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This article was written by FORPP accompaniers Tom Power and Sophie Duval.
On November 30th Maresz and Sophie of the FOR Peace Presence team arrived in El Tamarindo to find that the inhabitants of the plot “El Mirador” had received what turned out to be a final eviction notice. The inhabitants, farmers of Asotracampo (Asociaciones de los Trabajadores del Campo, Association of Land Workers), have been fighting for their land rights for more than eight years. In words they exchanged with the FORPP team, their surprise was mixed with a certain level of despair, not only at the notice of eviction but also with what they lived with over the last few years.
The land of El Tamarindo, located on the outskirts of Barranquilla, has been occupied since the early 2000s by campesinos (small-scale farmers) and victims of the armed conflict. Displaced from their homes in a time characterized by a rise in paramilitary violence throughout Colombia, they came from Magdalena, Urabá, Bolívar, and Cesar. They found refuge in El Tamarindo, whose land was fertile for growing crops and the retaking of their campesino lifestyle.
A community member said, “I thought I had found peace at last in El Tamarindo, after having been displaced so many times by the armed conflict, first in Chocó, then again in Antioquian Urabá, in the banana plantation zone.”
Unfortunately, their peace wouldn’t last. In 2007 DIAN (The National Tax and Customs Department) created a Free Trade Zone in Galapá which included the four plots of El Tamarindo: El Mirador, Granja Catalina, Campo Natacha, and Beitjala. Furthermore, the construction of an extension of the “Ruta del Sol” was announced, a highway which would go through El Tamarindo to link the ports of Barranquilla and Cartagena. The price of the land shot up and out of nowhere appeared owners.
The community of El Tamarindo has always said they’ve occupied these 120 hectares in good faith. They were using this land because they thought it was non-cultivated and government owned (tierra baldía). But the politically connected and economically influential owners rejected this, and used the courts to evict the campesinos who they considered “invaders.”
To continue claiming their right to the land and to counter pressure from the presumed owners, more than 120 families of El Tamarindo created Asotracampo. Membership included vulnerable campesinos, 80% of whom were victims of Colombia’s armed conflict.
Nevertheless, orders to vacate soon arrived. In total, the community faced 44 police orders of eviction, of which the last ones were finally executed. At the end of 2012 the first plot, Granja Catalina, was evicted followed by Beitlaja and Campo Natacha. The eviction of the two latter plots took place without any judicial order, and the ESMAD (Colombian riot police) used excessive force. A farmer displaced from Campo Natacha remembers, “Without warning the ESMAD came all at once and kicked us out… destroying our crops… killing our animals… demolishing our homes.”
After such traumatic events, some inhabitants of El Tamarindo went to live in Barranquilla, and others left the area. Some, however, stayed and continued resisting. After each successive displacement, those living in the other lots welcomed their former neighbors into their homes. In the final lot of El Mirador, as many as four families shared 2 hectares for housing and food cultivation.
In addition to evictions, neo-paramilitary groups such as “Rastrojos” and “Black Eagles (Aguilas Negras)” have sent death threats to members of Asotracampo. The then legal representative of Asotracampo even received protection measures from the National Protection Unit. What’s more, the presumed owners hired a private security company who, contracted to guard the lots already evicted, also destroyed crops without authorization and intimidated members of the community.
Worse, on April 12, 2013 the son of the vice-president of Asotracampo was killed by gunshot wound to the head in his home in El Mirador. According to the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Interchurch Commission of Justice and Peace) it was related to land reclamation and the neo-paramilitary presence. The System of Early Alerts of the Ombudsman’s Office published a report in July 2013 recommending that “authorities adopt measures to effectively protect the life and integrity of the leaders of this process.”
To prevent and report armed actors entering the lots, Asotracampo declared El Mirador a humanitarian space in April 2014. On November 30th of that year a community member reflected with despair upon those years of pacifist struggle in El Tamarindo, “They displaced me from the mining corridor in Cesar, and I came to El Tamarindo to remake my life. But it’s become a living hell every day thinking that we have to be displaced again. It seems our dreams here have come to an end. It seems our struggle against the elite of Barranquilla is finished.”
The eviction announced for the 4th of December 2015 was cancelled and rescheduled two more times, sending the community gyrating from hope to fear and back again. But on December 9th, the eviction finally went through. From a tent the community had put up two days before to monitor the arrival of the police and to show their determination to continue fighting, the inhabitants of El Tamarindo, their accompaniers, and an official from the UN High Office of Human Rights could do nothing more than watch as trucks full of Police and ESMAD entered the plot. They came to assure the eviction proceedings, and were accompanied by the Police Inspection, officials from the mayor’s office, the Office of the Ombudsman, municipal attorneys, UARIV, and representatives of the company Inversiones Agropecuarias S.A., those claiming the lands of El Mirador.
Inversiones Agropecuarias S.A went house to house negotiating the exit of the inhabitants of El Mirador. While there was no physical violence, extremely important given earlier evictions of El Tamarindo, the symbolic violence was stronger than ever.
A community member said, “I’m a traditional campesino, I don’t know how to work in the city. Why are they kicking us off the land, why is this government like this? We’re not going to eat cement- we don’t know how to work in the city. We do know how to work the land. We do know how to plant yuca. We do know how to grow corn, how to raise animals, how to raise everything. We can’t anymore, you’re not going to beat us anymore, Mr. Government.”
Someone was heard screaming, demanding that they be able to remove things from their homes before youth from adjacent neighborhoods, contracted by Inversiones Agropecuarias S.A., destroyed their houses. Other people begged the company’s lawyer to give them time to find somewhere for their families and a place to put their animals.
The eviction continued on the following day, December 10th, the international day of human rights- an incredible symbol for a country aiming to construct peace. One campesina said, “Why are they even making peace? What is peace if they don’t give us space to live, space to work, if we have nothing to eat?”
Over those two days, 11 houses were destroyed while another 30 families received an extension until December 18th. On the 18th, The Constitution Court issued protective measures for the community, ordering “the Mayor of Barranquilla and the City Police Inspection that, before the execution of the eviction can take place, the occupying families of the plot “El Mirador” must be provided temporary rent with dignified conditions”, which gave the community a glimmer of hope. In spite of this ruling, the final eviction took place on December 23rd. The house of the company’s guards at the entrance of El Tamarindo is the only remaining memory of the campesinos’ struggle.
On the day of the final eviction, members of El Tamarindo received either a sum of money, one hectare of land, or 2 months’ rent in Barranquilla. Most who received money or rent are now scattered throughout the city of Barranquilla.
The nine families who received land now live in makeshift housing of tarp, wire and wood with six other families on the outskirts of Luruaco, a municipality closer to Cartagena than Barranquilla. As their crops were destroyed in the eviction, the community is relying on humanitarian aid from the Presbyterian Church which delivered 2-3 months’ worth of food on December 30th.
Furthermore, the ground is so dried out they can’t grow crops. “In El Tamarindo we had plantain, yuca, everything,” said one member of Asotrocampo, gazing over tall, burnt-out grass. “What can we grow here? Nothing.”
These are the conditions under which victims of Colombia’s armed conflict and victims of the other evictions of El Tamarindo now live. Victims who had been working towards a collective resettlement to somewhere they could live with dignity.
There had been hope on the past October 14 when they signed an agreement to be resettled on 30 hectares, which the UARIV, the mayor’s office of Barranquilla, and the company Inversiones Agropecuarias S.A had facilitated. While these were not totally acceptable terms for Asotracampo, because this proposal only recognized 24 of the 79 families, it was at least a starting point for negotiation. All left that meeting with the hope that eviction from El Tamarindo had been avoided.
Despite this agreement, a judge gave the eviction order of El Mirador. Under emergency conditions community members met with the company, hoping to avoid the eviction altogether. However they reached an agreement which only gave them 15 days to leave, and which only some community members accepted. Nevertheless, it seems that the terms of this agreement are the ones the eviction on the 23rd were based on.
The Colombian state hasn’t fulfilled its responsibility for resettling vulnerable campesinos and victims of the armed conflict The UARIV told FORPP during the eviction on the 9th and 10th,that, because Asotracampo was negotiating directly with the company, the UARIV was no longer responsible. And the mayor’s office of Barranquilla, responsible for the earlier evictions, is not fulfilling its responsibility for the well-being of its citizens- especially those living in vulnerable conditions.
Although the people of Asotracampo are tired, their struggle continues. As the report from Amnesty International about the Law of Victims and Land Restitution says, which took El Tamarindo as an emblematic case, “the process of land restitution must give the families of El Tamarindo the certainty that never again will they have to be forced from their lands, that they can live with dignity and have their fundamental rights respected.” A long road yet for Asotracampo and the campesinos of Colombia…