A green-and-red flag flies over a cluster of bamboo and tarpaulin tents on the frontline of an increasingly deadly struggle for land and the environment in Colombia’s Cauca Valley.
It is the banner for what indigenous activists are calling the “liberation of Mother Earth”, a movement to reclaim ancestral land from sugar plantations, farms and tourist resorts that has gained momentum in the vacuum left by last year’s peace accord between the government and the paramilitaries who once dominated the region – ending, in turn, the world’s longest-running civil war.
The ragtag outpost in Corinto has been hacked out of a sugar plantation, destroyed by riot police, then reoccupied by the activists, who want to stop supplying coca (the main ingredient for cocaine) to drug traffickers in the mountains by cultivating vegetables on the plains instead.
Despite two deaths in the past year, the Nasa Indians – the biggest, most organised and most militant of the 20 indigenous groups in the valley – have staged waves of monoculture clearance and occupation operations. Almost every other week hundreds, sometimes thousands, of machete-bearing activists join these communal actions, known as minga, which involve burning and hacking down swaths of sugar cane, then erecting camps and planting traditional crops including maize and cassava.
The Nasa see this in historical, spiritual terms. For them, it is the latest phase in a centuries-old struggle for land and a clash between two contrasting world views: one that seeks harmony with nature, and one interested only in extracting as much profit as possible, regardless of the impact on the people and the environment.
“Liberating the earth means defending the land,” says José Rene Guetio, a Nasa elder. “You can see the blood that has been spilled in the cause for better land and a better future for our children.”
Environmental concerns are also among the motivations. The Nasa say they should not be living in such large numbers near sacred sites in the hills, particularly lakes, wetlands and waterfalls. “There are too many of us in the mountains. That’s not good because we are destroying our water source,” said Eduin Mauricio Capaz, human rights coordinator for the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (Acin). But this position has pitted them against the law, state security and some of Colombia’s biggest property owners and global sugar suppliers.
The Colombian government sees things differently. It says the state has a responsibility to protect legally recognised property ownership and that indigenous land issues should not be confused with environmental protection. However, it acknowledges that peace has brought a destructive surge into land previously deemed off-limits because of occupation by the Farc. Deforestation in Colombia rose 44% last year. Coca production has also risen rapidly. To tackle this, President Juan Santos has demarcated more conservation areas and promised to use the army and work with former Farc combatants to protect forests.
The minister for the environment and sustainable development, Luis Murillo, said the state’s security apparatus was the answer to environmental problems, not the problem. “We need to move very quickly to establish a presence in areas where we didn’t have a presence before,” he told the Observer, noting that the government is working on measures to protect human rights and environmental defenders.
The Cauca Valley has long been the base of operations for many of the most belligerent paramilitary groups in the country. Even with the demobilisation of the biggest organisation, the Farc, 12 other armed groups are still active in the valley, which stretches for several hundred kilometres. Some are armed rebels, such as the National Liberation Army, but others are little more than death squads that charge two million pesos (£500) per killing.
Drug gangs, militias and private security firms – which often overlap – have made this one of the most dangerous places in the world for indigenous rights campaigners, environmental defenders and journalists. Last year a record 37 activists were murdered in Colombia, which is second only to Brazil in a world ranking of such killings, according to the NGO Global Witness. This year looks set to be a similar story, with 28 fatalities so far.
The worst clashes have occurred at Corinto, which is about an hour’s drive from Cali airport. This is where activists from the Nasa have stepped up their efforts to occupy land within a vast plantation owned by Carlos Ardila Lülle, a billionaire sugar, bottling and media tycoon.
On 9 May, 17-year-old Daniel Felipe Castro was killed and several others injured when police allegedly opened fire during a minga. “We were cutting down cane when police drove up in a pick-up truck and opened fire. It was as though they were trying to fumigate us with bullets. Those who didn’t get on the ground fast enough were hit,” said a relative of the dead teenager, who asked to remain anonymous. “They don’t want us here and we won’t move, so they are trying to kill us.”
The Observer spoke to three other activists who said police have been using live rounds. One showed a scar near his shoulder blade where he said he was shot last month. The bullet, still lodged in his body, could be felt beneath the skin on his back.
Hermes Pilicue, a Nasa elder, blamed the violence on the rising pressure for land now that the peace deal has opened up the region. “Colombia is supposed to be in the midst of peace, but in our territories the conflict continues,” he said at Acin’s head office in Santander de Quilichao. “The peace agreement has made our lives more difficult. More people are entering our territory to claim land, partly because the government is granting more concessions for mining and water use.”
A 2,000-strong guarda indígena formed from the 20 native communities in the valley has already closed down several mines despite threats from militias who are alleged to be in the employ of the owners. The volunteer force, dressed in green-and-red uniforms, is armed only with wooden staffs decorated with coloured tassels. Now that the Farc has laid down its weapons, the guarda are becoming more assertive.
Article one of the peace accord guarantees agrarian reform and states that land taken during the conflict will be given back to its rightful owners. The authorities do not specify what this means, but indigenous groups have interpreted this as a prompt to reclaim ancestral territory. “Until recently, the Cxhab Wala Kiwe (Nasa people) were absorbed in simply saving our community from war and preventing paramilitary groups from recruiting our children,” said Capaz, who is also a senior member of the indigenous guard. “Now there is no war, we can focus more on the liberation of Mother Earth. Extractive industries and monocultures are contrary to our belief system. People here are aware of what is going on elsewhere in the world. We know how the climate is changing. We know about contamination of the land. We don’t want that.”
Their campaign to carve out territory between the coca and the sugar cane challenges the colonial hierarchies in the valley. After the white Europeans pushed the indigenous people into the mountains, they built homes in the foothills and brought in African slaves to work on sugar plantations on the plains. Today, mostly black cane workers joke among themselves as they wait for a bus home after a harvesting shift that has filled a giant five-carriage truck. They express a mix of old prejudice and new admiration for the indigenous groups who want to clear their workplace.
“The Indians have land, but they don’t work hard on it. They are coming down from the hills because the price of coca and marijuana has collapsed,” said José Milton Mosqueira. “But they are making such a commotion that I guess they must feel like they have a genuine claim to the land.”
As he and his colleagues talk, dusk darkens the sky and lights start to appear on the distant slopes. First just one or two strings, then 10, then 100, until finally the hillsides are illuminated like a giant Christmas tree. Every bulb is a grow-lamp for marijuana crops – evidence of the continued reliance of small farmers on the drugs trade.
After agrarian reform and the demobilisation of the paramilitaries, the eradication of coca and marijuana crops was one of the key tenets of the peace accord. All three have hit snags that have added to violence and pressure on the land. The tension is evident in the once small coca-growing community of Monte Redondo. Here the locals – a mix of Nasa and mixed-race farmers – are signing up to a crop-replacement scheme, with the government promising compensation if they switch from drugs to citrus or coffee.
The farmers do not need much persuading. Economic forces are driving people away from drugs and towards the plains. The price of coca – which was never high at this bottom rung of the narco industry – has plunged. Growers say they are now selling for 1,000 pesos per pound – less than half the price before the peace deal. Many farmers are tired of the violence and disruption associated with the drug business, so about 95% are willing to switch despite intimidation by narco gangs who have murdered advocates of crop substitution.
“Even though they are afraid, people are signing up because they want a change,” said Briceida Lemos Ribera, a leader of the cocaleros (coca growers). “We are betting on peace, but it has made us a target of the people who benefited from war.”
The risks take many forms in this period of transition as former adversaries are now living in close proximity. Monte Redondo used to be a no-go area for the authorities because it was controlled by drug cartels and paramilitaries. Now it is home to three new encampments that sit almost side by side on the road: a police base piled high with sandbags; an army outpost with a dozen green tents; and rows of prefabricated housing for demobilised Farc guerrillas.
“If an area isn’t occupied, armed groups will move in,” said an officer in the military camp. “We are operating in areas where the state hasn’t been before. We are just a small part and we are taking turtle steps.”
But the peace is fragile. The week before the Observer’s visit, three police officers were killed in a grenade ambush. Former Farc warriors say the tension has increased, though in the long term they express optimism about the future. They see the peace as a victory for their long campaign for agrarian reform and fairer distribution of land.
“We’d like land. We want to have a farm,” said Oscar Aragón, who has just been released from prison, where he served six months for collaborating with the Farc.
“I want to be a cowboy and raise cattle,” former Farc combatant Henry Menézez tells the Observer. After seven years in the jungle, he says he would like to write a book about his experiences and his future work to build a new community. Eight days later, he is murdered in what is rumoured to be a revenge attack for the ambush of the three policemen.
While that killing is a hangover from the civil war, others are connected to the renewed Mother Earth campaign. Ultimately, however, despite the plethora of conflicts and militias, the fundamental cause is the same as it has been for centuries – land – and the victims are those who defend it.
At the other end of the Cauca Valley, a crack of thunder rumbles through the hills as a crowd of mourners joins a funeral procession for the latest indigenous victim of the campaign to liberate Mother Earth.
Efigenia Vásquez, a radio and video journalist from the Kokonuko community – which is allied to the Nasa – was shot in Puracé on 8 October as she recorded an attempted occupation of Aguas Tibias, a farm and hot-spring resort inside the indigenous reserve, owned by a former general. The Kokonuko activists were driven back by riot police. There was an exchange of teargas, stones and, from somewhere, a gun. Vásquez was hit twice and died later in hospital. Her colleagues at the Renacer Kokonuko radio station say she was aware of the dangers, but was determined to cover a conflict that was the central concern of her community. “She used to say ‘the family grows, but the land doesn’t. We must take back the land of our ancestors’,” recalled Marcela Abirama, who was with Vásquez in hospital when she died. “Eight days earlier, she told me we must cover the Mother Earth campaign even if we might get killed.”
Who fired the gun is disputed. The Kokonuko blame the police, who they say wanted to silence the community and scare them away from the land.
During the funeral procession, the mourners express defiance as well as sadness. “Adelante compañero (forward, comrade),” they sing, then stop outside the police station to taunt the officers inside: “You kill our women, we continue our struggle. You kill our journalists, we continue our struggle. Until when? Until forever!”
The authorities have a different version of events. A police officer said Vásquez was probably the accidental victim of a homemade gun used by Kokonuko renegades to fire clusters of ball bearings. He showed a video clip on his phone of what he said was indigenous protesters using such a weapon on the day Vásquez died.
There are multiple images of them using what looks like a crude rifle, but the friendly-fire theory does not account for the fact that two other members of the community were shot and wounded on the same day at different places and different times. The father of one of them – Wilmar Yace – said a bullet entered one of his son’s cheeks and exited the other – a wound that is more likely to be caused by a high-calibre rifle than a makeshift ball-bearing gun.
The journalist’s death has resonated internationally. The director general of Unesco, Irina Bokova, denounced the killing and called for an inquiry. Vásquez’s parents hope her death can raise awareness of the indigenous cause.
“She became a journalist so she could be a voice for the voiceless,” said her mother, Hilda María Astudillo. “She was always campaigning for her family and her children so they could live in peace when they grow up.”
But the peace Vásquez hoped for remains more elusive than ever. After the burial, the Kokonuko crafted shields from plastic barrels sawn in half. Others collected bottles and fuel for petrol bombs. The following morning, the battle for Aguas Tibias recommenced. Several hundred Kokonuko men descended on the beautiful site from all sides of the valley. They were met with volleys of teargas from about 80 riot police camped at the farm who had been fighting off encroachments for four days.
The activists charged forward carrying a large wooden door as a shield against rubber bullets, so they could get close enough to throw firebombs at the police. Behind them, young and old used slingshots and a makeshift catapult to hurl stones, which were collected in satchels from the road and stacked by the Kokonuko women. The police also threw stones and bolts as their arsenal ran low.
On this occasion there were no guns, no deaths, no serious injuries, but the campaign to liberate Mother Earth shows just how violent Colombia’s peace has become.
“After 50 years of war, we still have this,” said a local government official, who was turned away as she attempted to take supplies to the besieged police officers. She departed with a warning. “If we are not allowed through, the army will get involved. They will be coming soon.”