Memories of a landless worker

29/01/2018 D-Day +424


Caño Indio




Norte de Santander

My name is Oscar. I come from a small town called Gramalote, from a humble, working family. I came here, to Catatumbo, to Caño Indio, a long, long time ago to work. That was before there was coca. Back then, people razed down the forests and worked with sesame and lumber, but that wasn’t enough, and when the coca arrived many of the bosses went with it.

I am not a boss, I am a laborer, and as a laborer you’re on your boss’ side –you want him to do well so that the laborer can at least have a job. With the coca plants, it was much easier for us laborers to earn a little wage, and with less killing. Let’s not say that that changed the lives of us laborers, no, but it was relief, because you could earn some money.

Now I am lumberjack. What happened led me to this situation, but I wish I didn’t have to cut down trees because I know how harmful that is. And, besides, it doesn’t pay enough, selling lumber from here and there doesn’t pay enough. Because you have to give money on the way to certain people… because there’s nothing legal here, there’s nothing, there’s no way to get a permit, a certificate to sell that timber.

All of this here were pure mountains and pure roads. We had to carry on foot the panelita and the salt, from over there, from Vetas, from Mirador. We moved the timber through the creeks. We would collect it on the closest point near the road. When coca plants arrived, we started moving everything on mules: fuel, fertilizer, groceries. Here, this plant has been like a mother to us all. Let’s not say that we became rich with it, no, neither us, nor the boss, but at least we had a stable job. No one became a millionaire here –that’s a vile lie. What is true is that the plant created a lot of jobs: there were exterminators, mule drivers, cambucheros, raspachines, jabonadores. And the same thing goes for commerce. There was a lot of work going around. And if you, for instance, ran out of groceries, you could go to Vetas or Tibú and anyone would sell you groceries on credit, and then your problem would be solved. Today, they won’t sell on credit panela in Tibú, or a kilo of rice in Vetas or anywhere else, because, of course, how they can sell you something on credit when they know that you have nothing and that you are depending on receiving some small change from the government.

You didn’t get involved in the buying and selling of the plants. You barely made it this way, scraping the leaves off the plant. The one who makes money with it is someone else. There was only one asshole who came here, one of those men with money, and he would put everyone to work. He would then pick up everything and leave. We, well, we would get paid some pittance and we would be happy with it. That’s how we would make a living: working.

I am 55 years old and I’ve seen a lot of things. I saw, for example, Plan Colombia 1, promoted by Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Back then, they would tell us that they were going to finish poor people, end poverty. And it turns out that, indeed, they almost ended us, though with bullets, for they arrived here to massacre and torture. Whether you liked it or not, you were forced to flee, especially in this county because it was said that here even chickens were guerrilla sympathizers. Yes, in those times, the guerrilla did pass though the village, but that doesn’t mean that it was village of guerrillas.

I was one of the persons that was forcefully displaced during that time. And never ever did I eat a kilo of rice from the government while I was displaced because, when you were going to fill out a form saying that you had been forcefully displaced, they would ask for your personal information and, sometimes, they would go to your house and take you out and murder you. Due to that fear, I don’t have a card certifying that I was displaced.

All of that took place when the paras 2 came around, when FARC also moved in the vicinity. But I was calm, because I didn’t owe anything. I worked with an evangelical family, and they would say [that] on the word of God and the Lord that nothing would happen to us. They weren’t going to leave, even though everyone else was leaving, and they told me to stay. That was in the place where FARC have their camp nowadays, that is, where they have their little huts. One day, I was picking up some materials: fuel, oil, diesel, and cement. I made one trip, and, when I was coming for the second one, there were already two paras in the house and two in the kitchen. When I saw them, I turned to go, but they saw me and followed me up the mountain. They chased me with a dog they had, but I managed to escape and avoid capture. Right away, I started hearing shots and the cries of the other people, of the evangelicals. The paramilitaries killed them, they massacred them there. I hid and slept in the mountain, and walked and walked until I reached Cúcuta.

Those were terrible times. When you go through things like the ones that took place here, that’s when you truly know fear and terror.

With time, I returned because things were fine again, with their demobilization 3. Now, with the peace process, they are a bit better. And, right there, where they have the normalization zone (for former FARC combatants), that’s the place I was forcefully displaced from. Today, I am happy to see there are some small houses, that some people are living there. And now even my son can walk around with me. He goes there and plays soccer here. He socializes, mingles. I tell my story to the others, and I tell him: “Look, son, here’s the place I was forcefully displaced from. Look at how it is nowadays, the change. Can you see?” This, then, is happiness, for not everything is lost. The weapons have shut their pie holes a bit and things have cooled down –the running, the anxiousness.

With peace came the issue of digging out the coca plants 4. Because, if the plants were a factor disturbing peace, then we had to eradicate them. People are betting everything on that. But peace can’t come by itself. It must come with something, with at least some bread under its arm for us. Because here, right now, there is no work, and there are a lot of expectations. As a laborer, you practically feel modernly displaced. Without coca plants, we don’t have any work.

They said that with the substitution (of the coca crops) the laborers would receive a million pesos every month, as an aid, because you could see it coming: we were going to be jobless. And the skilled field worker would supposedly have a job, progress, receive some land, but, at the rate we’re going, I haven’t received a single peso, so we are starting to worry.

The ones who have received payments are the bosses. But they are receiving the money they would have used to eat, to pay their groceries, and that is not enough for them to be able to pay laborers. And, the thing is, that by receiving those pesos Caño Indio hasn’t thrived, or the bosses of Caño Indio have become rich. No, here, all of them must start from scratch because, and I must repeat myself, there is nothing here. This is practically a desert. The only thing we had here was that plant.

Nowadays, people here are committed to digging out, to eradicating the plant. People have set their hearts on it. Thing is, here, as they say, they’ve buried their mothers. Because throwing away what gives you your daily food is both tough and risky. Especially, since they changed it for something written in a document, something that’s hasn’t materialized yet. 5

Where before there were plants, today laborers grow fields or subsistence crops. To do that, they need to cut down the forests because wherever the coca was dug out no plants will grow, no, except grass, maybe. And, besides, there are the other barren lands. The State is responsible for those –when they sprayed with glyphosate to kill the plants, they turn those places into deserts. Before, you could sow sesame and rice with a lever or a knife. Now, you can’t. You can’t do that; the land won’t take it. So, nowadays, the forests in the mountains are being cut down to sow new crops. As a lumberjack, that’s what I do for work.

I am socolando, which means that I am in charge of cutting down the forest in the mountain so that other laborers can set it on fire. You can then sow there 6. Right now, my son is the one cutting down the trees. But then, the tree we have to cut, we take it and protect it from the fire, and find a way to sell it. Because once you start lumbering, there’s all this timber. My idea is to prevent it from being lost. Maybe burn it to make sellable charcoal, or perhaps sell the timber as it is. Because that way you can end up with something to at least help yourself. It won’t solve your life, but it can help. Perhaps, God willing, some organism, ICA or Corponor 7 could help us with a temporary permit to commercialize that timber. Because if I take and I’m caught transporting it, I’ll go to jail. As if that was stole, as if it were illegal. And it isn’t. It’s a job, my job.

Now, I work here, and I’m going to have to wait around three months to see the approximately 500,000 pesos I’ll get from the timber. The man who buys the wood takes it on credit. When he gets paid, then he comes and paus me. I am aware that he is working with my money, that he is working with my work and I am left with nothing. So that’s the anxiety and the insecurity that comes from lack of work, from how hard it is.

Everyone here in Caño Indio has his story. Today, what is worrying, is the youth’s future. What will they seize in order to live? Because there’s nothing. There’s no work, there are no projects to talk about that could offer them an opportunity. I, for instance, have my own idea, my own project growing in my head, because there’s no one to carry it out. My idea is an industrial farm run solely by laborers. In that farm, students would spend at least three hours a week learning about plants and animals so that, eventually, maybe there’d be an agricultural engineer here. From that same industrial farm, we would get all the seeds, all the plants and animals, for the rest of the counties, and that would generate employment, and we wouldn’t have to go somewhere else to find seeds.

Now that we signed the agreements –because I also signed as a laborer, as a coca scraper—we made a commitment not to get involved in any illegal dealings. Not coca, or anything else. But I say, if laborers don’t receive any kind of help, we’ll be future coca planters. Logically, we’ll serve whatever the law says –50, 100 years in prison, life imprisonment. But when you are in need, what won’t you risk?

The laborer works for everyone. He works for the boss, he works for the government, he works for the armed groups, he works for the kingpin… The laborer is the one who has nothing. No land, nothing. The laborer is the one everyone squeezes. The laborer has no opportunities. The laborer has nothing.

Since I am 55, it’s the same for me. I already gave what I had to give. I am not as strong as I used to be. If, at this age, you must resign yourself to dying a laborer, well, there’s nothing to do. But it shouldn’t be this way. Because when you have ideas and some help, you can progress. But this place has been terribly forgotten.

As a Colombian, I don’t know, I have never ever received anything. No one has given me anything, not even an opportunity. Here, in Caño Indio, they finally fixed the extension lines, but there’s no electricity, no water, no good schools. When will all that arrive? Will it get here for my children? For my grandchildren? When?



1 Plan Colombiais the name of the technical and military assistance program developed by the United States for Colombia with the purpose of ending drug trafficking, strengthening the justice systems and democratic institutions, and defeating the guerrillas. The controversial plan included aerial spraying with glyphosate over fields and Colombian farmers, and the strengthening of the Colombian State’s war apparatus. According to some, during its 15-year implementation, Colombia became a viable state. According to others, the consequences in terms of human rights violations, environmental damages, and fragmentation of the drug cartels were disgraceful. Aditionally, the number of people forcefully displaced by paramilitary groups, the Armed Forces, guerrillas, and the aerial spraying rose dramatically.


2 The term “Paras or paramilitaries” refers to illegal right-wing armed structures that were formed in Colombia as a counterinsurgency strategy. These structures evolved into criminal organizations that served the interests of individuals seeking to accumulate lands, expand their political, social, and economic power, or further develop their drug trafficking businesses. According to the National Center for Historical Memory, in the Catatumbo region, where Caño Indio county is located, three paramilitary structures of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) ran violent operations: the Catatumbo Bloc, the Héctor Julio Peinado Front, and the Resistencia Motilona Front. During their stint in the region, these structures sowed terror and death and transformed the use and property of the land.


3 The Catatumbo Bloc demobilized in 2004. In 2006, the Héctor Julio Peinado Front and the Resistencia Motilona Front also demobilized.


4 Starting in May 2017, the National Integral Program of Voluntary Substitution of Illicit Crops, a product of the Havana Peace Accords between the Colombian government and FARC-EP, is being implemented. In exchange for a monthly payment during a year of substitution labors, a monetary aid for the implementation of sustainable and food security projects, and technical assistance for those projects, families commit themselves to not planting coca or involving themselves in work related to illicit crops or raw materials derived from coca.


5 According to the UN’s Integrated Illicit Crops Monitoring System (Simci, for its Spanish initials), Tibú, the municipality to which Caño Indio county belongs, was the second municipality in Colombia with the highest amount of sown coca, with 12,787 hectares. Caño Indio became the site for the pilot program and rapidly began substituting coca, since, in the beginning of 2017, one of FARC-EP’s normalization zones was established there. The normalization zones are the areas were former FARC-EP combatants gathered in order to lay down their arms and transition to civilian lives.


6 “Raze, cut, and burn” is a traditional form of subsistence agriculture in forested regions like Catatumbo. Farmers cut down parts of the forest and burn those areas so that the ashes will fertilize the soil. That way, when they sow, the ground will be viable and the crops can prosper. When the land is exhausted, farmers must clear new patches of forest, thus contributing to the deforestation in these areas, which is mostly led by the energy megaprojects, mining, and timber exploitation.


7 CORPONOR (Corporacion Autónoma Regional de la Frontera Nororiental) is the regional environmental authority for the department of Norte de Santander. ICA (Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario) is the national institution in charge of Colombia’s agricultural issues.