INSIDE COLOMBIA – (CAPURGANÁ, Colombia) The armed conflict has persisted in the Gulf of Urabá, 30 kilometers from the border with Panama.
Since the 1970s, armed groups have been fighting for control in the area, which is the gateway to the Darién jungle and its narco-trafficking corridor.
But Capurganá, one of Urabá’s villages that’s part of the municipality of Acandi, has managed to keep the conflict on its outskirts and establish itself as an exotic tourist destination in the Colombian Caribbean. The village has four hotels and 30 hostels, offering a variety of services and prices.
After the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fought with security forces from the village in 1999, Carlos Alberto Uribe collected more than 7,000 bullet casings to create a sign reading: “Dios y Madre, Amor y Paz. Con los residuos de la guerra construiremos la paz” (“God and Mother, Love and Peace. With the relics of war we will build the peace.”)
The sign, which was at the entry to Uribe’s home for years and featured in newspapers and magazines based in the country’s interior, disappeared years later. But its message, along with Uribe’s art, continues to attract visitors to the village.
Uribe, 58, has rummaged through life to support himself and his family without being seduced by the illegal businesses that are prevalent throughout the region, including the drug trade, illegal logging and migrant trafficking and smuggling, among others.
Amazed by the amount of trash accumulated in the streets of Capurganá that winds up in the makeshift dump or in the Caribbean Sea, he found recycling provided him with the raw materials for his artwork.
His first work was a platform with beer crates in front of the place where molas – textile handicrafts created by indigenous Kuna women, who are the ancestral inhabitants of the Gulf of Urabá– were sold. The Kuna retreated into Panama upon the arrival of Spanish settlers and, much later, because of the intensification of the conflict in Colombia.
Some museums in Europe, Asia and the Americas have molas in their collections.
Uribe and his wife, Edilia Salazar, 55, support themselves through the sale of handicrafts at his residence that’s become a tourist attraction he calls the “house of the molas.”
On Sundays and Mondays at 6 a.m., Uribe circles the soccer field on his bike, collecting recyclables left by his neighbors.
During the Cigua Festival (the cigua is an edible sea snail found in the region), which is held every October in Capurganá, Uribe loses sleep collecting mountains of garbage, which he brings home and organizes according to the requirements of his art projects that decorate his gardens and corridors.
His curtains are made from alcohol bottle dispensers; paintings of birds and trains feature colored caps; a crucifix was created with a magnet and forks; and garden tiles have been made from TV screens.
Another of his projects involves developing the world’s longest chain made of beer can tabs. The chain, with roughly 180,000 tabs, already is about 600 meters long – and growing. He just needs the US$1,000 to register with Guinness World Records. But until he does, the chain is a curtain over one of the doors of his residence.
“There’s almost no more room here for recycling,” he said. “All containers should be recyclable and not have so much packaging to prevent this avalanche of garbage from covering the world.”
In his guestbook, messages are left by travelers from all over the world, including Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, the United States, Italy, Austria, India, Qatar, Latvia, South Korea and South Africa.
German Horst Zerfel first came to Capurganá in 2000 and visited Uribe’s residence, which Uribe refers to as a “bottle home,” as a tourist. He was so impressed with Uribe’s work and the beauty of the meeting of jungle and sea in the region that he returned on four other occasions.
Using beer crates, Horst built a room in the garden of Uribe’s house and organized a workshop where he creates handicrafts on a table made from a refrigerator door.
Additionally, he built a wall with translucent glass bottles and a life-size figure made of recycled materials inviting visitors to make donations as they exit the residence.
In recent days, intense summer weather has prompted the rationing of water for the first time since Uribe arrived in Capurganá, 18 years ago.
“There has always been an abundance of water here, and nobody does anything to care for it,” Uribe said. “But all this neglect has its consequences. If we continue like this, the [conflict] will go from being over control of the drug trade to control over the water and increasingly scarce resources.”
Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a 3-part series about the Gulf of Urabá. On 04/06/2014, Infosurhoy published a report on the role of women in the effort to prevent more young people from the Obrero neighborhood in Apartadó from joining the ranks of Colombia’s armed groups. On 05/06/2014, Infosurhoy published a report on land restitution to the communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó in the jungles of the department of Chocó.