By Pierre Shantz
New International Version (NIV)
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Victories are for celebrating. They are moments that give us the satisfaction of a job well done. That the fight we gave was worth it. Why then in Colombia does a victory for so many communities who struggle for something as basic as the right to have a piece of land to farm to provide food for their families, become a nightmare and for some a death sentence?
This sounds sad and discouraging and I wish I didn’t have to paint such a bleak picture but to hide the truth would be worse. In fact for the past months we as a team have (not intentionally) hidden the truth by announcing several victories. We did it because in fact there have been several victories that fully deserve a celebration. Also for our own emotional health we needed to enjoy these moments. Communities affected by the violence of the ongoing economic, political and armed conflict of Colombia don’t often have victories, tangible successes to grab on to. So when they happen it’s hard not to hold on tight and shout them from the mountain tops. We even used them as a fundraising strategy because hey, everyone wants to support a winning team.
Make no mistake, great victories happened for Garzal/Nueva Esperanza and Las Pavas, two communities that CPT Colombia accompanies and under normal circumstances we would all still be celebrating. But as I said earlier these victories have become hard to imagine tragedies that can dishearten the happiest soul.
Las Pavas: (see past articles about Las Pavas) The people of Las Pavas are a sustainable farming community in the southern region of Bolivar province of Colombia. Throughout the years Paramilitary violence forced the community to leave the land but each time they returned. In 2006 the community was in the process of claiming its land rights under Colombian law when oil palm consortium Aportes San Isidro made a deal for the land with the absentee owner, who had already lost his rights to the land due to years of abandonment. On July 14, 2009 through corrupt means and on behalf of Aportes San Isidro the Colombian riot police illegally evicted 123 families (more than 500 people) from the Las Pavas farm. For almost 2 years after suffering poor living conditions and lack of food the highest court in Colombia ruled in favor of Las Pavas, stating that the eviction was illegal. On April 4th 2011 the Las Pavas families returned to the land. They called it “the Miracle of Las Pavas.” Many families started to farm again and produce much needed food for their families. Later an even bigger victory came, the Colombian Institute for Rural Development INCODER (the governmental body responsible for rural land issues) ordered that all of Las Pavas farm be declared state land and titled to the Las Pavas farmers. How could these two victories not be the greatest events in the lives of these 123 families? Sadly what has happened alongside these two victories is another story. Because Aportes San Isidro has a lot of economic and political power they have been able to prevent these rulings from being fully implemented. After the Court overturned the eviction the company remained on the land saying they had equal rights to stay there until INCODER finished its process. During this time company employees violently harassed Las Pavas families by destroying crops, stealing farm equipment, killing animals and even threatening to kill people. These threatening actions have increased exponentially since the INCODER ruling with the latest beating and attempted murder of community member Tito Alvear.
So as you can see that although the families of Las Pavas should be celebrating their right to farm peacefully, they now face the greatest threats to their livelihood ever. Unfortunately because we dared to celebrate and announce to our readers that the Las Pavas Miracle had happened many of you thought, cased closed, all is good in Las Pavas. Then when we started to write articles about harassment and threats from Aportes San Isidro against the families we received confused messages asking us “But if it is over why do you continue to write about this in this way?” So here is the bitter truth. The Las Pavas struggle is not over. A miracle did happen when the highest court in Colombia, usually only accessible to the rich and powerful ruled in favor of a small, poor subsistence farming community. But as in Jesus’s ministry although many miracles happened it was not the end of the struggle; in fact many more were to come.
Garzal/Nueva Esperanza: (see past articles about Garzal/Nueva Esperanza). The story of this process is in many ways similar to Las Pavas. A former drug trafficker Manuel Enrique Barreto pursued by authorities abandoned land and later returned looking to control it all again as if nothing had changed. The conflict though, is that farmers who really needed this land to feed their families moved on to the land and began to produce. These families also requested that INCODER begin a process of legalizing the land. When Barreto returned he realized that there was a real chance that he could lose the land to these poor peasants. His greed led him to file false land titles in a regional court. By the grace of God and a good legal team the 300 plus families of Garzal and Nueva Esperanza were able to hold off numerous threats of eviction by the court and by the strength of their faith and conviction of belonging to the land they were able to fight off numerous threats of displacement from armed paramilitaries. Finally in 2012 INCODER began to seriously push the process of eminent domain where the Colombian state declares the land state land and later titles it to the farmers. This process is in its final stage and is expected to end in favour of the farming families. Later on Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013, INCODER returned 64 titles to Garzal families who had been defrauded of their titles by an INCODER agent suspected to be paid by Barreto. Again in this case we celebrated and announced to the world that the Garzal and Nueva Esperanza families were receiving titles. Of course these are reasons to celebrate. We should be jumping for joy.
Several weeks ago people in Garzal told us that things were so calm that it appeared that Barreto had accepted his defeat and decided to no longer pursue ownership of the land. His legal battle came to a dead end and his only options left were violent actions to displace the families. We patiently waited. Unfortunately the Barreto family hasn’t given up. Recent reports have said that paramilitary forces are organizing to take over the region of Garzal and Nueva Esperanza. They have said that they will clear out the families from the land allowing for large economic interests such as Barreto to exploit the land. Pastor Salvador Alcantara, the most visible and vocal leader, and his family were recently once again forced to leave the region because threats to his life were imminent. The saddest thing I heard related to this situation was when I asked if the family would return in January for a planned celebration as the remainder of the titles would be given to the community and they responded saying “It is better if the community doesn’t celebrate for the land titles. Look what has happened to us and we haven’t even celebrated our titles. Imagine if we held a big celebration and rubbed it in their faces what would they do to us then?”
I guess it should be of no surprise that these communities who have remained steadfast in the face of such hardship continue to face persecution. As Jesus said in the passage in Mark 10 verse 30 that for our faithfulness we shall “receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—“ It is this bittersweet victory of being rewarded with a hundred times what we have given up to follow him. Because along with the victory comes persecutions. The people of Garzal/Nueva Esperanza and Las Pavas strongly challenge us with their example of faithfulness to examine our own spiritual journey and where we are.
Since Juan Manuel Santos became president in 2010 he has pushed for some changes that many have seen as very positive. Some of these changes such as a land restitution law have allowed for the Garzal/Nueva Esperanza and Las Pavas cases to move forward in favour of the farming families. Negotiations with the largest guerrilla group FARC could even lead to the end of Colombia’s more than 60 year old civil war. Again at first glance these do seem like victories to celebrate. Colombia, a country that has been under the microscope of the international community because of gross human rights violations is now seen in a much more favourable way. International funding for grassroots human rights organizations is now going to other countries because Colombia is fixed. Several accompaniment organizations such as CPT have seen their budgets cut because Colombia is better now and there is no need to continue to fund Colombia projects.
So this reflection is meant to be a reality check. A sort of apology if we have given the wrong impression that Colombia is okay. That Las Pavas is okay. That Garzal and Nueva Esperanza are okay. The communities we try to stand in solidarity with need your support. We need your support. We need you to stay aware of the situation and question and take action when you hear that Colombia is okay. Take action when we call you to respond to the violent threats or actions against the communities. Write letters, pray, hold public actions in front of Colombian consulates or company headquarters, demand justice for Colombian farmers and yes, if you can send us a donation to allow us to continue the work of solidarity please do.
Will these communities, and hundreds of others like them in Colombia, really truly be able to celebrate their victories? We don’t know. What we do know is that the struggle isn’t over and it is important to continue standing up for justice. Until then we commit to you to not give you false hopes about the situation. We will announce the victories and will celebrate with the communities. But we will also take on the painful task of telling the ugly truth.