by Kati Hinman
When I started with FORPP in December of 2016, Colombia was in the midst of a peace process that was surrounded by promises of a definitive end to the conflict. Suddenly, the FARC were almost all gone from terrain. It felt as if rapid change was on the horizon.
However, as I began working as an international accompanier, I witnessed again and again how the conflict was rooted in problems much deeper than a few armed groups, as I had believed before. A peace agreement with the FARC could at best be a beginning to an end. Communities across Colombia were fighting for their rights to remain on their lands, which was consistently cited as a critical part not only of sustainable peace for the country, but also for global strategies to combat climate change and environmental degradation. Yet there were was a vested interest in displacing rural communities to exploit natural resources, not for Colombians but for people like me, in the US and Europe, who had no idea of the real cost behind these goods.
With FORPP, we have the chance to travel to some of the most remote regions of the country, and I was astounded by the natural beauty of Colombia. Rolling hills, crystal clear rivers, lush forests were all part of our day to day. I saw animals I never imagined seeing in the wild, from monkeys and parrots to boa constrictors and giant jungle rats. Colombia is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, and I was in awe to witness that bio-diversity first hand. The people living in these regions were proud to protect them, because lurking underneath their daily lives was the constant threat of displacement: oil, coal, and precious minerals are also abundant in Colombia, and various actors have tried to find a way to exploit these riches, a key factor in the ongoing violence.
I remember an accompaniment in Buenaventura, when we were visiting communities that had been displaced to the city from the surrounding rivers. They were living in a gymnasium tucked behind the port and a row of giant shipping containers, their lives quite literally overshadowed by the exports that would be sent from Colombia to the rest of the world. They had set up camp in the gym, put up drawings of their community along the San Juan river. They showed us the map of their territory and the different resources and waterways they protected by living there. The threats from paramilitary groups had made staying on the river too dangerous, but they were working hard at a strategy to return to their ancestral lands. It was startling to me to see how Colombia’s biggest port and all the riches moving through it operated over communities like those of the San Juan river and most of the city itself, who are still denied basic rights such as land, health care, and potable water.
I’ve stayed connected to FORPP because of the gratitude and admiration I feel for all of our partners. I learned so much more than I ever expected about human rights and environmental activism just by walking and talking with them. The challenges they face were not solved by the peace process, but their commitment to peace and sustainability has not wained. It is clear to me that their struggles to protect lands and their lives are also for my benefit, because we are all responsible for sharing the resources of this planet and protecting them for future generations. On Earth Day today, I am thinking of their sacrifices and what I can do to shoulder my share of the responsibility for our earth.
by Tom Power
When we arrived in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó for Christmas, former accompanier Emily and I didn’t really know what to expect. Neither of us had been there for some time, but we were excited that the Peace Community was going to have their Christmas celebration in the new “aldea” (small village), a 45 minute walk from La Unión.
The new “aldea” that the Peace Community has constructed is amazing. About a dozen families live in the newly constructed homes that overlook the Gulf of Urabá, building community through shared projects such as a flourishing garden. This “aldea” is named after Rigoberto Guzman, one of the Peace Community’s leaders who was killed in the massacre of 2000. He is one of many leaders whose bravery and commitment to the Peace Community motivates them to continue moving forward. I was inspired at their new space, and the way they have created rebirth amidst ongoing armed conflict.
Unfortunately, they need this continued resistance because the conflict in Urabá is far from over. While the FARC demobilized following the 2016 Peace Accords with the government, paramilitary groups continue to grow more powerful in San José. In the short time we were there, paramilitary groups issued death threats to the Peace Community and extorted butchers who live in the main village, just a half mile away from San Josecito- the biggest Peace Community settlement. Paramilitary groups are also charging a fee for each head of cattle owned by the residents of San José, making cattle ranching prohibitively expensive.
Of course, the Peace Community refuses to be extorted, putting them at even higher risk.
Furthermore, the 17th brigade has placed a writ for the protection of constitutional rights against the Peace Community. The 17th brigade alleges the Peace Community has damaged their “right to a good name” for saying the army is working with paramilitaries. After this alarming step taken by the 17th Brigade, various entities and organizations came out in support of the Peace Community, highlighting their right to denounce paramilitary activity and human rights violations in their region. Nonetheless, if this judicial process is successful, the Peace Community could lose their legal status in the country.
Despite these challenges, the Peace Community still celebrated Christmas, honoring how much they have accomplished. They are no strangers to these types of threats from armed actors and have over 20 years of experience resisting them. Grassroots movements such as the Peace Community are facing a difficult year, but they will not be intimidated.
We are grateful for completing our 16th year of protective presence in Colombia. In 2018, our team continued to provide physical and political accompaniment to human rights defenders, victims of the armed conflict, and conscientious objectors. In 2018, our protective accompaniment reached the regions of Urabá, with the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Valle de Cauca and the Pacific Coast of Cauca with CONPAZ and he Inerfaith Justice and Peace Commission, Cesar with Tierra Digna, and Cundinamarca with the Nilo community and ACOOC, the young conscientious objectors of Colombia.
You can find our complete 2018 Programaic Update by clicking the image below!
The following piece and pictures were originally published in Spanish by our Accompanier Dianna E Almanza.
When I see the sunrise,
I see how mother nature awakens around me,
As if time stood still,
As if this very precise moment that I am living, were to last for a long time,
In which I am caught in a moment of profound tranquility, completely consumed by the grand beauty that surrounds me.
The earth itself that I walk on emits a profound energy, which I can’t even begin to describe,
The energy evokes many emotions within me,
I feel an immense force, an innate connection between the earth, and the guardians of the earth.
I observe the way in which the community takes care of its earth, treating it with such delicacy,
This is the same delicacy I see shown in the looks, caresses and embraces between parents and their children.
Here, I began to understand, with my own flesh and blood, the true meaning of living a life in peace, without hatred.
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, (Antioquia), Colombia, is a collective of small scale farmers, founded in 1997 in order to resist in the midst of the armed conflict. The small scale farmers declared themselves neutral (they do not interact with any armed group), they practice nonviolence, they don´t allow any arms in their territory and they have to participate in collective working groups. In order to receive more information, in their own words (in Spanish), visit their homepage www.cdpsanjose.org or follow this link for an introduction to the Peace Community of San José the Apartadó on our homepage in English.
The following pictures represent a selection of the very beginning of a photographic memory, which, in my opinion is the most convincing representation of the incredible force, unity, beauty and above all, resilience of the community, from my perspective as International Observer and Accompanier.
 The whole collection can be found in the original publication.
During the last months we have been repeatedly alarmed about the dramatically increasing rates of threats and attacks against human rights defenders in Colombia. Since the start of 2018, over 100 Human Rights defenders have been killed. Seemingly, the situation has become even more violent, during and after the presidential elections, with the new president coming into office this week. 24 human rights leaders were killed just between the months of June and July, averaging almost one human rights defender per day. The number even spiked in the first week of July with nine Human Rights Leaders killed in only four days.
These developments have impacted our work on the ground. We have received a steady increase of general and emergency petitions to walk with and advocate for the safety of social activists and communities, who receive threats, or even attacks. During a visit to Colombia last week, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst expressed his concern about these increasing assassinations of Human Rights Defenders, and highlighted their crucial role in constructing peace in Colombia. Alberto Brunori, the Representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) in Colombia, also stressed that the situation for human rights defenders is very serious.
These human rights defenders are our hope for peace in Colombia! We would like to share at least a few lines about some of them, who do stand for many, knowing that their doings can never be resumed so shortly.