Saturday, March 30, 2013

The problem with miracles

“You have two choices.  You can sell it to me now, or I can buy it from your widow.”  This is the expression that campesinos use to describe the land acquisition strategy of the drug cartels and their corporate and political overlords that began in the early 1980s.  Over the years there have been bodies found floating down the rivers.  Sometimes the widows sold.   I am amazed that members of the Las Pavas community have remained in the face of this kind of threat.

There are significant changes in the Las Pavas situation since I last visited the community in February 2011.  The community moved back onto the land on April 4, 2011, defying the local court and three previous evictions.  Great. Mid-March 2013, the Colombian government confirmed its decision that the sale of the land to palm oil companies in 2007 was illegal therefore null and void. Fantastic.  But then, of the three leaders of the Las Pavas junta, one has fled and is in hiding with his wife, while the other two are now accompanied by government-paid armed guards and wear bullet proof vests when they travel.  What the heck??

Something we don’t learn in church is that miracles are a lot more complicated than they sound.  And how do you know when your miracle is finished?  Google “the miracle of Las Pavas”, and you’ll see what I mean.  In the spring of 2011, the community returns to the land they have been developing since 1994 and build a little community center with temporary shelters right next to the palm oil company supervisor’s house in the center of the property.  It was a dramatic action that gained international attention and affirmation.  The next year and a half saw a dozen or so small houses built and crops planted around and among the African palms.  Miles of barbed wire fence were put up to pasture community cattle.  

Since then, when armed guards from the palm oil company threatened, pointed firearms at people, and fired at their feet, the police would not come.  When the shelters people built on their individual parcels were all knocked down in September last year, the police would not come.  When fences were destroyed or, in some cases, the wire stolen, the police would not come.  When hundreds of banana, plantain, yucca and sugar cane plants nearing maturity were destroyed in February this year, the police finally agreed to come.

 This is not what I’m used to in the US.  I call the police, and I’d expect them in a few minutes.  A phone call doesn’t work here.  You are supposed to file a written complaint at the police station.  Maybe they’ll come.  Even so, without a helicopter, the closest police to Buenos Aires and Las Pavas are an hour and a half away by truck and from another county.  The county police that showed up for the inspection are a three-hour trip away in their “Johnson”, a big wooden canoe with outboard motor.  No road that direction.

        Two Las Pavas leaders far left, inspector on right

Again, this was the first time the police had come to check out the four official complaints filed in the 2 years since the return to the land.  CPT accompanied the inspection, along with lawyers from both sides and the plantation supervisor, a former paramilitary commander.  It began with a short meeting at the community center where the palm oil company lawyer went into a rant that resulted in him being restrained by a police sergeant.  This is the same guy who struck a CPTer who was filming last fall. Then we walked for two and a half hours recording crop and building destruction after which the inspector wrote out a concise report that was signed by the community lawyer and himself.  The other lawyer refused to sign.

The inspector said that it was clear that there had been acts committed that needed to be addressed and litigated.  Then he said he was really sorry because he didn’t have the power to act on any of those things, and suggested that the community try to get the report to a higher authority.  Someone is in control, but it isn’t this local official.

The Las Pavas community is jaded about the political corruption that denies access to basic police protection.  The same corruption that seems to stymie any attempt to provide basic infrastructure like water, sewers, garbage cleanup, or a road that doesn’t require four wheel drive.  But they carry on with an energy and commitment in the face of the threats. I’m sickened and angered by the corruption and abuse.  And my government’s relationship with Colombia looks and sounds to me like the disastrous relationships we formed in the 1980s in Central America.  Those atrocities were carried out in the name of defending ourselves from the threat of Communism, and now it is in the name of Free Trade.

 I’m frustrated knowing that those problems are not my job to address directly.  My role with CPT is to be present with the campesino so that his widow doesn’t have to sell the farm.  There are other amazing national and international groups working with us to address the larger issues.  To make your voice heard on the US relationship with Colombia, visit the Latin American Working Group, a fantastic advocacy group with offices in Washington, D. C.,  or to learn about human rights issues in Colombia in person, consider joining a 10 day Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation.

1 comment:

Stewart Vriesinga: said...

A VERY good article Phil. Thanks!