Breaking the forest

Jungles, war, and the leaders of a corner of the Colombian Amazon

08/03/2018 D-Day +462


Remolinos del Chairá


Cartagena del Chairá




I am a peasant, a peasant from my head to my toes. I was born in a county called Asturias, over there by Tolima.

When we came here to Caquetá, I was 17 years old. That was in 1979. A year before, one of my grandfathers had come. The government gave him 400 pesos, which back then was a lot of money, a machete, an axe, and a, “Go there and break the forest.”

Today, I am 55. I am, in other words, one more Caqueteño.

The farm in Tolima was a small one. My father had two coffee hectares there. When the two major coffee diseases appeared –coffee rust and the coffee berry borer—the family economy started struggling, and we were forced to relocate. We came with our haul and we bought a farm. I grew up here.

With time, I moved to Florencia. Over there, thanks to my skills, I was a councilman in Paujil for two straight periods. But, at the time, the paramilitaries started harassing me and I had to leave and hide in Bogotá. I spent ten years that way.

This was in the 90s. Drug trafficking was at its peak in Colombia. Escobar, the Cali Cartel, the Medellín Cartel. There was a lot of money in Colombia. But then it was over and the company I was working for had financial troubles. My family, which was still in Caquetá, told me:

-Come back to Remolino del Caguán. There is work here.


I didn’t think about it twice. I returned.


In Remolino, right in front of where I was working, there lived a widow. That’s how we started. I’ve been living with her for twelve years now. She is my wife. When we first started seeing each other, she used to own a small shop. We added stock and made it bigger and, today, that’s how we make a living.

To get to Remolino, where I live, you must travel at least four hours in a speed boat from Cartagena del Chairá. It takes so long because of the bends of the Caguán River. You can also get to the territory in what we call a Boat Line, a big canoe that carries loads and passengers. On the way there, you’ll spend a whole day. You leave at 6 a.m. and you are arriving to Cartagena del Chairá at around 4 or 5 p.m. The time depends on how flooded the river is. The more water, the faster you get there. That’s our means of transportation, there is nothing else. We are working to clear a patch, a patch for a road, but we are missing stones, and there’s no ballast here. You only find a ballast over there, by the mountain range, in private mines. That’s why everyone still travels on the river: people, merchandise –everything moves through the Caguán River.

Since we came here, since my grandfather and the other settlers started breaking the forest, the economy, until maybe ten or twelve years ago, depended on coca, on coca paste. There was an advantage to that: the coca was bought right there. Therefore, any child could carry a kilo of coca under his arm and be confident about receiving his pay.

With the aerial spraying * that razed pastures and everything else, however, communities started realizing that coca wasn’t an alternative, and they started moving towards cattle breeding. But, to be honest, we never considered carefully the matter of deforestation.

Between 2004 and 2005, aerial aspersions with glyphosate over Caquetá caused coca crops to move towards other departments such as Nariño, Putumayo, and Norte de Santander.

Institutions say that one of the main causes of deforestation are illicit crops. We say that it isn’t so, because a family with two hectares of coca can leave comfortably. In the meantime, they will starve if they have two hectares of pastures for cattle breeding. That’s the problem. There is also no technical knowledge. Given that, how will the peasant raise his cattle? Well, by cutting down the forests. He’ll raise it completely, and, most of the times, he won’t take into account the water sources.


He cuts down, burns, waters the grass, and, three or four months later, he is ready to release the cattle. Often, he doesn’t even have to set up a fence, because there’s jungle all around. It’s a practical and profitable way to raise cattle. But it’s a problem because people realized that they only had to cut down the forest, the norms of the community notwithstanding. We have something that’s called a Community Handbook, where there’s a rule for absolutely everything: for social, economic, and environmental issues. There is a normativity for all aspects and that applies for all of Cartagena del Chairá, with the exception of the urban area.

People said that the guerrillas came up with those norms, but it turns out it wasn’t like that. It was us. And the norms were applied according to the Constitution, to laws.

In that handbook, in the environmental section, there is a rule that says that for every creek, if it’s a small one, you must leave ten meters of forest on each side. If it’s a larger creek, then twenty meters. If it’s a small river, fifty. And if it’s a river like the Caguán, a huge river, then 100 hundred meters on each side. But people didn’t follow the rule and they razed with all the vegetation. Cattle breeding became almost like a monoculture*. That’s the only profitable activity. Because if you sow, let’s say, plantains, there is no way to get it out. Which road can you take it out in? And the river is too expensive. From here, they’ll charge us 300 pesos per kilo of produce. It doesn’t add up.

According to the Forests and Carbon Monitoring System for Colombia of IDEAM, in the first trimester of 2017, the department of Caquetá, in the Amazon, had the largest number of early alerts for deforestation in the country. Cartagena del Chairá, the municipality where Remolino del Caguán is located, is the second municipality with the highest number of alerts.

In social organizations, we know that what we call up here las derribas, which is cutting down patches of forest, is done in the last two and in the first two months of the year. So what we did was issue an early alert. We warned that, since the guerrilla had left, there was going to be a massive invasion of untitled lands and large patches of forests would be cut down. And that’s exactly how it happened.
The guerrilla * would stop that behavior. But with the peace agreements, institutions have been incapable of organizing this. Things have become more complicated, therefore.

Caquetá was the epicenter of a war between the Colombian government and FARC. The guerrillas established themselves in the region during the peace process with former president Andrés Pastrana. Since then, the territory was largely controlled by FARC, who exercised their authority by regulating the environment and agricultural limits in the region.

With the agreements, there will also be a rural reform. Supposedly, this means that there will be a redistribution of lands for those who have nothing, or who barely have anything. So we wonder, what’s going to happen to those farms that are 200 or 300 hectares and are mostly made up of forest and jungle? Today, people who have 400 hectares know that, since only 67 of those will be titled, they better sell at least half of what is mostly forest. But the people who will buy lands won’t stop to think before razing all that to the ground, practically at once. That’s how the forest is slowly dying.*

The first point in the peace agreements signed between the Colombian government and FARC-EP is the integral rural reform, which proposes the adjudication of lands, and the formalization of properties and tools to increase the productivity of rural areas. The challenges posed by the rural reform have been and still are complex for the Colombian government. Currently, the legislation that is supposed to regulate the reform is still being debated in Congress. Several groups fear that the reform may benefit big landholders and go over conflict victims’ rights and forcefully displaced ethnic communities.




It’s no secret that this was a region where order and everything else came from the guerrilla. But that doesn’t mean that we live with a gun to our heads. It wasn’t like that. For us, the guerrilla was much better than the Army because, in my case, for example, the Army was the one that sent me to jail. I ended up spending six years in jail for supposedly being a guerrilla fighter.

As de facto mayors, the guerrilla didn’t talk to everyone. They talked to the leaders. Therefore, everyone who was in charge of one of the organizations had to deal a lot with them, for good or ill.

During Uribe’s government, when the Patriot Plan * went into effect, the Army came here and started looking at every inhabitant of Cartagena del Chairá as if we two crossed rifles in our foreheads, as if we had a tattoo of FARC’s symbol –that’s how they looked at us. For them, we were all guerrillas, each and every one of us.

The Patriot Plan was a huge military offensive that started in 2003 in Meta, Caquetá, and Putumayo. The purpose of this offensive was to recover territories that were considered a part of FARC-EP’s rearguard. During its implementation, there were “excesses” carried out by the Army and the Police. There were also clear violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

That we, both the leaders and the rest of the people talked to the guerrillas? Of course! We’ve never denied that. That we met with them? Of course! What other option did we have? Could we refuse? No, we couldn’t. The Army never understood that. Furthermore, back then, high up in the spheres of State, the military was asked for results, and they had to get those results no matter the cost.

To round up the picture, back then, Carlos Castaño, of the AUC*, said this is an interview


–From Cartagena del Chairá and further down, not even the priest can be saved.

United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC, for its Spanish initials, were an extreme-right paramilitary organization. In 1996, Carlos Castaño, the leader of the organization, gave several interviews without showing his face. In 2000, he gave a series of television interviews in which he finally showed his face.

And that’s how it went. It turned out that the priest Giacinto Franzoi *, who was an apostle for us in Remolino, had an arrest warrant. He was lucky because when they came down to capture him, he wasn’t around. Otherwise, they would have taken him, as they did with me.

Franzoi, an Italian priest, arrived in Caquetá in 1978. In 1988, he became the priest of Remolino del Caguán. Among other things, he is rememberd for leading the Chocaguán project, an Amazon cacao production business for peasants. He led Chocaguán at a time when coca was the only crop being sown in the area. The project won the National Peace Price in 2004. Franzoi was accused of handing over money to FARC and of safekeeping the guerrilla’s weapons in the church. In June 2008, the Attorney General’s Office cleared him of the investigation, and he returned to Italy.

In those days, I had three posts in the community: I was the nucleus coordinator; I was the vice president of the Community Board from the Remolino; I was the representative of the pro-road group for all the second nucleus; I was a candidate for the Council, even though I never had the chance to win because there weren’t any collections –the Army said that the conditions over there didn’t warrant setting up voting tables. And apart from that, I was also the president of the Parents Association at the school. That’s what I was doing until one day the Army arrived and threw a bunch of us in jail.

Now, that is difficult. It’s difficult not being able to look at the sky, being locked up inside four walls day after day. There, I dedicated myself to reading. I managed to read 174 books in jail. I am high school graduate, nothing more, but what I read inside has been very useful.

We were caught in Remolino del Caguán, and from there we were transported in a helicopter to Peñas Coloradas. From there, we were sent to the base in Tres Esquinas, by the Caquetá River, in another helicopter. From there, we were sent in a plane to Bogotá, where they took us to Paloquemao. We spent 53 days there, and then we were brought back to Florencia in a plane. We spent most of our sentence in Florencia. Then they took is to the hearing at la Picota prison. We were very scared of ending up in the big prisons. People told us that those places were worse than hell. That’s why we tried to search for some place close to our families, and that place was Florencia. Nevertheless, we were forced to go the hearing, which was in Bogotá. In the end, everything was in Bogotá, and we spent three months at la Picota.

One of the main felonies the 22 of us were accused of was being figureheads or strawmen for the guerrillas.


–From whence do you derive your livelihood?


That was the question they asked us. In those precise words, that’s how the judge asked us. Most of the people with me didn’t understand that question. They looked at me:

–That, how do you make a living? I said.

And they all replied:

–I have a small farm.

–How big is that farm?

–Around 150 hectares.

–About 300.

–Mine is 200.

–My farm is 500, nearly 600 hectares.

–And you still dare to deny that you are strawmen?” the judge asked.

Sure, that’s a lot of land. The big problem is that they compare that with the farms in the Sabana or places outside the country.

–Madam Judge, can I please try to explain this matter a bit?

–Go ahead, Don Rafa, explain to me how it is that you are not strawmen.

I told her.

-It’s very easy. The thing is, we live in a region where land has no value.

I am talking about 2008, when a hectare of pasture or mountain was worth 300,000 pesos. Therefore, buying a 300-hectare farm wasn’t that difficult. It’s very different from the country’s interior, where a single hectare might cost 300 million pesos. No, that’s not the way it was here.
I even told her:

–Look, Madam Judge, if you want to move there, if you want to work a farm even, there are lands with no titles where you can have a 1.000-square-meter farm, or whatever you can find and claim as your own, because there are no titles there. So it’s not that we are strawmen. He can have a 500-hectare farm because his farm is not worth 300 million pesos. That’s not it’s worth.

After all that, the judge realized that the land wasn’t worth much, either for us or for the State itself.

The other charge I was accused of was rebellion. There were people who came from there, from Remolino, who claimed they were guerrillas, so now they were accusing us of also being guerrillas. We were only allowed to confront two of them in the hearing. And, of course, as soon as we started asking them questions they had to say no, that everything they had said was a lie. For example, one of the things they had accused me of was forcing people to vote in Remolino. I, therefore, asked the man who had made that accusation the following question:

–When was the last time there was voting in Remolino?


He started thinking and then answered:


–That was in 2001.


–So, I said: How the hell was I going to force or prevent people from voting if I didn’t live in Remolino? Because I returned to Caquetá in 2003 and I have a load of witnesses that can attest to that.

There were many contradictions. You could tell that starting from the capture it was all a plain and simple set-up. I remember a woman, who lived tight in front of me. They arrived at her place and in the midst of the desperation of hearing that she was going to be detained, her husband said that he would assume all the charges that they had against her. The district attorney in charge of the capture said:

–Perfect, if it’s like that, there’s no problem.

He grabbed the warrant, tore into four pieces, threw it in the trash bin, and wrote it again with her husband as the accused. That’s how it was. They only had to deliver results. It didn’t matter who it was.

With our capture, the clashes between the civilian population and the Army became even stronger. People started demanding things of the Army. They started looking at them as enemies because soldiers had began taking away a lot of innocent people *. Of the 39 men and women who were captured with me, only six of us were imprisoned, and that was because they had to legalize something, because it was the special justice that caught us, and they couldn’t just release us like that. They knew that if they didn’t sentence some of is, they were going to be in deep shit. It was so much so, that the two Army corporals who oversaw the intelligence gathering were sentenced to eleven and nine years for those set-ups. And the district attorney who led the raid, in Remolino, is in prison in the United States for illicit enrichment.

There were many complaints from the civilian population when the controversial Patriot Plan was implemented. There were reports of arbitrary detentions, disappearances, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, verbal assault, extrajudicial executions, systemic criminalization, and harassment of leaders and inhabitants of the areas were the plan was implemented.

That environment of war faded perhaps three years ago. That feeling of unease stayed with us until the peace agreements.



When that happened, the guerrilla laid down their weapons, and they’re plain and simply gone. In other words, institutions can come, you can move freely in Colombia. We needed institutions to acknowledge the conditions we have over there, so we could soon ask for what we have a right to, so our needs could be highlighted. And they are many.

But the truth is that State is not the same as those institutions. In reality, we are all the State. That’s how it is in paper, but in practice that’s not how it works. The State are those who are sitting in power, simply making and ordering laws. But we should all have the right to opine and express our ideas without any problems. But nowadays, despite the negotiations, despite the peace agreements, if I leave my town and say that I am a communist, things won’t go well for me.

Even though they sent me to prison for supposedly being a member of the guerrilla, I never thought of joining them. Never. I am from the left, I won’t deny that, and I’ve been a communist for many years now. In my mind, I am clear on the picture.
Apart from selling, I do social work as a leader. People call me president, but we call my position, Coordinator of the Community Nucleus, which, in my case, includes 20 counties from that area, from the area of Remolino del Caguán.