Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Shades of Optimism

I was sitting on the back patio playing Scrabble with a couple of my Colombian colleagues. Yes, there is a Spanish version, and it’s humbling, very humbling. We play by the light of a single bare light bulb next to the laundry sink. It’s the same bulb used by Hector the tiny gecko as a hunting tool. Hector perches lightly, often upside down on the ceiling, next to the light waiting for nocturnal insects to be drawn just a little too close. That evening we were startled by the arrival of a big green katydid-like insect, which flew over our table and landed on the wall above the sink. Hector immediately went into high alert and scrambled down the wall to confront what he hoped would be his next meal. Ever the optimist, he was still eyeballing his prey and mulling strategies when I went to bed an hour later.

I last wrote about our work with the community of Buenos Aires seeking return to their farms on the Las Pavas land. When I am sitting in meetings with Misael and other community leaders I sense the same kind of determined optimism displayed by Hector the gecko. They are patient and focused. The community has been working on obtaining title to land since 1998. They have been evicted twice, first by hired paramilitaries in 2003, then again by riot police in 2009. The federal government threw out it’s own documents regarding the repossession process in 2010 for lack of a departmental signature. The courts have been sitting on the case for years. Last year when I visited the plantation, I witnessed rain forest being bulldozed and burned as creeks and swamps were being blocked or drained. This year I personally counted more than 100,000 small palms in the plantation nursery and saw an area of newly planted palm estimated to cover more than a 1,000 acres.


So, why the optimism? First of all, I have to say that I really think that these people are carried by their Christian faith in its deepest and best sense. Their members come from five different churches, four Protestant and one Catholic. They meet, they pray together, and then they get to work. Through their patience and tenacity they have learned from their mistakes and are making careful, well-considered decisions. They have learned how to work with multiple allies outside the community on both the national and international level.

In returning this year, I had the feeling that the process is finally moving to some kind of resolution. Several factors offer hope to the community. With a new federal administration in place in Colombia, new leadership has been named in the departments overseeing the Las Pavas dispute. The INCODER office which declared its land title process dead last year has re-opened the case, and is reconsidering it along with another office from the Ministry of Agriculture. There is a new top judge in the federal system who is viewed as more likely to require timely action in cases such as Las Pavas.


The community itself has been preparing very carefully for a non-violent re-entry into the property. (Think long-term lunch counter action or bus action √° la the 1960’s Civil Rights movement in the US.) They have not named a date, but they have been getting national and international attention via radio and newspaper interviews. I was involved in planning and implementation of visits to six embassies in Bogot√° last week, including the US, France, and Britain to raise international consciousness. All this appears to be making the Colombian government nervous and anxious to find a resolution.

Moreover, the palm oil companies involved in the conflict have had a couple of awkward moments recently. On Friday, February 18, a day after my colleagues and I left the community following a nonviolence training, two civilians and eight armed men dressed in police uniforms entered the community asserting they had an arrest order for one of the community leaders. That person was luckily out of town. All the men were unknown except for one civilian, Mario Marmol, a former paramilitary leader who has been harassing community members in the recent past. No identification was presented. Neither was a warrant. In the following days it was confirmed that there had been no warrant issued, and that the paramilitary leader now works for one of the palm oil companies. Then on February 19 the national press announced a federal corruption scandal related to hundreds of thousand of dollars in rural development money targeted at small farmers. The money had instead been received by twenty-two government officials and agribusiness owners, several of whom belonged to the family owning Daabon Organic, including the patriarch and president of the company. Though not directly related to the Las Pavas dispute, it will be tough for Daabon to continue its pleas of ignorance and innocence.

The Las Pavas families see their struggle for land rights as bigger than their own particular dispute. If there is a ruling in their favor it would likely constitute a powerful precedent regarding land reform and tenure in Colombia. My hope is that our own state department will pay closer attention to Colombia’s inability to implement its own policies and meet its stated goals for helping its internally displaced refugees. We have been sending millions of dollars a year to Colombia based on dubious evidence that they are making a good faith effort and progress in those areas. I am finally beginning to feel optimistic myself.