Si quieres la paz, lucha por la justicia
Local-led delegation searches for the roots
of violence and injustice in Colombia

by Amy Price and Lyn Clark Pegg
Zenith City Weekly

Photo by Amy Price
Families in the Nonam Village of western Columbia were forced from their homes in 2010 due to paramilitary violence. Numerous armed groups -- military, guerrilla, paramilitary, and narco-traffickers -- contribute to a conflict that has raged across the country for 60 years.

February 7 was a typical hot and steamy day in Buenaventura, the main port city of Colombia, South America, infamous for its deadly drug–related violence.

We were in Colombia for ten days in February with Witness for Peace, a human rights organization that travels to Latin America and the Caribbean to document the impact of US policies and corporate practices.

When word spread in Buenaventura that international delegates were there, we were invited into the home of a few members of the Crucado community, Afro–Colombians whose land is threatened by a Filipino company seeking to expand the harbor.

Photo (left) by Amy Price
A theatrical reenactment in Facatativá of a greenhouse employee worked to death. Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for union activity.

This mega–port expansion project, Aguadulce, is intended to support increased imports and exports under a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States.

During an April summit in Cartagena (overshadowed in American media by the Secret Service "sex scandal"), President Barack Obama confirmed his support for the FTA, which will allow transnational corporations to access Colombia’s vast reserves of oil, coal, and minerals, at the expense of small producers and organized labor.

A portion of the land collectively owned by the Crucado community has yet to be returned to them, despite their ancestral rights to it under Colombian law. In the early 1990s, the constitution was revised to specifically include ancestral land rights for Afro–Colombian and indigenous people. But those lands are coveted by companies that are pressuring the Colombian government to grant permits to extract resources and develop plantations for palm oil, fruit, timber, and sugar.

Campesinos, or peasants, who have inherited their land may have difficulty proving they own it if they don’t possess the title. The Crucado community recently requested a halt to the Aguadulce project until their land titling process could be evaluated. The request was ignored and the project did not stop.

According to the Consultancy for Human Rights, over five million people throughout Colombia, more than 10 percent of the population, have been similarly displaced and most have not been able to return to their homes.

The Colombian government has been unable to provide housing, healthcare, education, and safety for the displaced, whose numbers now exceed that of refugees in the Sudan.

According to Justicia y Paz (Justice and Peace), a non–governmental organization providing legal support to the Crucado community, Aguadulce utilizes puppet leaders and superficial meetings in which the community has no real representation. By providing jobs to some, the employed are pitted against the unemployed, dividing the community.

Such tricky tactics allow companies to appear to be complying with Colombian law. If these measures fail, the community may find itself under siege by illegally armed guerilla and paramilitary groups.

After leaving the Crucado community, we took a white–knuckle boat ride through the jungle to the muddy banks of the Nonam village on the Río Calima. This indigenous community recently returned to their land after 11 months of displacement.

Two years ago, the village across the river was massacred in a paramilitary operation. The Nonam people, fearing for their lives, fled to Buenaventura where they found refuge in a building with one large room, on stilts over a wetland. One hundred people lived there for about a year in deplorable conditions.

Overcrowding, malnutrition, and improper access to healthcare resulted in an outbreak of tuberculosis and meningitis, killing two infants who could not be buried in the village’s traditional ceremonies.

The soul of the community suffered as they were unable to continue their customs of sustainable fishing and farming, land–based religious practices, and ways of healing. Despite the dangers, the Nonam decided to return home, "to take care of Mother Earth," they told us.

Nine months later, we sat in a circle in their open–air meeting center, shaded by a thatched roof, while community leaders shared how they are slowly reestablishing their lives.

The women and children, timid with strangers at first, slowly gathered around. They dished out generous portions of white rice and fresh fish from the river. Several of the children approached us to have their pictures taken and giggled at their images in the camera.

Groups like the Crucado and Nonam are caught in the crossfire of a civil war that has raged in Colombia since the 1950s, when small farmers led a movement for land reform. Their efforts were unsuccessful and some formed armed guerrilla forces. In response, wealthy landowners formed their own armed groups, now known as paramilitaries.

The Colombian government has focused on defeating guerilla groups by driving them from urban areas into the Andean Mountains. Though now officially "demobilized," paramilitaries continue to terrorize the poor, assassinate labor organizers, and protect the economic interests of corporations.

Later, the Nonam people invited us to take part in a medicine ritual in which the village healer brushed our arms with blessed water. As we prepared to depart, the women performed a traditional song and dance.

Though happy to be home, they still face imminent threats and live in fear of displacement by the continued presence of armed actors in the region. The village was fumigated just days before our visit, due to a suspicion of coca plants growing on their land.

In 2000, the US government implemented Plan Colombia, an aid package now totaling over $7 billion, predominantly to militarize the Colombian government against the drug trade.

Already fighting over land and resources, drug trafficking has added to the violence in recent decades, as armed groups control the rivers that transport cocaine to the Pacific coast.

The coca plant, from which cocaine is derived, is native to the Andean region. Unprocessed, it has only a mild stimulant effect, similar to coffee. The plant often grows uncultivated and is not easy to eradicate.

The US–led "War on Drugs" includes aerial fumigation of farmland and forests with glyphosate, an herbicide manufactured by Monsanto.

Campesinos are the primary victims of this policy. During fumigation, crops and natural foliage are killed, but the coca often survives. Fish, animals, and people are afflicted with skin rashes and respiratory problems. Food and water is contaminated.

Indigenous Colombians have an ancestral right to the coca leaves, which are used medicinally and to alleviate hunger. Most Latin American governments, including Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, support legalizing coca—a proposal opposed by the US.

In response to fumigation, growers move further into the forest. Narco–traffickers sometimes force farmers to grow coca or tempt them with desperately needed cash.

Government programs that pay farmers to replace their coca plants with legal crops have been tried only half–heartedly and tend to fail. Rice, sugar, and bananas simply don’t have the same market value as cocaine.

In Popayán, in the mountains of southwestern Colombia, we met with La Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres (The Women’s Peaceful Path), a collaboration of 350 feminist organizations nationwide that train women in peace activism and negotiations.

La Ruta offers workshops on domestic violence and sexual assault, teaching women how to protect themselves from personal and systemic violence, such as forced prostitution and rape within the armed groups, and a lack of redress by law enforcement and the courts.

Women march into some of the most heavily armed and volatile parts of the country, using tactics meant to confuse and shock the paramilitaries. They paint their bodies, dress in black, and travel unarmed, in large numbers and in violation of imposed curfews.

As in all war zones, women and children are disproportionately affected, not only by the violence itself, but with men displaced by combat, women are forced to support their families on typically lower wages.

Colombia has the highest incidence in the world of assassinating labor organizers, resulting in a loss of leadership and a traumatized workforce.

Out of 143 countries surveyed in 2010 by the International Trade Union Confederation, Colombia accounted for over half the union activists killed—49 out of 90. This makes Colombia one of the most dangerous places in the world to be involved in union activity.

The killings are carried out by paramilitaries at the behest of transnational companies. In the past ten years, Drummond Mining, Coca–Cola, and Chiquita have been found guilty of contracting with them for "security." The killers are rarely prosecuted.

In 2011, the US State Department drew up a Labor Action Plan to identify labor rights that needed to be improved before implementing the FTA—specifically, the rights to organize, to contract directly with employers, and to collectively bargain for fair wages and benefits.

Though 500 death threats have been reported in the last year and seven union activists have been assassinated just since the beginning of 2012, the US determined that sufficient progress has been made on the Labor Action Plan to proceed with the FTA.

Outside the capitol city of Bogotá, high in the plateau savanna, hundreds of greenhouses dot the landscape. Sixty percent of flowers imported to the United States are produced here. Seventy percent of the employees are women who work as long as 20 to 24 continuous hours, especially during the Western Valentine’s Day season.

They are hired under short–term contracts, fired for work–related illnesses or pregnancy, and forced to increase output in hot, unsafe conditions where pesticides cause skin problems, respiratory issues, and cancer, according to La Corporación Cactus, a labor rights organization established in 1995 by the mayor of Bogotá to document the conditions in commercial greenhouses.

According to the Colombian government and tourism industry, cities are safer, the economy is better, and tourists can safely enjoy a beautiful country with generous people who are eager to share their culture. And all that is true—for some.

Colombian cities are relatively safe for the middle and upper classes and for tourists. But those living in rural areas, on the very land that economic interests want to extract and exploit, are most at–risk.

Due to Colombia’s rugged terrain, some Afro–Colombian and indigenous groups have been almost invisible until now, when improved transportation and communication have escalated invasion of their land. However, those same technological advances have allowed them to form strong activist coalitions and their resistance is growing.

They have organized Mingas, an indigenous word for "coming together for a purpose," in which tens of thousands have marched long distances to Bogotá in protest of the violence and to demand respect for their rights.

These are the human casualties of mono–crop agriculture, industrial mining, the War on Drugs, and land theft for economic gain. They aren’t going to stop fighting; they have no choice but to resist nonviolently. As US citizens, we were compelled by their stories to support them in their struggle for justice and to advocate for changes in government policy and corporate practices.

Lyn Clark Pegg is a retired Duluth educator and psychologist, who has organized five Witness for Peace delegations to Colombia since 2007. She has also traveled to Colombia for personal visits with her son. She can be reached at

Amy Price worked for 13 years in a non–profit organization for people with severe and persistent mental illness. She has volunteered for immigrant and refugee organizations and is a member of the Northwest Fair Trade Coalition. She lives in Portland, Oregon and plans to attend graduate school for International Studies in the fall.