Monday, March 31, 2008

Feeling comfy

Sorry to have lost sight of the blogging mission lately. I'm still living in Regidor and we had Semana Santa (holiday week) where things all slowed down and I did more swimming in the river (very annoying little biting fish take away some of the fun, but it's incredibly warm and delicious) and even a little tea-drinking and gossiping with my landlady. And since then I haven't quite got back into it. But I intend to be much more on the case this week and will hopefully post something every day.

I've had a really strong sense of blissful contentment here. It comes from how quickly I feel I've made proper friendships and connections with people here.

When Colombians ask what I think of their country, I normally say something about how I friendly and open I find the people. It seems like a platitude, but it's utterly sincere.

The openness doesn't just manifest in how people are welcoming and helpful and want to find out all about me and my life. It means that although I am in a culture which is radically different from my own in many ways, I feel I am accepted. In the past when I've been in other countries, I've found it a strain that I've not been comfortable being myself. I've known that many of my opinions and much of my behaviour would shock people, so I have kept quiet and adapted.

Here, I've been able to talk to people I've only just met about why I never want to get married, or about my non-monogamous relationship back home. Without knowing first how religious they are, or what their opinions might be. Because of a sense of however strongly they might feel about a subject, they would still be non-judgemental and interested in how I'm different. Not quite everyone, obviously. But this has been my experience so far.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Tale of Two Landless Villages

The villagers of El Piñal, like many rural communities, do not have it so easy. There may be a health centre building, but it has no staff or medicines. There may be a primary school with two out of three of the teachers needed, but for a secondary education, students have to walk an hour to get the bus. In the winter they need a canoe to cross the 300 metres which is under water. They leave the house at 5am, returning by 3pm having not eaten in that time. This year there are 58 primary school pupils, but no one is travelling to the secondary school in Regidor.

Drinking water has to be transported by hand or donkey for 1 1/2 kilometres.

The man bitten by 'Doguidoca' snake (who was very lucky to get the antidote in time, as that's a very poisonous snake) now has problems with his sight. He paid to see a specialist once, but can't afford to again.

Many things are difficult, but for the moment they have somewhere to farm.

Twenty years ago, when FARC controlled the area, the owner of the 500 ha farm next to the village abandoned it to flee the conflict. The first villagers to start farming his land asked for and were given permission.

Now more than fifty families depend on this land for survival. Mostly they have smallholdings of 5 ha, some with up to 10 ha. They grow palm trees for roofing, and staple foods such as corn, yucca and plantain.

I've heard the figure a few times, that there are 8 million people dying of hunger in Colombia. It seems difficult to believe in a country with so much fertile land, but this is a result of the displacements caused by the conflict, and the lack of food sovereignty. In El Piñal, while access to healthcare, education, drinking water or a decent road are a problem, I think we can assume that hunger is not so much.

But this village lives with a great sense of insecurity. Five years ago an Oil Palm company approached the owner. The community strongly asked him not to sell, and he did not.

He has not visited the area for twenty years, so most of the community do not know him. They had no idea if he would say 'no' again. They do know that losing that land would be the end of their village. Resulting in a future of displacement for those fifty families. Meaning the choice between urban or rural poverty, and with most families joining the 8 million hungry.

Meanwhile, San Cayatano is already some way down that road.

When Señor Numa, the owner of a 900 ha farm died 23 years ago, the villagers waited five years for his relatives to claim the land before they started to farm it. They were there for fourteen years: around forty families, again growing staple foods.

It is still unclear whether the men who arrived claiming to have bought the land from Señor Numa's sons actually ever did. (A lawyer from the EU-funded Program for Peace and Development is providing a ray of hope by investigating this.) What was clear were the threats behind the request for these families to leave the land. People were offered some money (although 2800 000 pesos (775 pounds) for 5 ha is not much) and were told that if they didn't leave the good way, they would be leaving the bad way. Given the paramilitary presence in the area, people took this pretty seriously. The last man left was taken by the AUC (paramilitary organisation linked to the state) to be killed, but managed to escape.

That was three years ago. 'Misery' was the word used to describe life for them since. Unemployment is especially uncomfortable when there are eight children to feed. One meal a day becomes normal. Hunger universal.

It is understood that the land was acquired for growing Oil Palm, though it is currently being used for cattle.

Other than their lack of land and their geographical proximity, these two villages have some other links. Six years ago, the father of Regidor's Mayor is alleged to have blocked a water inlet, to drain his own farm. This dried out both the shallow lake by El Piñal and the canal by San Cayatano. The members of both communities who had made a good living from fishing were no longer able to.

It's this same man, believed to have drug-trafficking and paramilitary links, who is allegedly behind the acquisition of Sr Numa's land, and who is thought to be trying to buy the land by El Piñal. The current owner may well be a nice man who does not want to leave his previous neighbours hungry, but a request to sell from someone believed to have ordered the killing of two business associates, may not be so easy to refuse.

Poverty Headache

My friend Kenis has a headache. A serious headache. An inflamed nerve which has meant a three-day stay in hospital. When I saw her back at home last night, she looked just like someone who had been in serious pain for days.

The pills she has been prescribed are not available in this small town. They might not be available in the nearest bigger town either. So her husband is intending to go straight to the nearest city. They have been told the 2-week course of medicine will come to around 130 000 pesos (35 quid). That really does not seem like much when I write it in pounds. But for people here who can only just cover the costs of their everyday lives. Where a monthly electricity bill of 5000 pesos (1.40 pounds) seems like a lot, such an additional expense is, like the headache, crippling.

I'm loving living in this town. I love many of the things that seem to come with a lack of wealth in a place: The strong sense of community, the friendliness of people, the huge amounts of mutual aid and solidarity constantly going on, and the delightfully low-impact lives people have with their lack of opportunity for consumerism. Easy to romanticise how the close & helpful community leads to happier, less isolated lives than many lead in British cities.

But Kenis' headache reminds me how it's not actually that fun to live with no safety margin so you can barely cope with the cost of a health problem or a failed harvest.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Smallholder Palm Growers of Villa Elvira

In a country where so many people have lost their land, the winners of a state lottery to divide up the airstrip formally owned by a drugs trafficker were pretty lucky. Two hundred had put their names forward back in 1991. Thirty nine people got 10 hectares each.

I met one of the unlucky ones. He had lost his land 20 years ago when he had to sell it as the conflict meant it was not safe to stay. Ever since he's hired himself and his machete out for manual labour. He said working for the palm companies is good work. The only difference between them and the smallholders is that he gets paid monthly rather than weekly.

It was one of the first interviews I'd done. Not having such a stock of questions up my sleeve, I simply asked "Anything else?" He told me that we're put on this earth to suffer, until the day God chooses to end it. Until then we suffer like the Lord suffered. We work to get our daily bread. And we suffer.

So, as I say, those that won the land are the lucky ones.

However, I worry how long this may be the case for the 22 smallholders who have chosen to plant Oil Palm in the last few years. (The Afro-Colombian community has asked that we don't call it 'African Palm' anymore, as Africa already has enough negative connotations.)

I spoke to a number of them. Many used to grow corn, but the price was so low that it didn't cover the costs. The land is on a floodplain, and some farmers had lost their harvests due to flooding.

So the promise of a crop with a higher commercial value drew them in.

For the first three years, while the palms are growing, they get paid 400 000 pesos (106 pounds) per month to cover the upkeep of the 10 hectares. It actually doesn't cover much. At least two people are needed every day for keeping the area weed free. (If you are reported for having livestock on the land, the payment stops.) If the workers are not family, they need to paid 40 000 pesos per day. If they are, they need feeding.

Some use herbicides. I asked how much they cost, and was worryingly told that the farmer didn't know. The company gave it on credit.

At the time, I got the impression that the monthly 400 000 was a payment from the company. Actually it will also need to be paid back when repayments start after 5 years.

Most farmers currently have a loan of around 25 million pesos (6600 pounds). I asked one if he was worried about losing his land. He wasn't. But others I am working with are not so calm and see it as a real danger. When their trees start bearing fruit, they will be at the mercy of global prices and the amount that their company San Lucas chooses to pass on to them.

It is not a company that has so far inspired much confidence. Three years ago they made an agreement with the local community to sort out the local road (which is impassible in the winter. Children struggle to school knee deep in mud and arrive 2 hours late according to the teacher), and to put in a drainage system to help against flooding. None of this has been done, and in fact the problem with flooding has been far worse as the drainage system from the company's own land directs more water onto the old airstrip, and another palm oil company at the other end has blocked where it used to drain away.

The palm trees which are under water for the winter do not grow as fast, and are unlikely to be as productive, if they manage to survive.

I was told that the meeting we were going to, called by the Corporación Ambiental (Environment Agency equivalent), was to address issues such as this with the Palm companies. It was very well attended. The EU-funded Program for Peace and Development paid expenses for the campesinos to attend. They generally sat at the back. At the front sat those representing local government, the palm companies, the Program for Peace and Development, and a few different state agencies such as the Public Defender's Office (Human Rights lawyers employed by the state) and the Personaría (Local ombudsman’s office, first port of call for complaints).

Instead of the Corporación encouraging the campesinos to inform us what the issues were, or tackling the points raised by the Public Defender, and then coming to some agreement involving some sort of action, there was much talk that didn't lead to anything concrete.

Mostly those at the front talked, and most of what was said had no relation to the problems the campesinos face. We did hear how brilliant one palm company has been in driving up environmental standards. We heard some local politics squabbles being aired. And we heard from one palm company how much common ground it believed it had with the EU Program. Obviously most campesinos were too intimidated to speak out. Those that did had good points that were promptly ignored. Disappointing.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Update on what I’m up to

One of the things I wanted to do most in my time here was live with a family somewhere rural. My two stated reasons for being out here in the Northern tip of Southern Bolivar, are 1) to provide the community with some protection from army & paramilitary violence through the presence of an international and 2) to research the effects of Oil Palm monocultures on people’s access to land. The group I´m accompanying get followed to meetings by a paramilitary informer, and this area is set to grow pretty much only palm, with very little space left for food.

I can’t say that the family I’m staying with are above averagely warm and friendly for Colombians. But only because _everyone_ I meet is so enormously friendly. This family have been really welcoming. I am constantly told to feel at home, and I do. After saying at first I could stay for a month, I wondered if I should have been more vague in case I didn’t want to. But now I don’t think that’ll be a problem.

There's a son who I share a room with who is a top bloke. He's just told me he's 13, but he's the size of an 8 year old, so I may have to verify that. His sister's 12 and is still too shy to talk to me, so I will make more of an effort.

Not eating in restaurants (which give the choice or rice with cow, chicken, fish or eggs if you ask nicely) is such a bonus. As is being given fresh fruit juice several times a day.

The internet café doesn’t have firefox, and is slow beyond dial-up speed.

March 8th Hijacked By Patriarchy Shocker

I already had some idea of what it would be like, when I heard the male voice on a loudspeaker telling the town’s women they should all go to the Women’s day event.

When we got there, it was pretty evident the men would be running the show. Although it may have been a publicity stunt from the mayor and her mum, and they did give speeches at the beginning, the rest of the time the men had the floor.

We heard from a few male speakers how much they loved and respected women. Then a cheesy band got people dancing (the singer also let us know how much he was a fan). It was certainly nice to see people released from the normal constraint of only dancing in heterosexual couples. Then the MC announced that although mime acts were traditionally silent, this one wanted to say something. What a surprise. Yes, he likes women too. In fact, he considers us to be the best gift god gave the world. Ahhh.

I found the mime act confusing (in the sense of “Why are so many people laughing quite so much?”) when it wasn’t being offensive. The act “Making bread” involved kneading dough, going to the toilet, there not being any loo roll, using some dough instead, and then, here’s the punchline… carrying on making bread without washing his hands! You didn’t have to be there. The comical highlight of the act, “Woman in a shower” was the washing of imaginary breasts. Gives you insight into why Mr Bean is so popular around the world: the competition transforms him into a comic genius.
The school band consisted of eight boys with lovely shiny brass instruments, and two girls taking turns on a pair of cymbals. That was the low point for me. I preferred it when the girls got to do their dance acts.

The police constable explained that he wasn’t talking to us as a police constable, but as someone who loves, respects and admires woman, and who believes them to be the motivation for everything he does. The redemption was that his speech was the intro to the police’s contribution of a drag act beauty contest. Hooray for a bit of gender bending.

There were a few games (eg the classic who-can-eat-the-dry-bread-fastest) where some woman were at least participants rather than passive observers of the event. But participating only in the sense of being told what to do by men.

Overall, we heard from a variety of men how important us women were for them. How they appreciated all sorts of things about us, from our looks, to, errr, how we look, as well as our lovely sweet nature and our roles as mothers, daughters and friends. It was an event put on by the men of the town to show the women a good time. I guess it was never meant to be about empowerment. Maybe being constantly told you’re appreciated and wonderful was a good thing for people’s self esteem. It seemed clear that out of the 400 women packed into the hall, everyone (except grumpy me finding fault in everything) did have lots and lots of fun.

I went home quite wound up. Tried to relax infront of the tele. A message flashed up, “For your beauty and your patience. Happy Women’s Day”. Grrrr.

Update on Colombian politics

I had limited internet access during the time Colombia was making the international news. I did write something about it, but now it’s out of date cos since then everyone has hugged and made up.

The only comment I really want to make, is what great tele it made on Friday, when the Rio Summit was being broadcast live. Uribe was going over the supposed links Ecuador had with FARC. He stopped. Ecuadorian President Correa had just left the room, and Uribe said he didn’t want to carry on until he came back. The bottom of the screen flashes up “Correa walks out during Uribe’s speech”. Someone from Correa’s team explains he just popped to the toilet. The Chairman suggests a break. Cut to the newsroom. They explain the news “Uribe is waiting for Correa to get back from the bathroom.” Brilliant.

Remember the anti-FARC march on February 4th? Well as a response, a march against paramilitary violence happened on March 6th. A student activist had told me he didn’t agree with the plan because it could never be as big as the Feb 4th march with all the government and media support it got. Well, I’ve been amazed by how much press attention it did get. Sure President Uribe has said it’s pro-FARC and should be avoided. But the press has generally been positive and it’s lead to an unprecedented opening up of a topic which is normally so rarely reported.

As I was travelling to Regidor, I met a couple of victims on their 24 hour journey to Bogotá (One had a brother killed, the other’s father was shot in front of him and his other six brothers and sisters when he was 10). Their journey was funded, but it would be unaffordable to most. In paramilitary areas, I imagine people would not feel completely safe demonstrating, but plenty did. It wasn’t quite as big as February 4th, or in as many places here or around the world. But there were demos in a few capital cities, and although it had to compete with the Venezuela/Ecuador conflict in the news, it still had a pretty long feature.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

My first accompaniment

The bloke I’m accompanying on this trip is a trade unionist who was arrested by the army last year. After two weeks, the judge was skeptical about the evidence, and he was released. But while he was in there, pretty much everyone from the local army unit visited to get a good look at him. Meaning his risk of assassination is now pretty high. So he became one of Colombia’s three million internally displaced people and went to live in Bogotá. Unable to visit his farm or his girlfriend.

He was returning to the region (although not the bit where he lived where that army unit is) for the first time since he was released. He seemed to be quite chilled about it, and didn’t ask for any accompaniment, but given he had been asked to find people for me to work with when he was there, at the last minute he asked if I wanted to go along.

When I last wrote about Alejandro Uribe being killed by the army, I wondered about quoting that thing about 600 people marching to the army base. I’d found it as a secondary source on the internet, and I thought maybe I should be trying for more journalistic vigour. Since then, I talked to someone who was there, and said it was easily 600 – Alejandro knew loads of people, and many came from the town of Santa Rosa.

What I didn’t realize then, was that Alejandro’s death had a pretty concrete impact. People camped out in Santa Rosa for a month. There were 400 by the end, and 200 needed accompaniment back to the mining zone. The agreement reached due to this demonstration included that the army agreed to take soldiers out of villages (where they ask favours which are difficult to refuse, and put populations at risk of guerrilla attacks), and that there would be regular ‘Verification Missions’.

It was a Verification Mission we were going to. Lots of government agencies, a few NGOs, and the UN were all going on a trip to a mining village. The plan being, to get the local government to listen to concerns and to act on them.

So, back to another mining village. Three Toyota landcruisers (in convoy for safety) for the two hour dusty journey. The flash UN one with one authorized person per seat. Most people crowded on wooden benches on the back of the most battered vehicle, which got much admiration (as did its driver) in the way it managed the hilly, rocky, rubbish road.

Then just a 20 minute walk, but uphill in quite some heat. So I got why local government might need a bit of a prod to leave their air conditioned offices and come sleep on a mattress on the floor out there in the sticks.
When he arrived back at the town nearest the mining village, the man I was accompanying noticed a bloke start a phone call and say “The guy’s just arrived here, and seems relaxed.” It was the same informer who had made it known after his arrest that if he was seen again in the area, he would be killed. So he had a quick lunch and left.

Back in the city we get taxis short distances to avoid being seen. And have to go to the second-best fish restaurant cos the best one has a reputation for being full of paramilitary and informers.

It has been a real pleasure to hang out with such a nice bloke: Someone with both real integrity and an understanding of feminism. I asked him about how often he gets to see his children, given that some of them live where it’s not safe for him to go. He told me how he sees himself as part of two families – his immediate family and the wider family of everyone in the world. He puts a lot of value on his part in the wider family, and this leads to sacrifices.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Nuns in a riot

I met some very cool nuns. The bloke who’d set up the meeting for me had told me in advance that “son chevéres” (They're cool), and he was dead right.

There’s been a strike of palm oil workers happening in Puerto Wilches, and I was meeting with the nuns to hear about how they had been supporting the workers, and how I might be able to help.

They told me about the background to the strike. It started on January 30th by workers from the Monterey company. Monterey subcontracts the majority of its work to cooperatives. Which might sound like a good thing, but it really, really is not. It is done simply as a tactic to get over labour laws.

As Norma The Nun began to tell me about the workers’ conditions, my jaw started falling floorward. Seeing this, she commented how it had had the same effect on her.
Collecting palm oil seeds is not easy work. The men spend the day craning their necks, pulling bunches of seeds down from the trees. It's very hot. There are commonly spinal problems from looking up all day, and injuries from falling branches.

The job of injecting the trees with the pesticide monocrotophos (illegal in many countries) is often done with little protective gear. Last year 18 year old Emilio Sabas died after only two weeks at the job. He only had a flimsy face mask. No protective clothes or gloves. Blame of who should have been responsible for his gear bounced between the Monterey and his cooperative.
Given how most workers can hardly afford the food they need on their wages, extra clothes are not their priority. So they go home in the same clothes, hug their kids, have their clothes washed along with everyone else’s. And studies have shown levels of pesticide contamination in workers’ families.

The sorts of things the Monterey strikers were protesting against when they started, included how

- The many ways in which they get fined. For bunches with fewer than 8 branches, for bunches left in the trees, for bunches cut without leaves, for stems which are too long, and when bunches are too ripe and seeds fall out.

- Wages had not risen in five years

- Workers have to pay 100% of the transport costs of getting to the fields

- If they buy their tools from the factory shop (where they can get credit, which they need when they're paid late), they are 60% above market value.

- Workers have to pay for the transport of the seeds from the fields, and are fined for any damage to the carts, including wear and tear.

- The cooperatives are meant to pay 100% of the social security payments. Given that Monterey is often late paying the cooperatives, there are gaps in payment which leaves people with a big problem if they have an accident during one of the gaps. It’s risky work, so people do.

- Workers are fined for the seeds that fall loose on to the floor. Women collect them off the ground. They are paid, and the men are fined, according to their weight. That’s the bit that really made my jaw drop.

So the Monterey workers started the strike on January 30th. They were joined on February 13th by workers from many other companies. They set up a blockade on February 18th. Two groups of nuns were there, supporting two different sites, meeting up at 4am.

The nuns had gleaming eyes as they related the story. Riot cops arrived at 5.25am, threw in some tear gas, and there was a pitched battle til 8 or 9. The crowd grew from 300 to 5000 when the tear gas started. The police singled out people to beat up. They threw tear gas into houses with pregnant women and children in. One woman later miscarried. The nuns treated tear gas victims and told off lots of cops. People got wise to throwing water over tear gas canisters to neutralize them. The police then ran out of gas, were surrounded, and had to get rescued. They left the scene at 12pm.

The blockade lasted another week or so. There were some negotiation meetings, but the companies did not give an inch. Gutting. It’s common after agreements are reached for community leaders to be assassinated afterwards. I imagine they might be even more vulnerable when the power balance is such that they didn’t even win anything. Bit of a worry.