killed two campesino leaders who were working to get land back.”
Unpicking the complex violations of land ownership in Colombia is a nightmare, one that millions of people are living out. Some people have been displaced off their land and forced to sign false sale documents, making it extremely difficult to prove they were forcibly displaced and difficult to have their land restituted. Some people have been displaced off of land that was subsequently planted with African oil palm, which eats up the soil and leaves it dead. Some people have been displaced off of land that was then sold to multinational corporations for palm oil or bananas or other export crops -- good luck getting the land back from a powerful MNC with governmental pull. Some people were displaced from land that is still occupied by armed groups. Some people were displaced from land where they had lived for generations without formal deeds, so they can’t prove the lands were theirs to begin with.
And land is everything. Land is food, land is a dignified living, land is heritage, land is self-sufficiency, land is life, land is the essence of being a campesino.
Occasionally I have the chance to facilitate this thing called “The Great Free Trade Skit.” It’s a participatory simulation of the implementation of NAFTA and its effects in the U.S. and Mexico. Two or three participants are asked to play Mexican campesinos, and they start with government subsidies, seeds-- and land. Half-way through the skit, as the facilitator, I take their land away. “Move to the city,” I suggest, playing the forces of the “free market,” “you can get a job there in the factory.” The young people who are playing the campesinos groan, usually, or make sad faces, but quickly acquiesce and the skit moves on.
I know it’s just a simulation. I know it’s about campesinos in Southern Mexico, not campesinos in Colombia. But after this delegation, I believe that if the people playing campesinos in this skit were to accurately simulate this loss of land, they would throw themselves to the ground and weep.
They would fight the loss of their land and lives with everything they had, until there was nothing left.
This is what campesinos in Colombia are doing, even as social leaders advocating land reform are assassinated at nauseating rates. This is what keeps FARC ex-combatants engaged in the political process. This is what we have to try to understand, what we have to get out of our intellectualization and into the experiences of real people to fully know, if we seek to understand the Colombian conflict.
It’s all about land.
This is the first in a series of less-than-obsessively-edited posts about my recent experience on delegation in Colombia with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. My goals are to share the stories I heard and to more fully process the experience. Thanks for reading (goal #1!) and I hope you’ll leave thoughts or questions in the comments below to join this community of process (goal #2!).
On our third of ten days in Colombia, one of the delegation leaders asked us all to share how we had been feeling about what we had heard so far. Just saying I was “tired” wouldn’t cut it -- although it was accurate. This trip with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship was organized on a punishing schedule. We had already visited four towns, spending more than 15 hours on a bus, and were preparing ourselves to keep up the pace for a full week more. Our opportunities to process together were scarce, and all the more precious when they came up.
Sitting there in the Presbyterian Church in Apartadó, I closed my eyes to try to identify some deep feelings in the midst of a host of complicated sensations.
I felt gratitude and humility at being invited into intimate spaces. Over the course of the delegation I sat in church sanctuaries and on living room couches, shared meals with two groups of disarmed guerrilla members, accepted cups of coffee in a school chapel and an United Nations boardroom. One woman said, “many people have a mental barrier and don’t want to talk about the past, want to just be in the present.” But over and over, people broke open their past experiences without us asking.
I felt, feel, completely inadequate. My social location - white, U.S. passport-holder, heavy participant in institutionalized education, worker in the non-profit industrial complex - have taught me that leveraging the right grant will change the world. This is both a) not true and b) a deeply unhelpful lens, particularly in the context of this delegation. I continue to struggle to understand that the way I’ve been trained to approach the world is wrong, or at least incomplete. There is no grant, no intervention, no SMART goal that will “fix” Colombia. I don’t have the answers.
And, even more importantly, “fixing” is not my place (c.f. colonialism and Christian mission). My place is to listen, bear witness, and respond only as requested. I encountered how I have internalized U.S. imperialism in my desire to focus on ways that the U.S. has “caused” the situation in Colombia. Wanting to ascribe all violence to the actions of the U.S. is a form of paternalism and, perversely, doesn’t acknowledge the personhood, independence, and agency of Colombians as people and Colombia as a nation.
I felt discomfort at bearing witness with nothing to do (c.f. culture of white supremacy) and at trying to confront all of these things inside my own life while trying to understand and empathize with and respect the experiences of others. I still feel the discomfort in my body, the struggle of trying to articulate how I felt and what I am thinking. I still feel sad, about the personal experiences we heard and the ways that more than sixty years of violence have impacted the whole of Colombia; I still feel angry, at my own impotence, my own ignorance, and the lack of political will in the U.S. and Colombia to fully realize peace; I still feel - oh, fine, I’ll say it - tired.
I’ll be writing more over the next week about what I saw, heard, and experienced, trying to make meaning out of the complexity and honor the gifts of stories I received. I am of a society and a generation that wants the sound-bite, the tweet, the instant solution. Those don’t exist here. I aim to immerse myself in the complexity, the contradiction, the questions. Join me, won’t you?
“You can talk about forced displacement or voluntary displacement, but if you move because your neighbors or family members were killed, is that really voluntary?” - Ledy
Gloria, in Caracolón, calls it “obligatory displacement” when she tells her story with the flattened emotion of 21 years of distance.
“In 1997 we were living in a different place. In November there were the massacres, with about 400 victims.
We had to leave with just what we had.
They burned our houses.
Nos obligaron displazar.”
They obligated us to displace.
Gloria’s community was caught between two armed groups in 1997. After the massacres and the obligatory - somehow “forced” is still not strong enough a word - displacement, people lived for four year in shelters in Dabeiba. During that time of poor conditions and little work, the community members organized themselves to put pressure on the government to give them a new place to live. They formed committees to govern their community’s health, labor, and memory - passing down memories from oldest to youngest of what they lost, and how.
The small piece of land that the Colombian government finally deigned to offer is much too small. 150 people are living and farming on just 250 hectares (a little more than 600 acres - less than 1 square mile). In contrast, Gloria remembers how they lived before, on the land to which they dream of returning:
“Everyone had enough, enough land that you could be one or two hours on horse or by foot from your neighbor. You were self-sufficient, with everything that you needed grown without chemicals, all organic, with agricultural and aquacultural production. You would go down once a month, maybe, to buy salt.”
What may seem to you like a pleasant fantasy of pastoral life is the essence, lo esencial, Gloria says, of who she is as a campesino. It is Gloria’s reality, and one she will not give up. “For this, we are insisting that we be allowed to return to our own land.”
In our conversation at Caracolón, Germán Zárate of the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia begins by saying, “When you return to the Promised Land…” and there are smiles and laughter in the circle where we sit. The Promised Land is both memory and prophecy for the community of Caracolón, one they are determined to claim.
Reaching the Promised Land will require the clearing of military barriers and landmines that now block access to Gloria’s land, and the decommissioning or other provision for a hydroelectric dam that is currently taking advantage of her land’s wealth of water. Despite the challenges, Gloria and the other members of Caracolón are strong in their determination. Sitting near the monument that their Memory Committee installed on their temporary territory, the one that records the names of those killed in the 1997 massacre, they are clear about the goal.
“It’s my best dream,” one of Gloria’s compañeras says, “I dream of walking back, walking back on the same road by which we left.”
Gloria and the families of Caracolón who hold tight to the Promised Land are calling on us to put pressure on our own government and the Colombian government to ensure the completion of the details of the 2016 Peace Accords, which promised that displaced people would be returned to their lands.
May there arrive a Moses to part the landmines, and a Joshua to blow a trumpet to knock down the hydroelectric dam built on stolen lands, and may we all answer the call to pressure both our governments to hold true to their covenant to build a new road home.
Author, Alison Wood
queer, white, cisgender, U.S. passport-holding, Presbyterian, church-employed, challenged by faith, imagining something better.
I'm Learning From...