Human right defenders, resistant to threats

El Espectador (Colombia), September 6, 2018

Translated by CSN volunteer Deryn Collins

In the moments when the country laments the death of 343 social leaders since 2016, Swedish cooperation is an example of resistance that has continued for Ligia María Chaverra, of Curvaradó, and Germán Graciano, of San José de Apartadó.

Ligia María Chaverra, a life of resistance in Chocó

In February 1997, close to 1,200 campesinos from Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó, in Chocó, were displaced by a paramilitary incursion of the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá [Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá, ACCU] – in collusion with members of the Army – and it changed the life of Ligia María Chaverra. She knew she had to leave her land to survive and hoped she would be able to return. She returned years later and, on her land, found palm oil cultivations. “Sky and palms were all there was”, she says.

It was then that the biggest battle of her life began: a fight for the defense of her own land. A titanic job, which over the years turned her into the target of threats, and which included making her a victim of her own tragedy by being displaced again. Her dedicated, hard, and almost silent work was this Wednesday the motive for public homage, when she was given a “Lifetime Achievement Award” in the National Awards for the Defense of Human Rights.

Chaverra first came to the territory of the municipality of Curvaradó almost four decades before her displacement, when she was 17 years old and had recently arrived from Beté, Medio Atrato, the municipality where she was born. It was 1958 and she arrived accompanied by her partner in life and struggle, Celedonio Martínez.

“We got up when we wanted to, at midnight, planted bananas, rice, corn, yucca, yam, and sugarcane. On this we lived”, she says. The product of years of life in agriculture was the birth of eight children that today have given them 40 grandchildren.

They lived a life without major problems for as long as they could, until February 1997, when their daily life cracked. It has been proven, over time, that not only members of the ACCU, but also members of the 17th Brigade of the Army, with headquarters in Carepa, Antioquia, participated in the mass displacement of which Ligia and the communities of Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó were victims.

This is, at least, what was ruled by the Fifth Court Judge of the Specialized Circuit of Medellin, who also determined that the palm oil companies formed part of a strategic criminal plan with the goal being to undertake an agro-industrial project of enormous proportions in the zone, which had great potential for economic exploitation. The sole cultivation of palm and extensive livestock were the activities.

It was like this, within the framework that became known as Operation Genesis, that armed groups displaced the communities and the palm companies were able to settle three years later to start up the project, which was managed by paramilitary leader Vicente Castaño Gil.

While the palms filled the land, Ligia María decided to resist: “We were displaced 13 times within the territory. But we never went to the main municipal towns, not even a village, nowhere. We stayed here with my husband and my three daughters”.

Far from going to an urban center, Chaverra lived in the mountains, where they lived with another seven families for 6 months.

They never went to a city because of their deep belief that campesinos have nothing to do in the grand urban centres. She and the other families refused to give up working the land because of the presence of armed forces. Because of this, in 2005, they made the decision to return to what was once their property. Seeing the palm plantations, they decided to eradicate them: “We cut down these palms with axes, with machetes, with chainsaws, and those we couldn’t chop down were killed with a virus that was not controllable”.

Even with the elimination of these plantations, the signs of the palm continued. According to Chaverra, the chemicals used for the sowing of this cultivation considerably affected the land. “Nothing was left, not even butterflies”, she said.

The palms are no longer there, but the armed forces continue the harassment. It was the declaration of the territories as a Humanitarian Zone that kept the Army, the guerrillas, and the paramilitaries out. Ligia María Chaverra visited Canada, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland among other countries to make her story visible.

With international support the Zona Humanitaria Las Camelias [Las Camelias Humanitarian Zone], of which she is the representative and spokeswoman, was established in Curvarado. The path has left its marks. Her husband and companion in the fight is no longer here. He passed away on July 26, 2017. Many of her children and grandchildren do not live in the territory and, less than a year ago, she received new threats from the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia [Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, also known as the Clan del Golfo].

For the close to 60 families that live in the Las Camelias Humanitarian Zone, the fight that Ligia María Chaverra has led is not only hers, but for everyone, and her achievement is not the award she received yesterday, but the fact that she has lived a life of resistance.

Germán Graciano, the collective power

Last December 29th, Germán Graciano Posso saw, once again, the face of death. He was in the Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó [Peace Community of San José de Apartadó], of which he is a legal representative, when two paramilitaries came with an order to kill him. The timely reaction of his companions stopped the finger that was about to pull the trigger. This episode symbolizes what Graciano is and what the Peace Community is: the visible face of a social process that has cost more than 300 lives. The Peace Community: the force of unity without which there would be no Graciano.

For what this 36-year-old man represents, leader of a community that declared itself neutral 22 years ago in full spate of the paramilitary massacres, he was awarded the National Human Rights Award for Defender of the Year. Although he is young, his story is one of violence that could be a novel. Thirteen members of his family have been assassinated, amongst them his father and two older brothers. He was born in 1982 in the village of El Porvenir, a rural area of San José de Apartadó.

In 1996, paramilitary violence, which came from Tierralta, Córdoba, devastated the streets of San José de Apartadó. The local people were displaced toward Antioquia, but the army of death was on their heels. During those days, the Graciano Posso family moved into the abandoned urban area of San Josecito. No sooner had they put down the suitcases, they had to start packing again. Germán was 15 years old, he was fatherless, and his brothers had been assassinated. His mother, with seven children, looked for refuge.

At the start of the year 1997, a group of 800 people, supported by the Catholic Church, declared itself neutral from the armed groups and founded the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Graciano is a son of this process. Campesino to the core, defending his life of neutrality, and the territory, and working collectively.

He is reluctant to be the protagonist of the praise and always conjugates the verbs in plural. He does not believe in the individual, but in the community. He does not even travel down the road without being accompanied by his people. It is the only protection system that has worked for them – the power of the collective.

He has three children and gets up every day to fulfill his responsibilities in the community; the morning is dedicated to work in the fields, helping the children with the sowing, feeding the animals, and gathering the crops. Afterwards, they go to la venta [the sale], which is what the community calls the offices where the cocoa is bought and the administration of the chocolate company Chocopaz are located. This is the same place that there was an assassination attempt on him in December. After lunch he meets with the eight members of the council [of the Peace Community].

The meetings are extensive and are held every day, including Sundays. Here, matters from the smallest to the largest are discussed, such as the request for an interview of a community member, to the work plan for the whole month. Germán only speaks in the present, affirming that the community does not believe in the future, living from day to day with an intense solemnity: “We are not in the future, we only have the present. We don’t know if tomorrow they will kill us or we will die, because of this we only think about our time, about the steps we take, that will be the path of those that return”, Graciano assures with imperturbable calm.

A calm that has been constructed during more than 20 years of collective working, which characterizes Graciano and all the members for the Peace Community. A calm that is not broken by the new winds of war, which seemed to disappear with the leaving of the FARC from the villages of Urabá in Antioquia, but has returned with the Clan del Golfo. Because of this, the people are on maximum alert after the attempt on Graciano, and this is the reason that the work of raising international visibility and condemnation has multiplied. “What we must do is to keep on denouncing, it is a historic constant. This is what we do in this community,” concludes Graciano.

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