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Colombian coast mobilizes to demand rights for holistic reparations

A group of campesino leaders in  a remote community in the interior of the Montes of Maria. (WNV/Anna Vogt)

A group of campesino leaders in a remote community in the interior of Colombia’s Montes de Maria region. (WNV/Anna Vogt)

For the leaders of over 30 communities in Colombia’s Montes de Maria region, a nonviolent march is the only way to build sustainable, holistic transformation and follows a general trend of nonviolent direct action taking place on the Atlantic coast of Colombia. Around 1,000 campesinos will be leaving El Carmen de Bolivar on April 6 and walking 80 miles to the capital city of Cartagena to demand their rights for holistic reparations as victims of armed conflict, which has repeatedly devastated this rural farming region. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was the locus of battles between the FARC, a leftist guerrilla group, the right-wing paramilitaries and state forces over land and loyalties. Numerous human rights violations occurred, including massacres, arson, kidnapping and massive displacement to the periphery of nearby urban centers.

Although people have slowly returned, life is not the same. Community leadership and grassroots organizations were destroyed. Speaking out remains dangerous, especially for individuals, as many armed groups are still actively working in the area. The stigma of armed conflict remains, with the rest of the nation viewing this area as violent and chaotic.

Additionally, the avocado, a staple crop, is dying. People increasingly fear another massive displacement, this time for economic reasons, as residents are forced to leave their land for other forms of employment.  After years of false promises of reparations, the state has failed to provide education, healthcare, passable roads and basic services.

The Victim’s Law of 2011 is supposedly the apparatus by which the communities will finally receive their rights. However, due to both delays in implementation and a policy of targeted reparations for only a few selected communities, leaders do not view this as enough. “We are looking for radical change in our region, not just that someone opens a road with a bulldozer or names a few professors,” said Jorge Montes Hernandez, one of the region’s march organizers.

“The Unidad de Victimas [national government entity responsible for implementing the Victims Law] asked if they created a Working Group to start solving the problems we are marching about, if we would agree not to march,” Miledys Vasquez Navarro, a leader from El Carmen explains. “These are problems that we have had for years and years; they are not solved in a month.” An important rationale for the march is to raise awareness nationally of their situation, thus creating accountability, as well as demonstrating that they are not a group of backwards violent-prone people.

After the march of the community of Mampuján in December 2011, a change took place in the region as neighboring populations observed the actions of a community demanding their rights for legally enshrined reparations without using violence or aligning themselves with an armed group.

Participants of the march saw concrete results of their action, which led to the beginning of individual reparations and strengthened internal community leadership. It is also directly inspiring the current movement. Leaders from Mampuján have met with march leaders to share experiences and to encourage this larger movement.

Although no is sure what the results of the march will be, one thing is certain: positive outcomes are already being seen throughout the region.  According to Aroldo Canoles Perez , another community leader from the municipal centre of Macayepo: “Before, there was a division between Macayepo and the other communities of the mountain.  If we saw one another, we would have turned away without talking, saying the others are guerrillas or paramilitaries.  Because of the march, we are all meeting together.”

The preparation for the march has turned into an important first step in rebuilding the area, as regional ties are strengthened and grassroots organizing takes place through its planning.