Saturday, April 19, 2008

Snapshots of Regidorian lives

Alberto had been farming some land with no legal protection, so when asked to leave by the landowner, he had no choice but to become yet another landless campesino in the municipality of Regidor, Southern Bolivar.

He has spent the last two weeks clearing some land next to a road. He intends to plant food crops such as corn and yucca. It is owned by an oil company as it has a pipeline beneath it, and although he could be told to leave it at any point, given that this oil company have tolerated all the others doing the same thing, he is hopeful he might be able to stay there for a few years.

The next time he is moved on, perhaps he will be able to find another disused corner somewhere near enough to walk to. Although in a few years time his food crops will have even more Oil Palm to compete with.

Nicolas paid 7 million pesos (1300 pounds) for some land. Unfortunately, he’d been tricked and the person he had paid wasn't the owner. So he continued in his landless state.

Unlike many I've met in his situation, he was an exceptionally cheery fellow. The disused corner of land he's been farming for the last two years is on a small island. I asked if the owner minded. It turned out the land belonged to the family of the person who had brought me there to meet him. So we can presume he’s safe there for a good while.

This is one of the many, many bits of land I've been shown which now floods in the winter. Two years ago, the water would drain away. Now that a palm company has blocked up the drainage stream so that their own land remains dry, these four hectares owned by Davíd can no longer be used to grow corn. He receives no compensation for the lost harvests which used to bring in around six million pesos (1500 pounds) a year. Like many others have done, he explains to me how the power of the palm companies means no one wants to make a fuss. (Nearby a couple of weeks ago, the army took a man away. People don't know why, but it adds to their general desire to keep quiet.)

This is one of the fifty displaced families living in Regidor. They came two years ago, fleeing paramilitary violence in another area. The husband works for a palm company, earning between 10 000 and 16 000 pesos (2.80-4.50 pounds) for a ten hour day. The wife tells me that palm is the only work he could find, and his social security is not paid so he would like to move to another firm who do pay benefits. His earnings do not cover their costs, and they have a debt of over 200 000 pesos (55 pounds) for food.

None of the displaced families are doing well economically. Due to Oil Palm, land is expensive and there is little available to grow food crops.

Diana and Omaira share our back yard. Diana has physical and learning difficulties and Omaira has a degenerative disease. Neither of them find walking easy. They spend pretty much all day every day sitting in the shade. Diana has her lunch brought to her by her sister's family. Omaira's comes from a niece.

There should be state support for people such as them who need it. But local politics rarely works like that. Here the families of those who actively supported the current Mayor's campaign, get the support they are entitled to. Those who didn't, don't.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A death threat brings it home

Yesterday, in the office where I'm writing this, my friend turned up with the bit of paper we had known about for days. Such is communication in these parts, the death threat emailed to various recipients on April 4th, had only come to the attention of us in Regidor on the 9th, and we only had it in our hands on the 11th. It turns out the death threat does not list my friend by name, but it is very clearly him referred to as "Leader of Regidor, obstacle to a good municipal government". Drawing on a particular turn of phrase often used by the local mayor.

The threat is addressed to four people (one by name, two by profession and my friend specifically referred to) and various organisations, with the subject "Get out of the Magdalena region".

As it got passed round those who had arrived to read it, I got to witness a scene that must be frequently played out throughout Colombia.

Since hearing about the threat to his life, my friend who previously always seemed so cock-sure and relaxed, now fidgets constantly. As people read the details, they realised that the group as a whole was also included, and the fear spread round the room.

They discussed the fact that the threat was very serious. The consequences that my friend leaving would have on their work. Who would want to get involved now, and risk becoming the next target? Would the micro-credit scheme have to fold? What would that mean to the lives of those with loans? If he left, would the work continue? If he didn't, what were the risks for him? Can a community response be organised to increase everyone's safety?

I listened with a sense of detached and objective interest. I felt pretty sure that their weighing up of risks would be a wise one and that he would leave before anything bad happened to him. So it interested me to watch the effect that words sent in an email a week before could have on a community. The potential for a positive response that would strengthen the community, like what happened after Alejandro Uribe's death. The possibility that this threat-as-opportunity attitude would not win out.

In a way it made me angry and frustrated that it can be so easy to spread such fear. Someone somewhere creates an email account, sends out a threat, and communities are crippled, organisations fall apart.

But I understood too, that this email works because it is not just an empty threat. People know how close the nearest paramilitary base is. People know who in their community have been killed in recent years. And when we heard that for the last two days two paramilitaries have been seen talking on the phone in the alleyway by my friend's house, I started to feel a lot less detached.

Postscript: I wrote all that a few days ago, but thought I'd wait until we'd left Regidor before posting it, so's not to overly worry my Dad. Not that he should worry anyway. My international status makes me pretty safe.

It turned out that the 'threat-as-opportunity' mentality has won out impressively well. My friend was pretty pleased with the way the community has rallied round him, and we went to a fair few meetings to discuss the community's response before we left.

Given that the death threat also named some catholic priests and the EU-funded Program for Peace and Development, there has been political power on our side, and the threat has made national news. It is the first time I've seen a death threat reported in the media since I got here. (And I know there have been more.)

The press release my organisation sent out has been translated into English. Mysteriously, when it asks you to write to people in the Colombian government to complain, it misses out most of their emails. Here they are for your convenience:,,,,,,,,,, anticorrupció, reygon@procuradurí,,

Don't worry that it's been a few days since the threat. It's still incredibly helpful for the government to know that people abroad are noticing these things. Colombia's international reputation is important to them, especially as their human rights record is part of the debate currently thwarting their hopes for a free trade agreement with the US.

And don't worry about writing in English. You can always copy in the demands in Spanish (the four points after 'Solicitudes').

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Decree 2007 remains intact

In 2001 the last mayor of Regidor passed Decree 2007 which meant that land here can only be sold from campesino to campesino. This was specifically to make it harder for the palm companies to obtain land.

The current mayor, with family ties to the palm industry, unsurprisingly wants this to change. A meeting was set up of the committee which has the power to undo the decree.

It was an open meeting. A friend of mine spent time going round various communities informing them of the importance of their attendance at this meeting, to show their support for keeping this decree. Over sixty of them turned up, including almost thirty from San Cayatano, a community who have already lost their land to a palm company.

To start with, we heard the mayor explain why we should get rid of this decree which is against the interests of campesinos. The two people who then spoke in favour of it got interrupted, shouted at, and personally insulted by her. My friend was told he had manipulated people by encouraging their attendance.

To his great disappointment, not a single one of the sixty people who had travelled in from the surrounding area to attend the meeting, spoke out in support of the decree. Which was quite some testament to how scared people are. As I've mentioned before, the mayor's family does have a reputation for its paramilitary connections. The small community of San Cayatano has lost seven people to the conflict in the last ten years. Five killed by guerrillas around ten years ago, and two killed more recently by paramilitaries. So people perceive the risks as very real. My friend who did speak out, was directly confronting the very people who had arranged the three threatening phone calls he has received. The next day he told me how nervous he was feeling.

Fortunately, with all the shouting and the poor facilitation and the tendancy of meetings to involve lots of talking and opinions and little decision-making and action points, Decree 2007 remains intact.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

There are good guys and bad guys

I’ve run in to both the defensoría (Public Defender who collects human rights complaints) and the fiscal (Public prosecutor who processes legal complaints) from Rio Viejo on a number of occasions now. They both seemed pretty friendly, and I hadn’t formed much of an opinion on either of them.

I made an appointment to talk to the defensoría about the complaints he’d received about palm companies.

He started with an analysis of the problem of palm, which included the fact that the wealth is not owned by the community. When corn is grown, those harvesting it get paid in kind in addition to their wage. After a corn harvest, the leftovers are available to whoever wants to go collect them. Birds eat corn and form part of the ecosystem.

Nothing eats palm. It does not contribute to region’s biodiversity. Workers are paid the same ‘going rate’ (12 -15 000 pesos), but without a bag of corn cobs or whatever food stuff they were harvesting, they are significantly poorer.

Because for the first two to four years no seeds are produced, and full production does not start for another five years after that, oil palm is only a business for those with significant capital to invest.
Wealth and the power that goes with it, are further concentrated in the hands of the few. Who don’t always use it fairly. Most of the palm companies do not make the social security payments they are meant to, making their employees vulnerable. One company which often pays late, points its workers to the loanshark at the gate on pay day. He charges 10% interest, and is suspected of being mates with the management, and of using the same money the workers should have got directly.

Sharing his analysis it was already clear the defensoría was a good ‘un.

Then he told me about a particular case of a farmer whose land is completely surrounded by palm company land. They had blocked his rights of way to his land with ditches and fences. They unilaterally cut down the trees dividing the land (which would normally happen only by mutual agreement), which fell onto and damaged the farmer’s fence. His cows got out, and some were killed while others received machete wounds.

He made a complaint to the defensoría. A counter-complaint was made, concerning the fact that he had opened up the fence that was blocking his right of way (see photo).

The fiscal, whose office is next door to the defensoría, is apparently not one of the good guys. He is prosecuting the farmer for damage to the fence, but not the palm company for any of its infractions. “This is how Colombian justice works” the defensoría tells me. Bribes being a staple of the criminal justice system, and palm companies being in a far better position to afford them.

It struck me how enormously frustrating being one of the good guys must be. He spends his time receiving complaints about injustices, but has no power to get them processed. His neighbour the fiscal came in while we were talking, was all friendly and jovial with the defensoría, who gritted his teeth and was friendly enough back. All the times I’d seen such friendliness between them before, I had no idea what lay beneath it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Postscript to March 8th Hijacked By Patriarchy

I met up with the woman who organises the women’s group here in Regidor. I particularly wanted to get the low-down on what she made of Women’s day on March 8th being hijacked by men. Turns out it really was a hijack. The women’s group was meant to be co-running the event with the town council. They had intended something more educative, and had planned presentations and a visual piece about domestic violence. She was out of town for the few days before, and arrived back just in time to watch the event be dominated by men, with no proper time even made for her to explain the work of the women’s group. So maybe it wasn’t just me who found it annoying. Although she seemed more resigned than irritated.

She told me a problem with the women’s group is that people are not able to attend meetings. Child rearing is the main focus of most women’s lives. And they tend to have a lot of them. Their husbands are not so partial to helping out even for the duration of a meeting. So they are stuck at home.

Apparently, some women are not allowed to leave their houses much at all. Husbands may have trust issues. There is not such of a culture of visiting female friends. And while this small town has a surprising number of pool halls, they contain only men. There are precisely no public spaces for women to socialise in.

I guess that means some victims of domestic violence are isolated to the extent that they don’t even have anyone to hide the bruises from. Literally never leaving the house. The thought does my head in to be honest. Our Asian neighbours in Birmingham may not leave the house to walk to the corner shop, but they get driven about for plenty of social visits. Although I guess in every culture there are some women stuck at home and suffering.

While women everywhere face similar problems when weighing up whether to leave the short-term certainties of a home and some family income for the unknown, which may or may not bring longer-term benefits, in a country such as this, making that break is particularly difficult. The lack of economic independence is even more critical when considered together with a lack of social welfare and a quantity of children. And strong social norms lead to women accepting their lot and staying quiet.

March 8th could have been a great opportunity to have educated women about their rights and sources of support. As it was, 400 women having a rare chance to socialise together had more significance than I realised at the time.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Love & Machismo

When I got here, my standards for pulling were

1) Not in a monogamous relationship
2) A decent gender analysis
3) No moustache

I soon realised this would equate to six months of celibacy. So 2) was downgraded to "Vaguely decent gender politics", then to "Not machista" (A particular brand of sexism and male chauvinism they have here), then "Not overly machista".

After two months, the bloke I found at least conformed to 1) and 3). The jury was still out on 2).

What might be warning signs in the UK, I made allowances for, given the cultural context. I was told off for saying I didn't need his hand to help me make the very easy step from river bank to canoe-ferry. Apparently when he hadn't offered it before, people had shouted “Give her a hand”, and me refusing it made it look like we were arguing.

Early on, I pulled him up on a comment about women being experts at manipulating men. But I thought it wasn't worth ending a relationship over, especially when continuing would be such a rich learning experience.

In the UK, a relationship with a particularly alpha male had taught me an invaluable amount about the patriarchal society I live in. How men who are more tied up in it have an expectation that their needs will be fulfilled by women.

Here that tendency is far more pervasive. And men whinging on about their needs not being met is something I find a proper wind up. There's a whole genre of music seemingly devoted to the subject (corridos), but in any genre I catch lyrics of men singing about how she's left him (so ask yourself why!) and how they can't live without her love.

At the Assembly of the Federation of Farmers and Miners of Southern Bolivar, a woman was explaining how the experience of their micro-credit scheme was that women were more responsible. The same man got up to speak who had just joined the lunchtime women's meeting I'd been in. He listened a while to us organising a women's event, and then interrupted to speak at length to ask how we could help with his grandchildren's educational needs. So I was expecting a level of ignorance, but his comment (and some vociferous clapping from a few) left me convinced I must have heard wrong. No, apparently he did actually say that it's not that they don't give women a space, it's that they go past the space they've been given.

Then there was a musical interlude. Someone who'd done some great performance poetry earlier, undid any respect I had for him by explaining how the next song was for all men who had ever cried over a woman, as he believed there wasn't a man alive who hadn't. The song was about if you treat a woman well and give her flowers ("woman like those details"), she'll respond to your caresses. ie tips on how to get women to meet your needs, given that's what they're here for.

It occurred to me that what all these men crying over women are actually lamenting is the loss of their needs being met. That might seem a bit harsh, but I feel the idea is supported by my experiences.

Blokey told me he loved me an hour after our first snog. I told him that given he hardly knew me, he was confusing love and lust. He denied this repeatedly, and was more forthcoming with the keenness than anyone I've ever been with.

There was pressure to return the keenness. For the first time, I was instructed to tell someone I loved them. (I explained why that was a daft instruction, and I'd tell him if and when I felt it.) When he answered his own question "Do you know what it means to me to be lying here next to you?" with the word "suffering", I failed to avoid laughing out loud. I think the response that he expected was probably more sympathetic and ego-stroking.

I'm only here for two more weeks, and it would have been very simple to opt for the easy life and lubricate our time together with some expressions of keenness that I didn't feel. Responding to demanding behaviour with what is being asked for can be less tiring than resistance.

Which helped me to understand where his comments about women being manipulative come from. "A woman's feeling that she must get around a man is the hallmark of male dominance." (Steven Goldberg) Manipulation is what you resort to when you lack the power to confront directly.

While his expressions of love and enthusiasm continued being expressed, I was not feeling like our relationship was particularly good quality in terms of closeness, connection or communication.

When he told me that his partner (who had left him 6 weeks before) was returning to him the next day, he didn't seem to get the point that that was us finished. He told me I should learn to do it the Colombian way. That there's nothing more beautiful than secret love and stolen kisses.

I was amazed that my obsession with honesty and integrity in personal relationships had not come across to him still. To me, it's such an enormous and integral part of my identity. If that's who I am, and he so clearly hasn't got me, who has he been 'in love' with? Conclusion: Someone who was meeting his needs.

My integrity had already been compromised by the complications of how much things are very different here. He had originally wanted us to have a secret relationship because in this town it is looked on badly if you get together with someone less than three months after your last relationship. He wanted me to hide it from my Christian landlady/friend and her short-tempered husband. I did tell her, but she asked me to hide it from her husband and from the town, as her fellow church goers would judge her for letting it happen and she would lose respect and social standing.

I was left feeling pretty sad. That relationships here are so full of lies, which complicate and prevent closeness. He seemed to view what we had as something special, and given the lack of connection felt at my end, I feel sad for him his benchmark is so low. And sad for his partner that she's back with someone so demanding and misogynistic and deceptive. And given he definitely was "not overly machista" and is in many ways a pretty top bloke, very, very much sadder for all those Colombian women who have to put up with so much worse.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Even less like the National Farmers’ Union

There were criticisms I didn’t voice about the National Farmers’ Union (Coordinador Nacional Agrario) assembly as I didn’t want to be too rude. Although it functioned well as a networking space and a morale booster, it basically consisted of three days sitting in a big room listening to people talking. For the one small group session we had, my group had over 30 people, of which only a small proportion (and only one woman) spoke.

The Assembly of the Federation of Farmers and Miners of Southern Bolivar was organised to promote more active participation from delegates. I wondered if that was because two women were involved in the agenda setting. When I asked one of them, she took no credit, but went off on a long rant about how CNA was built top down while the Federation had started from its bases, meaning it has a much more participatory and horizontal structure today. She considered it a better organisation for her to work with, unlike the CNA which remains uncomfortably hierarchical.

I found the sessions more interesting. Partly because I now understand much more of what’s going on around me, but also as they were focussed on forming proposals together rather than listening to egos rabbiting on.

Another difference from the CNA assembly was that for the first time since I got to Colombia, I got to witness a bit of state intimidation.

I was called out of a session to be part of the international presence standing around the army sergeant who had come in, wanting to be introduced to all the leaders of the event, and to attend the gathering. When I arrived, he was being pretty insistent, and was demanding the ID of the person who was politely trying to dissuade him. It was beautiful to watch how quickly this power balance shifted when extra people joined the group. A little more on the defensive, the sergeant changed his track and began to talk about how he merely wanted to take this opportunity to make a connection with the Federation, because they both had the same goals of being in favour of community development. And anyway, it was a public event and he had every right to be there.

Very interesting to watch the dialogue. Colombians tend to have this indirect way of dealing with conflict, so the sergeant was never directly contradicted. Even when his points were really rubbish. It was put to him that there was a time and a place for making such connections, and this was not it. And it was not a public event anyway.

Alejandro Uribe, the Federation member killed by the army in 2006 had quite a presence at the event. He was mentioned many times, including being sung about. It was said that if he hadn’t been killed, and if people hadn’t reacted in the way that they did (now I’ve heard it was 5000 people mobilised in Santa Rosa for 45 days), many more people would have been killed since.

I wondered whether it was worth explaining to the sergeant that given the army had killed a close mate of many of the people present, surely he could understand that people might find his presence intimidating.

Someone from the EU-funded Program for Peace and Development got the Vice-President’s office on the phone and handed it to the sergeant. While he was being told off from on high, a member of the Christian Peacemakers’ Team asked a similar question: Would it be useful to mention Alejandro’s death and the dialogue with the army which has followed. The Colombians present gasped in horror, and were emphatic that that would just inflame the situation.

Brilliant that they were so in control of the situation then. I would have made a right mess of it. Subtlety and indirectness really not being my strength.

After a few minutes on the phone, the army sergeant left. Tail between his legs.

Back in the session, it was explained what had happened, and also that the Federation’s president Teófilo Acuña (who I wrote about in my post “My first Accompaniment”) had had to leave early that morning. The army were overheard the previous day trying to guess which one was him, and the same informant I previously mentioned was still in town.

Apparently that informant had been outside the gathering half an hour before the sergeant made his entry. He had tried to get in, and then came back with some police who asked those on the door why they weren’t letting him in, and on seeing a group of miners being allowed passed, they said they needed to get in because “four guerrillas had entered”.

As with the sergeant, the assertiveness of my Colombian colleagues won through and the police gave up and left. So this year, the intimidation did not affect the Assembly’s proceedings too greatly, other than the absence of its president. Last year the first half day was wasted while the army would not let them begin.

By the way – the lovely Teo is visiting Britain this month. Speaking dates in London and Bristol. Will keep you informed.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Gotcha: Typical of me.

The most surprising thing I've seen in my time here was when I was eating my breakfast at the Assembly of the Federation of Farmers and Miners of Sur de Bolivar. A bloke came in wearing a t-shirt with a reproduction of the 'Gotcha' Sun front page from the Falklands War.

Enough shame that we fired on the Belgrano when it was retreating. Enough shame that 323 people were killed. Enough shame that a national newspaper chose to celebrate it so coarsely. But I hadn't realised the shame continues with the existence of a 'Gotcha Publications Inc' celebrating that celebration. And that enough people concur so that a t-shirt ends up marketed and bought in Colombia.

Well, the culmination of all that shame got me a bit fired up. I happened to be sitting next to an Argentinian, so I explained the wrongness of it to him. But that didn't cure me of the need to go on about it some more. So I called the poor bloke over to ask if he wanted to know what his t-shirt meant. His lack of an affirmative answer didn't stop me. And sadly his obvious and intense discomfort at being given this information in front of an audience somehow didn't help me stop either. As will come to know surprise to anyone who knows me.

Half an hour later he returned in another t-shirt.