Return has been on our minds since the day they kicked us out

The displaced rural community “Las Pavas” returns to its land for good

(Translated by Stephanie DeBello, a CSN Volunteer Translator. Edited by Teresa Welsh, a CSN Volunteer Editor.)

Today, April 4, at 7:10 a.m. Colombian time, more than 70 adults returned to the property Las Pavas (El Peñón, Southern Bolívar) from which they were removed in July 2009 after being previously forcibly displaced and having returned several times (1996, 2003 and 2009). These people demand that the Colombian State does not treat the practice of exercising the fundamental right to return as a crime and urges it to protect the life projects that have been historically built in the Southern Bolívar region, “respecting the environment, our rural economy and alimentary sovereignty which we wish to pass on to our future generations.” The return to Las Pavas was initiated by a group from the community – which in the following days joined the rest of the community, comprising more than 100 families – with the support of different national and international organizations. A press release was circulated to clarify their reasoning and demands.

The community organized with the Campesino Association of Buenos Aires (ASOCAB) and walked from the sector of Buenos Aires accompanied by several national and international organizations. The community has autonomously decided that it will exercise its right as a displaced population to return to its land. In several public messages ASOCAB has declared its intention to peacefully return to those lands and remain there. At the entrance of the land there are 20 police officers with whom they are contending.

In Bogotá, this act of return will be reinforced by supporters in solidarity with the community who will go to the Ministry of Agriculture to demand fair living conditions and security guarantees for the community. The community, the protesters and the organizations that accompany them demand that the State refrain from using police measures to resolve the land conflict and that it immediately convene the Southern Bolívar Commission for Dialogue so that an agreement is made to guarantee that the community can stay in its territory.

Demands from the Community to Stay on its Land

Today, Monday, two members of the community are in Bogotá and will give a list of demands to the Ministry of Agriculture on behalf of the entire community. The community demands that the parcels of land named Las Pavas, Peñaloza  and Si Dios Quiere are returned to them and that the remaining 11 parcels of abandoned land that comprise the area of Las Pavas are adjudicated to them with the ongoing support of the offices of the Ombudsman, Attorney General, the Presidential Program for Social Action, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Agriculture. They also want the authorities to investigate the events that led to their forced displacement and the dispossession of their land that followed, as well as the, “possible links between Jesús Emilio Escobar Fernández and the companies CI Tequendama and Aportes San Isidro with paramilitary groups, and their relationship with Mr. Mario Mármol, who was one of the perpetrators of our forced displacement.”

ASOCAB demands that the State investigate the supposed irregularities committed by the Prosecutor 39 of San Martin de Loba (Bolívar) and its jurisdiction in that region for the recent investigations opened against members of ASOCAB. Likewise, ASOCAB urges the Attorney General’s Office to advance the necessary investigations to determine responsibility for the actions of Incoder officials, the Police Inspector of El Peñón, the judge of the First Circuit Court of Mompox, the Police Commander of Bolívar and the officials from the Office of the Attorney General and the Ministry of Agriculture that have intervened in the land conflict with the palm companies CI Tequendama and Aportes San Isidro.

Baseless Prosecutions and Threats

The return of ASOCAB occurs less than a week after the Prosecutor 39 of San Martín de Loba opened judicial proceedings against three of its members, accusing them of the alleged crime of attempting to invade land. That same day, March 30, one of them, Misael Payeres, was summoned for the alleged crime of slander as a result of a report from Mario Mármol, a person that the community affirms is part of the paramilitary structure that perpetrated their displacement in 2003 and that still works in the region in conjunction with the palm companies. Both denouncements were based on the February 14th interview on the radio station ‘La W’ where ASOCAB explicitly declared its right to return.

After publicly announcing its intention to return, the community has reported the presence of outsiders in the town of Buenos Aires who, “constantly follow the ASOCAB leaders,” the pressure that certain members of ASOCAB  receive from members of the corporation Labrador, and the burning of the communal salon by unknown individuals. It is for these reasons that the community demands protection and accompaniment by the national and regional civilian authorities with the aim of guaranteeing their security as they return to their lands. In this regard they are asking the State to order the National Police to, “refrain from engaging in actions that may obstruct, hinder, or otherwise impede our return to these parcels of land and that they take the necessary measures to prevent any attacks from the illegal armed actors against our community”. This demand was formulated based on the information ASOCAB says it has that, “the palm companies would be inclined to resort to collaborating with these delinquents in order to impede our return to the land from which we were displaced”.

Lawsuit for Las Pavas and the Plan de Choque

The land of Las Pavas is part of a legal dispute for ownership between ASOCAB and the Corporation El Labrador – the current owner of a part of the parcels in use for palm oil production – which is formed by C.I. Tequendama (Daabon Group) and Aportes San Isidro S.A. This corporation caused the community’s previous displacement in June 2009, when police removed people from their land in an act whose legality is still being considered before the Constitutional Court. Additionally, since September 2009 the Constitutional Court has been considering a case regarding the right of return and restitution for the rural population, but it still hasn’t come to a decision.

The families of ASOCAB were included in the Ministry of Agriculture’s plan for land restitution (Plan de Choque). On March 25, Ministry officials visited the community to inform them about the foreseen measures for ASOCAB. The rural displaced community denounces and rejects the government’s attempts to “support those who have benefitted from paramilitarism and displacement in Colombia, specifically in Southern Bolívar”. The state proposal involves the recuperation of abandoned national lands that does not include Las Pavas nor a contract of loan and restitution between the corporation Labrador and the community to ensure that the palm consortium cedes some of its land to the rural families.  ASOCAB affirms that, “this is not a restitution plan but a proposal in favor of the palm companies that is detrimental to our fundamental rights.” 

Environmental Damage

The community also insists that the palm growers’ consortium has caused environmental damage in the region that is documented in different reports such as the International Verification Mission on the Impacts of Biofuels in Colombia which was done in June 2009 and whose results were published by the Foodfirst Information and Action Network (FIAN).

The November 2009 study of the Las Pavas case on the “environmental impacts of palm oil expansion in Magdalena Medio,” carried out by organizations that accompany the displaced community, provide evidence of the environmental damage in the region essentially due to the cultivation of palm oil by the companies Aportes San Isidro and C.I. Tequendama. The Commission’s visit affirms that, “during our inspection no readily available water source appeared to the naked eye to be suitable for human consumption.” The development of palm oil in the zone negatively affects essential natural elements such as wetlands, rivers, forests, air, flora and fauna.

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