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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.*
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
–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.
–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.
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.
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.