Translated by Amy Pekol (a CSN volunteer translator)
November 2nd, 2007
Interview with one of the leaders of the Social Integration Committee of Catatumbo-Cisca.
Currently, this region is experiencing an escalation of conflict stemming from the exploitation of its natural resources. Transnational companies, favored by the policies of the Colombian government and the actions of the Colombian army, are playing an important role in this.
Tell us a little about the history of the social process and what is currently happening in the Catatumbo region.
In the Catatumbo region, many peasants are coming in search of work through a process of colonization. We are located on the border of Venezuela. Our region has a rich subsoil of carbon and petroleum and great biodiversity. The Catatumbo River, the main tributary of the Maracaibo Lake of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, crosses through most of it. It is a territory shared by peasants and is the original home of the Barí, an indigenous group that has occupied the territory for centuries. Today, the Barí, together with the peasants, work collectively on this land in food production as well as acts of resistance. We, both the Barí community and the peasants want to be allowed to live on this land.
From all of this, the Social Integration Committee of Catatumbo-Cisco was born. It attempts to create a proposal to remain on the land and defend our lives. The Committee is representative of those who live in the Catatumbo region, composed of teachers, workers and laborers, peasants, Barí peoples, women, children and the elderly. It seeks to allow us to continue living in the Catatumbo and opposes the Colombian government’s intentions of removing people from the region in order to exploit its resources. Their intentions are to clear the region and, together with the transnational companies, acquire its riches such as carbon and petroleum, as we already mentioned, and also to implement strategic crops such as oil palm, cacao, rubber and higuerilla (castor-oil plants). They have been offering us this option but we have not accepted it.
There is a great extension of oil palm in the lower Catatumbo region where the paramilitaries have been exercising control over the land since 1999. After the so-called demobilization of the paramilitaries in 2004, they have implemented oil palm crops and there has been increased interest in exploring and exploiting the petroleum and carbon on behalf of the transnational companies and the Colombian government. There is a very important relationship between the paramilitaries and the emerging exploitation of resources and how it is affecting the lives of those who live in this region.
What is your organization’s proposal and how has the Colombian government answered your demands and requests?
We are in a region that has been abandoned by the government and has not reached the development indices that all human beings deserve. This abandonment is reflected in the terrible condition of roads leading to the region. There is no possibility of selling our products, we are isolated and refused the right to education and health. Speaking of living conditions, it is impossible to have a dignified home. For all these reasons, we have organized and started building a proposal called Plan de Vida (Life Plan), in which the communities begin to reflect upon what it is that we want, what we deserve and what our rights are as well as understand that there is a government responsible for what happens or stops happening to us. In this sense the communities, rural divisions, Barí people and peasants are creating a Life Plan, a plan to assure our permanence on the land, to have a life and to live in the Catatumbo.
However, the Colombian government’s proposal is ignorant of all the initiatives in the region and they offered to provide us with more military presence. Currently, Mobil Brigades 15 and 30 are present in the region and it has just been announced that Mobil Brigade 21 will start operations for the month of November. This means a strong militarization for a region composed of 8 municipalities and inhabited by approximately 250,000 people. This offer of military presence from the government, which they have been offering to many communities, is a series of attacks that have been increasing through extrajudicial executions, which have exceeded more than 30 for this year. These thirty deceased inhabitants of the region were far away from any armed conflict but presented by military forces as guerillas who died in combat.
The number of incidents and manner in which the peasants are being attacked worries us. We can no longer travel alone on the roads. At any moment, someone could be shot and reported as a guerilla that died in combat, when, in reality, the victim is a peasant on his way to the market with his family, harvesting crops or simply working on his farm. Since February of this year (2007), this situation has become apparent as a systematic decision to execute those who live in the Catatumbo region.
There are many cases to list.
Eliécer Ortega in the Bobalí region of Bogotana was detained by the army and later found dead in the Ocaña morgue, reported as a guerilla who died in combat when he was really just a peasant from the region.
Carlos Daniel Martínez from Santa Catalina of the San Calixto municipality: The army arrived at his house of this nearly 50-year-old man and found him all alone. That morning he was assassinated, reported as a guerilla who died in combat.
There is also the case of two boys who were detained by the army, murdered and dragged to the Catatumbo River. Their bodies were found in the lower part of the river.
This list can go on as there are more than 30 cases.
This worries us very much because the Army Brigades are considered successful when they are really just killing peasants and reporting them as guerillas who died in combat. We wish to express this to the national and international community because we are victims of a conscious decision to eliminate the people who live in the Catatumbo region. We are aware of the developing conflict in the region, but what we demand is that they leave those of us who live in the region—the civil society, the non-combatants, the peasants and the indigenous—alone. We want them to recognize us in this conflict. All that we have is a small piece of land to work and to raise a family. We are not allied with any armed actors. We are not saying anything other than that we want to remain in this region and create a permanent presence on the land.
The Colombian army continues to commit all types of atrocities against the population. We have already denounced this situation to the government, the Vice Presidency of the Republic, the Ministry of the Interior as well as to the commanders of the Brigades themselves. In El Tarra Municipality, the community, friends and family members of the victims who had been executed by the army protested this behavior to the High Command of Mobil Bridage 15.
We believe that some mechanisms must exist so that the Colombian government and army understand that we have a right as Colombians to inhabit this region and they must allow us to live peacefully in the Catatumbo.
According to your view of the situation, do the army’s attacks on the community respond to a necessity of reporting positive results against insurgent groups or do they respond to a strategy of depleting and displacing the population for the previously mentioned carbon and petroleum interests in the region and of implementing cash crops for the industry?
The army brigades established themselves in the region under a pretext of fighting an insurgency and eliminating guerilla presence in the region. However, we believe that underneath this military strategy is the guarantee of exploiting mining, energy and natural resources in the region. This military presence brings security to the petroleum companies, the multinational companies preparing to exploit the carbon, those harvesting palm oil and those who want to privatize the water. They are also present along the border to control the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s plans. There is also a strategy of stigmatization of those who live in the region accompanied by terror spread by the Colombian army. In the Catatumbo region, from one small town to the next they go around saying that the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles, a new criminal group that emerged after the demobilization of the AUC paramilitary groups) are coming.
We believe that this strategy of terror spread by the Colombian army is intended to scare the peasants out of the area. In some cases, the Colombian army has asked the peasants directly, “Why don’t you go away, why don’t you leave the region?” This shows that there is an interest in clearing the territory and displacing the people by any means possible, through criminalization, legal prosecution, detentions, assassinations and strategies of terror. This is all related. Even if they are successful in fighting the insurgency, they will still want to provide all conditions of security to the transnational companies exploiting the resources of the region. This is how we understand it.
In the face of all this horror, we ask the national and international community to pay close attention to us and our situation because they are killing and displacing us to have our territory, a territory that will practically be destroyed as 15 thousand hectares of the Catatumbo region are being solicited for the open-air exploitation of carbon. This is going to be a great ecological harm. Production will destroy life in the region and will also surely destroy the Barí community. Despite having been driven to the edges of the region, the remaining part of this land that they have managed to hold on to will also be threatened by the exploitation of energy resources.
Last Sunday, October 28th, 2007, there were administrative elections in Colombia. The government says that everything went as planned. What do you guys think of this situation?
In the proposed construction of Life Plan, we have also come to understand that it is necessary to participate in the democratic scene in which the people can elect their governors and participate in the local government, but also where there can be government programs that know of the humanitarian crisis the region is experiencing. The latter is what motivates us to participate in the October 28 elections. People started voting early But we find a contradiction in what the government says—that the communities participate and consolidate democracy—and what actually happens. On Sunday, in the regions of Honduras, Trinidad, Las Pitas and La Libertad, the voting cards arrived after 10:00 am and were transported by helicopter, which hindered people from voting because they were afraid of being shot. In these respects, the possibility of a smooth election process was put at risk.
Another practice that took place during the elections leaves us very worried. In Filo Gringo in El Tarra municipality, when the people came to vote at the corresponding tables, the Colombian army asked them for their ID cards and compared them with their lists, which generated fear in the community. Due to the previous fabrications by the same army where they tried to blame the community for events and actions in which they did not participate, the people were afraid that, upon examining their IDs, the army would detain them as part of yet another set-up. For this reason, the community of Filo Gringo, although prepared to vote, decided not to participate in the elections. It is a form of coercion against the democratic right to vote.
In another rural area of El Carmen, where another voting table was operating, the army told voters who intended to support the Alternative Democratic Pole Party not to do it. They told them not to vote for a party formed by the guerilla, which also generated a lot of fear.
The army instilled fear in the people who supported the Alternative Democratic Pole and, in general, in everyone who intended to participate in the elections. We must continue advancing democratic participation in which the people no longer abstain from voting and go express themselves at the ballot boxes.
The government of Alvaro Uribe continues to say that democracy in Colombia has been increasing. Those of us who live not in the large cities but in the rural areas are living very far from the possibility of a real democracy where there is community participation, because there is a coercion against the freedom of expression, freedom to choose a political party and freedom to determine or at least give an opinion on who should govern the people.
I want to thank you for this opportunity that you have given us to share our voice and unite it with the voices of other people around the world so that people know what is happening in the Catatumbo region. Here we are building resistance and creating a life plan that will allow us to remain on the land, raise our families and participate in society. We, the inhabitants of the Catatumbo, demand to be recognized as a part of Colombian society.
We are not a nuisance to Colombia, nor an obstacle for transnational companies. The only thing that we want to yell to all the people of the world is that, in the same way you are doing it, here we are doing what we have to do in order to be considered and recognized as people living on a land rich in natural resources but abandoned by the state. The little that we have gained has been a result of self-management and community initiatives. The least we expect is to be allowed to live in these remote regions. Even though the Colombian government does not care about its people, but rather its resources and the riches of Catatumbo that make transnational companies even richer, we do care about life. For us, the most important thing is to live and to do so in harmony with nature.
For this reason, the indigenous and peasants of the Catatumbo region demand the state of Colombia to respect our life and our decision to remain on the land. We are also asking for the solidarity of all those who can listen to us, who can read about us and those who know that we are building resistance. Do not forget about us, accompany us, follow what is happening and help be a voice in defense of life and permanence on the land.
From the Catatumbo, a brotherly hug to everyone building resistance and conditions for life around the world.