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Written by Kati Hinman
Kati Hinman joined the FOR Peace Presence accompaniment team on the 2nd of December. Originally from the US, Kati has previously worked in the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Peru, primarily with youth. She is passionate about survivor-lead efforts to end violence, and is excited to work with FORPP and learn more about the peace process and human rights in Colombia.
On December 6, I traveled with Maren, our team coordinator, to accompany the field visit of the new inspector general. He is responsible for running the Committee to review compliance with the Sentence from June 2013, which stated that the community is vulnerable to violations of their fundamental rights by the military base. He had planned the visit in order to orient himself to the situation in Nilo before they hold their next meeting.
This is no simple task. The confrontations between Nilo and the military date back to the period of La Violencia, before the FARC had risen. The communities have lived in the veredas of Yucala, Naranjala, and Mesa Baja since the 1920s. In 1954, the base was built in the same territory. Disputes over the land have continued ever since. In 1968 the government signed an agreement that the Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform (INCORA, then INCODER, today Agencia Nacional de Tierras) had to distribute parts of the land in individual plots to the local farmer population. In the framework of this process, the community turned in all their proof of ownership to INCORA, and it was then lost, leaving them without documents to back up their claims. Despite a solution of the legal situation, in 2013 one of the Highest Court in Colombia again confirmed the rights of the community to live on the land without harassment.
Today, the base of Tolemaida is the largest military training site in Colombia. Despite the Colombian State‘s repeated acknowledgments of the rights of the community, the military operates on the pretense that the long-time residents are “invading occupants,” and has done everything they can to complicate their lives. They have denied them acess to bring in materials and food, destroyed their crops, and even dumped trash into the stream of Naranjala, contaminating the community’s drinking water, for which the military based was condemned in 2010 by the regional tribunal. For over a year they have blocked vehicle access to the hamlet of Mesa Baja, forcing community members to walk long distances to reach their homes. This has become an increasing concern, especially for aging residents who need access to health services outside the community.
Another issue has been the military’s refusal to allow family members of residents to enter the community without being listed in a register. At first the military attempted to require community members to carry a special identification card, a procedure that is illegal in Colombia. After residents opposed this, they decided to try and rectify the problem through a census, and are currently in the process of gathering census data.
It will be up to the Inspector General to hear both sides and consider solutions to comply with the sentence. Explicitly the sentence does not touch the core problem, the legal situation of the land titles. Nevertheless, one possibility would be a relocation within the same territory, so that farmers are not on the land the military uses for training purposes. The feasibility of this depends on the political will of the Ministry of Defense to reach an agreement with the community.
As my first time accompanying, I was impressed by the depth of knowledge required to effectively work with our partners. Each case has a complex history that is constantly evolving, and it is our responsibility to learn and appreciate those histories so that our presence can be of a strategic benefit to our partners. I was also struck by the community members’ energy and their willingness to stay engaged even in moments when comments were made against their integrity. In between fresh fruit juice and giant mangos, we were able to sit with them as they explained a little of their story and their plans for the future. Seeing first hand the thought that went into each step they have taken made me think of the Cesar Chavez quote, “non-violence can require more militancy than violence.”
While at times it seems as if there is almost no way to settle the issues in Nilo, the current climate in Colombia is one that begs the probability of agreements previously thought impossible. In this moment, the military can help build a sustainable peace by resisting war-time tactics of harassment and threats, and respecting the rights and well-being of the private citizens it is sworn to protect.