Friday, July 21, 2017

Hope in Las Pavas

I was sitting there minding my own breakfast when the family pet leaned up against my leg and then stretched out on the floor exhorting me to rub his belly.  He expressed himself with something between an oink and a soft grunt.  I don’t remember ever having rubbed a pig’s belly before, and I deeply regret not having a photo to share.  Sorry.

We had arrived in Buenos Aires the afternoon before, the little town next to the big finca called Las Pavas that has been the center of a land dispute since 2009.  I was once again at the home of Misael and Edith.  I wanted details on the news that six more families had decided to build houses on their parcelas outside of town.  This a tangible, hopeful shift based partly on the fact that 14 members of the paramilitary group that the palm oil company has been paying to threaten people, burn houses and destroy crops were arrested and jailed about a year ago.  Misael interrupted my question to tell me that the man who had previously held the position that we in the US might describe as “mayor of the county” had been arrested just the day before on charges of corruption.  He also told us that a person who had been very helpful in the regional resettlement of displaced persons had just been appointed to a leadership position at the national level.  It had been several years since I had heard good news related to Las Pavas.

Later that day we visited the fish project just outside of town that I had seen getting started last year and a new egg production project run by a group of women in the cooperative.  Four hundred eggs a day is a big deal out in the campo.  And after the celebration in Guayabo two weeks ago I was feeling more upbeat than I ever had here.

 The next day we headed out to visit the area where the small farms are located and where the six new homes were being built.  Just two days earlier, someone had burnt the all lumber that had just been delivered and stacked up on one of those sites. 

We stayed that night with Naudis and José who are staying in the community encampment built right next to the palm oil company house where the guards live.  It was the peaceful re-entry and construction of this encampment by the people who had been evicted several years earlier that won them Colombia’s national peace prize in 2013.  Families have been rotating living there ever since.   When Naudis agreed to move from her house to the encampment  a few months ago, she wanted to shift the message from the simple, “We are here,” to a more intentional statement of who they are, and who they want to be. 

Most of you reading this would have a hard time functioning in this kind of space with no running water or electricity, and it might be difficult for you to grasp the Naudis and her husband rigged up a gravity fed shower, a luxury here. No more bucket baths.  She was able to get support for two shelves full of books for a children’s library, the first children’s books I have ever seen in the campo.  They have plans for a kid’s soccer field, and a space where the farm kids can come to work together on their homework.  Her energy was so beautiful.

 Naudis, like so many of the women who host us, is a great cook.  In Colombia, the most breakfast come with “arepas”,  thick, fried tortillas made from corn flour.  There are lots of region variations.  In the photo she is making “roscónes” for us, which are a deep-fried pretzel-shaped version.  Roscónes and her homemade cheese made up supper that eveniing.

José guided us around the farms the following day, a four-hour walk in ninety-degree heat following muddy paths made by tractors, cows, horses, and boots.  There was also a shortcut through the woods where there were no paths at all just so we could watch men cutting perfectly proportioned boards, freehand with giant chainsaws.  They followed straight lines snapped with string soaked in old motor oil instead of chalk like I would have used.  It was a brilliant technique, as the oil was dark and straight as if a giant ball point pen had drawn the line, and the chainsaw couldn’t blow it away like it could my chalk.

 After we returned to the encampment Jose turned to me and asked, out of the blue, if I had voted for Trump.  I smiled and said no I had not.  He grinned and made a comment about Trump’s presidency looking a lot like a weekly comedy show.  Once again in Colombia I was confronted by a person who has no access to the internet or TV or radio in his home.  He gets news when he is in town every few days, yet he probably knew more about Trump’s son’s meeting with Russians in June last year than a large percentage of folks living in America.  These people continue wreak havoc on my old white-guy stereotypes of “the other”.

 I came away from Buenos Aires feeling more optimistic than I have ever felt about this particular community.  But just as in my last blog focused on Guayabo, it is not over, and it is not simple.   I hope the federal courts will finally get on with ruling in the three (I think) cases that are still pending regarding titles for the Las Pavas farmss.  Naudis, Jose, and their children deserve it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

El Guayabo

What am I doing in Colombia this time?

                                          Isabél and Salome

I’m starting with this photo just to get your attention.  I was staying in home of Isabél. Her cousin Salamé lives next door.  They both will turn 3 later this summer.  Isabél’s mom had given her an empty cooking oil bottle and Salome a plastic cup just a few minutes before.  They left, I assumed, to go outside and play, but it turned out they were running across the muddy street, past the calf, into the back yard of the house next door, past the sleeping pigs, through grandma’s back door, through her house, and into the little store that faces the street on the other side.  They returned with the bottle full of oil and a half cup of sour cream. When’s the last time you sent your two-year-old out shopping?

 It was the fourth time I had been in the tiny town of El Guayabo, this time to celebrate the cancelled eviction of several families from their small farms.  Isabél’s father Erik is one of the four primary community leaders.  The local judge had sent out a notice on June 29 that the police would be carrying out the evictions on July 5, despite the fact that 3 of the 4 the court cases involving the land title dispute were still in process.  To better understand the history of this particular situation, please check the articles I have linked at the end of this blog.


This community is being supported by several Colombian and international human rights organizations.  Christian Peacemaker Teams and a Swiss organization do direct accompaniment of threatened individuals like Erik.  Other organizations are working on the legal side.  A Colombian group called Justapaz that was born out of the Colombian Mennonite Church in 1995 and another group went to Bogota with 3 representatives of the community that same Friday June 30 and were able to get the ruling that set aside the eviction for now.  The way it worked out, getting that ruling delivered and acted upon didn’t actually happen till late afternoon on the 4th of July.  It was a very stressful weekend, watching and waiting as things unfolded.

In the end I was able to be present at the gathering of the community on the 5th that embraced this one important victory.  It is only one step, though.  One of the community leaders, Alvaro Garcia, has been in prison since April 24, 2016 and actually just had his first hearing of witness testimony on July 5.  Those testimonies were not finished, and the next hearing date is in September.  I got to visit Alvaro in prison the day after I arrived.  He is healthy but frustrated and deeply sad, as we all are, at the lack of accountability and slow pace of the justice system here.


Being part of this process is humbling, and I am deeply grateful for the support of friends and family who encourage me to keep making these trips.  This is my ninth consecutive year spending a month working in and traveling out of the team office in Barrancabermeja.   It is so hard to write these updates, because I have to choose what to leave out.  Just in Guayabo I want to tell you about last winter’s flood, the total lack of books, the doubt about the peace accords, the amazingly healthy children.  The list goes on and on.

There is nothing simplistic about life along the Magdalena River.  I encourage you to do an aerial map search to see the town of Guayabo.  If you use Googel Maps you’ll need to search first for Vijagual – Santander Colombia, then scroll north on the river a couple miles and El Guayabo will show up.  It feels like southern Louisiana along the Mississippi River in July, only hotter. 

The people of Guayabo are so grateful for our presence and how it allows them to keep focused on the work at hand.  We inspire each other.