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My Colombia Experience

Colombia: entirely new to me and I had very limited time to become prepared.
Witness for Peace: an NGO, about which I knew nothing. I came to define it as a human rights monitoring and advocacy organization.
The delegation: Women leading, learning, investigating, strategizing, taking action, committing to trying to bring change.
The reality: Colombia is rich in resources; infused with military and paramilitary power groups; peopled by a gracious, generous populace; plagued by other nations’ exploitations AND assistance; punctuated by both indigenous and slave-descendent peoples; and embraced by a gloriously beautiful Andean environment.

We learned some startling realities:
• The country has endured 5 decades of conflict and violence.
• Agriculture is very diverse, including the coca crop, relentlessly eradicated or attempted to be by U.S.-sponsored aerial spraying, which directly and disastrously affects some farming communities and ancestral settlements.
• Peoples (primarily indigenous and Afro Colombian) are regularly displaced from their homelands, some settlements of 400-years duration, by federal or commercial interests, such as the expansion of the huge port (Buenaventura), accession to mega-agriculture such as sugar cane and palm oil, or exploitation of minerals, oil and coal.
• Indigenous groups are trying to regain/retain their land rights and preserve their cultural traditions.
• 73% of the displaced people are women and children; often the husbands-fathers are conscripted or voluntarily join the military and illegal armed groups, or work away from their homes.
• People who resist displacement and want to stay on their lands are identified as “insurgents.”
• During the first week that we were present in the country, the number of bombings and murders escalated, targeting union organizers and civilians.

Very quickly our delegation of women got to know each other: 2 social workers, 1 psychologist, 1 labor organizer, 1 teacher/radio commentator, 1 student, 1 PhD student/university lecturer, 1 mental health system administrator, 1 Native American/teacher. Almost all have moderate or excellent Spanish. I, alone, have zero. Others tolerated me graciously.
We engaged in some get-acquainted exercises; we learn of the purposes, schedule, and security considerations necessary. The delegates are greatly considerate of each other: our interests, energy, comfort issues, emotional states. We challenge and support each other. Our gifts are complementary.

First, let me try to define the concept of “accompaniment,” which was the essence of several of our connections with groups or people.
“Accompany” is a concept suggesting safety, recognition, and respect for individuals. This may entail being present at rallies, walking in tandem with people from one village to another--awareness, listening to their stories, providing moral support, giving visibility to serious injustices.

• Buenaventura
This is Colombia’s principal port. There are plans for expansion, which was a main reason that the nearby populace of Afro Colombians and indigenous people were displaced to towns and cities unknown to them. Again we drove to a park at the ocean’s edge. We met with dock workers, who want to organize a union. Their issues include: not having lunch breaks, getting paid only for the hours worked (sometimes as little as one or two hours), women never named to supervisory positions, not being aided nor rehired if injured on the job, fees required to work (e.g., $25 for one month’s work).

• Indigenous, Afro Colombian, and displaced peoples
The government statistics indicate there are at least 100 massacres and 100 “disappearances” occur each year. The river basin surrounding Buenaventura was victimized by paramilitary actions in 2002. Again in 2010, paramilitary groups displaced people who fled to neighboring cities. The new highway (a multi-year project, stimulated by the Free Trade Agreement) between Cali and Buenaventura, has displaced villages. A great portion of these lands is planned as a secondary port but the rich minerals in the area are also desirable. Some villagers were removed but their people have returned; thus they are seen as residing “illegally” on their ancestral lands. Law 70 allegedly protects Afro Colombian communities but is violated; land is confiscated; children are recruited to armed groups; families are left behind when men leave to work or join military groups.

The Nonam people of the Calima River were forcibly displaced for a year, taken to reside in a warehouse type building in Buenaventura. The Nonam have made a return and have resumed their fishing and farming, yet adjacent land is being sprayed via the coca fumigation project and their jungle farming sites are not respected. This coca eradication policy has been pushed by U.S. anti-narcotics policy that has not stopped the production of coca and affects the food security of communities like the Nonam.
We traveled down a glorious river with jungle on both banks in speedy boat (yes there were life-preservers) with a single “skipper,” who zipped around treacherous curves and over shallow waters of a rocky river bed. On our return trip we had the added challenge of a torrential rain. Other NGO representatives had joined us; a lot of food was delivered. It was a beautiful journey on
While there, the community members (perhaps 30 among 200 residents) told us of their history as we sat in a large circle with them, translated twice—from their language to Spanish, and from Spanish to English. We watched them make traditional baskets and beaded bracelets and earrings. The visibly oldest person present—a woman with naked breasts sinking to her waist and wearing a beautiful necklace—had greeted me when I first staggered out of the boat and up the muddy and rocky bank to flat ground. Perhaps she recognized me as a co-elder! It was she who wove the basket as we sat in a circle and I was able to purchase it when it was completed (a lovely treasure with a graphic history).
We ate fresh-caught fish and rice for lunch; we enjoyed a good deal of twice-translated information about their life and fears and were blessed by the village medicine man, who stroked our forearms with branches dipped in holy water. Suddenly it was time to leave as rain was arriving and darkness looming. Our return trip was just as rapid, a bit more wild, and punctuated by heavy rain.

• Collective advocacy groups

La Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres (The Peaceful Route of Women) is an umbrella collective of women’s peace organizations, whose purpose is “to visualize the effects of war and propose solutions to conflicts as well as developing mobilizations.” An example is a march of 3000 women to protest armed groups. One complaint is that women were forcibly brought to those sites in order to cook and do laundry for the paramilitary recruits. The group also represents indigenous women, who are subject to rape and violence because of their status. La Ruta’s opinion is that the state not only takes no protective action, but also “promotes and tolerates violence.” “The government knows how to talk about war, but not about peace.”

CUT (Confederation of Unified Workers) is an umbrella organization for workers’ unions. The focus of this presentation by Ligia Azate, a director of the labor organization, was on gender violence and the state of women’s self-esteem. Their economic dependency impedes progress toward self-sufficiency. When women are in the workforce, there is a 28% discrepancy in earning power vis a vis men. In Colombia, there are 19 million male workers, 7 million female. And 59% of the working women are in the “informal economy:” taxi drivers, cleaners, sales, restaurant workers. Many tolerate sexual harassment so as not to be fired. Women subjugate themselves by living with dominant males because of their economic dependency. In rural areas, women are usually the heads of households with no male partner. While protective laws have been enacted, they are typically not enforced: women who bring complaints are sometimes killed; “reparations” are typically too meager for recovery and often forgotten or delayed; statistics regarding outcomes of complaints are unreliable.

AMDAE is an organization that advocates for displaced Afro Colombians. Daira Quiñones, the founder, works to combat violence, develop sustainable work, and help people reclaim their land. The organization describes the invisibility of Afro Colombian women; from 1991-2004 the Colombia census documents these women, but the government denies the numbers. The government only recognizes direct physical attacks as “violence” but many other forms of violence affect women. Medical problems are prevalent such as greater than statistically normal incidence of breast and uterine cancers, no access to medical care (e.g., their medical card may be found as invalid, necessary medication is “not available,” their documentation as displaced persons is not recognized.

Among these collective advocacy groups, these are some of their testimonials:
• We work to improve social policies and give voice to the issues of certain neighborhoods of displaced people (e.g., a 31-year-old woman died last week after NO treatment for her cancer because she was not “eligible” for treatment until age 35).
• Very few handicapped children receive help or medical care… again, laws exist but are not enforced.
• Incidents of violence against women is high in certain neighborhoods, especially as women become “leaders.”
• Prosecutors overlook cases of violence against women, police torture certain detainees, there is no follow-up or investigations of death threats against women.
• Sometimes children cannot go to school because of “security” concerns.
• Children as young as 8 are being given drugs and are forced to give them to other children.
• Representatives of human rights organizations are given “protected” status only if they are actively receiving death threats (and they have to report their whereabouts, which could endanger them further.)
• Human rights workers have been given phones as “a protective measure” but, in fact, this was a way that security could monitor their phone contacts.
• Ancestral ways of treating medical problems are disrespected, even though there is no incidence of breast and uterine cancer in most indigenous communities.

• Yakari
On the first full day of actions, we departed Cali at 4 am for the central plaza in this town in order to accompany the sugarcane cutters, as they gathered to meet and later departed via buses to the fields for their day of labor. Hmm: sugar. How much do I consume?! As the new day dawned, the crowd of cutters—men ready to go to work, some with their machetes hanging from their belts—began to gather. Alberto, a labor organizer, gave a spirited and challenging talk; all of our Spanish-speaking delegates spoke over the portable loud-speaking system to encourage, to explain a bit about American labor unions, and to honor the workers and recognize their plight.
On that beautiful morning a sea of men – an crowd of nearly 400—gathered before us as we stood on an elevated ledge, all listening intently to the amplified discourse. A scene never to be forgotten. Each man would have a story to tell, each a struggle to make a living within the realities of inadequate pay and unfair labor practices. I tried to imagine their families, their meager resources, their hunger for information and advancement, opportunity. The sun kept rising. The workers needed to board buses that would take each to the field of his labors for the day. We departed…perhaps transformed in some way.

• Madrid
The floraculture workers and organizers had just completed their Valentine’s Day labors when we met with them on February 12. We were accompanied by CACTUS, an organization formed to address health and safety conditions of the overwhelmingly female flower workers. These women make up about 65% of the workforce. They often begin their work as young teen-agers. Most are hired on short-term contracts of a few months, which are not renewed for workers who become pregnant or ill--often with job-related illnesses. Chemicals used in the cultivation of flowers are proven to lead to various cancers. They often must arrive at the workplace at 4am and work shifts of 12 hours or double shifts, such as 2 eight-hour shifts in a 24-hour period. Another person will be hired to replace a worker if she is too ill to show up on a given day.
Ironically, while we were on a walk-about (no flowers in sight, no access to the processing sheds) to get a sense of the rural environment, a truck with amplified sound proceeded very slowly along the road we were on: The electronic announcement stated that there would be no fresh water available in the community for two days upcoming. We deduced that this was the outcome of extreme water consumption by the flower plantation for the Valentine’s Day exports. The announcement had ambient sound of cheerful music and trickling water!
The U.S. consumes 76% of the production. Children of the workers tend to live in the streets without supervision at home. Temporary agencies serve as contractors, resulting in unstable employment without union representation.

The U.S. embassy
We collaborated in teams to plan our presentation to the Embassy group, consisting five staff people, representing their human rights and legal departments. It was a courteous exchange; they explained some of their oversight duties and initiatives; we described our findings. There were some discrepancies, such as how dangerous (or not) the aerial fumigation of the coca fields is. They claimed scientific methods by which those results are measured; we shared testimonies of the diseases and disabilities incurred by affected people. We stressed the necessity for “verification” —directly from the people in the regions. The Embassy officials defend aerial fumigation; on the other hand, fumigation has been proven to be a bad policy in terms of community impacts and ineffectiveness in reducing coca supply.

Life in Between the Learning and Advocacy

Our meals were haphazard yet sufficient. We bought stuff, sometimes at local markets, at times through the van windows from side-of-the-road vendors. If a do-it-yourself kitchen was available, we all pitched in. Our guides/gurus, the local Witness for Peace staff, each invited all of us to their sparsely equipped apartments for—miraculously--homemade suppers. While in the hostel in Bogota, two of my cohorts prepared gorgeous oatmeal breakfasts each morning.

We became a temporary family, supporting-criticizing-rescuing-challenging each other. One of the Witness for Peace staff is strategically connected with people and issues, so plans changed or evolved responsively. Wearing our t-shirts and hanging tightly as a group somehow empowered and protected us. The Spanish fluency possessed by so many in our group expanded our knowledge via authentic conversation.