by Wilson Tan, participant of CPT Colombia’s “Learning Experience” which included members of CPT’s Race Relations Council and Steering Committee
On our learning experience in Colombia, we visited the community of Garzal in the Simiti municipality in the southern Bolivar province. CPT Colombia has accompanied Garzal and their neighbors, the community of Nueva Esperanza, since 2007. Brian Young, Sarah Thompson, Chris Sabas, Merwyn De Mello, Rey Lopez, and Eric Olfert and I were hosted by Jenny Rodriguez and Stewart Vriesinga of the CPT Colombia team for the visit to Garzal. We arrived in Barrancabermeja in the late afternoon of Sunday, April 25.
The multi-faceted situation in Colombia makes it difficult summarize what’s going on. In short, the Magdalena Media region is rich with natural resources such as fertile land, minerals and potential of oil. Many different actors, including paramilitaries, guerrillas, state forces and multinational corporations, are not hesitant to use lethal violence, economic coercion, institutional pressure, and unjust political or illegal means to possess and extract these natural resources. Consequently, civilians who, by law or tenure, have land rights are reduced to mere collateral in a high-stakes game of control and exploitation of valuable resources.
Fast forward to the afternoon of our arrival to the Garzal community. Pastor Salvador, a leader in the community, started sharing after lunch. His story arc was of how the land, in the early days, was politicized by drug lords who favoured coca (unrefined source of cocaine) over cacao (source for chocolate). The campesinos were caught in the middle of armed groups, drug lords, and corrupt government officials attempting to wield control and power over the land in order to enrich themselves. Most striking was Pastor Salvador’s sharing how the Holy Spirit spoke through his wife. God offered affirmation and encouragement for him to continue the politicization of his pastoral works and to actively push back on violence as the spiritual leader of the community. Furthermore, according to Pastor Salvador, God will send guardian angels – CPT being one – to see him through difficult times.
The next day, we joined a Garzal community meeting under the shade of trees near an open soccer field. There, I witnessed for myself Pastor Salvador’s earnest, charismatic leadership and heartfelt words of encouragements to the community for everyone to stay united and strong against actors attempting to divide and coerce them to give up their land. There was a real sense of community in a place where lives and livelihoods are at stake. To experience this and Pastor Salvador’s generous hospitality was an immense blessing for everyone present.
Back in the CPT team house in Barrancabermeja, during a debrief on the last day, Jenny shared a reflection that seeing me walk with the team helped her debunk the stereotype of Asians coming here as takers. This was a warm and humbling end to my Learning Experience, which made the trip absolutely worth the while.
For more on the community of Garzal, click here.
Wilson Tan has been volunteering with CPT since 2005 and serving on the CPT Steering Committee since fall 2010. He is currently based in Singapore.