By Emily Schmitz, Charlotte Melly, Elisabeth Rohrmoser and Gina Spigarelli
The rural farming community of La Esperanza, remotely scattered through dense jungle, lies three hours walking from the nearest town in one direction, and one hour in the other. The community, which is a cluster of rural farmsteads, has no electricity or running water and the river passing through the valley serves as a source for bathing, drinking and washing.
Accompanying on path to La EsperanzaResidents of La Esperanza have struggled against conflict-induced violence on, and for control of, their homeland since their arrival. The FARC guerrillas have a long historical presence in the region, and since the 1990’s, multiple paramilitary groups and the Colombian military have also had a solid presence in the zone. In 1999, exhausted from living in fear and of having to acquiesce to demands made by multiple armed groups, several families of this small town joined the San José Peace Community, committing to neutrality in the conflict, resistance against displacement, and the peaceful preservation of their lands.
Despite the Colombian government’s claim that paramilitary forces were disbanded during a demobilization in 2005-06, members of the Peace Community are all too clear on the reality of continued paramilitary operations. November has seen a surge of presence of paramilitaries in La Esperanza: they have engaged in combat with the FARC, purchased land, set up check-points on the footpaths, and held meetings for civilian residents to attend. The Peace Community fears the paramilitaries’ presence and the push for control they are exercising in La Esperanza, knowing that such a presence puts neutrality, stability, livelihoods and life itself at risk.
Recent paramilitary land purchases have consolidated fertile, expansive and productive farms, leaving locals concerned. “Sure, they bought the land; they now hold legal titles,” says Raúl*, whose farm lies twenty minutes from the center of La Esperanza. (*All Peace Community members’ names have been changed for their safety.) “They have enough to buy off landowners and, if they still won’t sell, will threaten to kill them and their families.” The amount of land paramilitaries currently own is uncertain, but rumors are circulating that these illegal armed groups are purchasing properties bordering the limits of the Peace Community. The implications of these purchases are serious: an increase in combat and a complete militarization around the Peace Community, displacement and land loss for those who do not participate in the conflict, and the fear that these lands will eventually fall into the hands of multinationals and mining extraction companies.
“The troops don’t want this land,“ explains Juan, who has worked them his entire life, “these lands were bought to be sold to multinationals. This entire area is full of coal, this entire region could be mined,” he explains, and points to the ground below him and off into the distance, towards the mountains. For Juan and many other residents of La Esperanza, only one thing seems certain about land: paramilitaries are looking for more. “The community will never sell their land, but there are many others who will, or will be forced to,” he says.
The latest in a string of paramilitary threats took place November 28, when more than 50 paramilitary troops entered La Esperanza heavily armed and dressed in camouflage. They walked from house to house to organize a meeting in the center of town.
Andrea, a dedicated Peace Community member since its beginnings in La Esperanza, recounts her encounter with them: “I told them I am part of the Peace Community here, and as a rule, we don’t meet or involve ourselves with any armed actors. Surprisingly, they seemed quite calm, and told me I wasn’t required to attend, but as I walked away to bring lunch to my husband and son who were out working, they said in passing, ‘and now she’s bringing lunch to the guerrilla’.”
Lands in and around La Esperanza are valuable.Neither Andrea nor any Peace Community member in La Esperanza attended the meeting that day, but those residents who did were told that restrictions on food would begin immediately. Local stores would be allowed to sell all remaining goods but would not be further permitted to stock shelves. “They accused shop owners of selling to the guerrillas; of helping them and supporting them,” says Andrea.
Residents have watched their local stores, heavily relied upon for essentials such as soap, oil, sugar and salt, forced to close their doors. Many believe the food blockade is only the beginning of a greater effort to control the area completely, incited by conflict between guerrilla and paramilitary forces. The increased presence of paramilitaries on the footpaths, unavoidable check-points and forced food restrictions have created an environment so fragile that residents in La Esperanza fear that they await further combat and threats to land and their way of life. Since Mid-November the Peace Community has requested and received permanent accompaniment of La Esperanza from FOR and other international accompaniment organizations.
Express your concern to the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Michael McKinley, about the paramilitary presence around La Esperanza. Urge him to call the Army’s 17th Brigade and ensure that the Colombian government is doing everything in its power to protect Peace Community members as well as civilians in the region. Please join hundreds of others who are responding to this situation.