Friday, June 27, 2008

Storms and Gardens-To-Be

Funny how in traveling to rural Colombia I found one of the things I missed most from growing up in Michigan: thunderstorms.

Days here in San José alternate between cloudy and sunny, really hot and just plain hot, but come evening a thunderstorm is nearly guaranteed. Soon after sunset - which happens at essentially the same hour all year, since we're so close to the equator - lightening begins to break in they darkened sky. Soon after, the rumblings of thunder can be heard in the distance, and the wind picks up just a bit. After maybe half an hour, the rain starts pegging our tin roof, and at times doesn’t let up until dawn. It ebbs and flows, however, so if we’re out visiting a neighbor, we can wait for an ebb in order to race home without getting too soaked. Hopefully we remember to put on our botas – rubber boots – before leaving the house, so as not to get stuck in one of the many mud puddles the rain invariably creates.

Rain like this means we’re in winter right now. Using the term “winter" here, when the tempature seldom drops below 85, is a bit laughable to a Michigander like myself. What is even more amusing, however, is that winter is a season that lasts most of the year – at least 9 of twelve months. Basically, it rains here all the time. If by chance there are a few days without rain, people start talking about it being “summer.” This kind of summer never lasts more than a few days, though; soon, it’s raining yet again.

Rain like this also means things grow like crazy here. That’s a big part of the reason this region has long been the banana-growing center of Colombia, as I discussed in my last post, and why this land is so hotly contested between armed groups and the civilians who simply want to farm here. It’s also why I’ve been so excited to get a garden started in our backyard.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Organic Solidarity

Riding one of the chiveros (open-air jeeps - the picture at right is taken from the top of one) out of the town of Apartadó into the veredas, or villages, towards the Peace Community, I find myself surrounded by various kinds of banana trees. It seems about every day that someone brings us some kind of banana – the bananas we’re used to eating in the States, baby bananas, plantains, or the extra-sweet and squat manzanos. Cacao is a close second, and other crops grow quite well in the fertile soil, but it’s the banana that has dominated production and politics in this region.

Massive banana production began here in the 1960s, and in the 1970s Urubá, as this region is called, became the center of banana-worker organizing in the country. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when paramilitaries began to exert their power, they collaborated with the military to destroy the banana worker unions, along with their usual tactics of mass displacement and civilian killings. One of the two primary blocs of the AUC (the primary paramilitary organization until the recent demobilizations that I discussed two posts ago) that operated in the area called themselves the Bloque Bananero. These days, paramilitary groups control all the major banana buyers. If campesinos sell their bananas to these buyers, they are not only indirectly supporting paramilitarism but also locked into a production system that also obliges them to purchase inputs like pesticides from these same paramilitary-controlled companies.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bitter Papayas and Swinging Hammocks: Settling In

As I mentioned in my recent post about arriving in Colombia, in some ways not much of what I´ve done since I arrived feels very strange, in part because I’ve been to most of these places before and met many of these people. Much is still new, of course. Having arrived several days ago in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, I immediately have hadto use usted, the formal version of “you” always used here in el campo (the countryside), as opposed to the less formal I previously learned to use most often. I have discovered that papaya has a grayish, bitter goo that oozes out when you cut it, so it’s best to slice a few slits down the side of the fruit just before it’s ripe so the goo can seep out and the fruit can finish ripening without bitterness. And I´ve learned to call the place pictured at right my home!

With only a week under my belt, I continue to be confounded by all the names and familial relationships I have to learn, and amused by efforts to pronounce my own difficult name. I’ve taken to telling folks, if they have particular trouble with my name, that they can call me Mora (blackberry) or Mayra Mona (the blond Mayra, to distinguish me from the dark-haired Mayra who spent several months here in the community and is now on the FOR team in Bogotá).

Despite all the learning, life here so far is very chill (though it´s still strange to think about being here for a year). I called my mom a couple days ago (on a cell phone connected to an antenna on the roof of our house - the only way to get reception), and upon hearing my description of our calm, relaxed days here, she teased me that it sounds more like a vacation than anything else: reading, swinging in hammocks, yoga every morning, chatting with neighbors, etc. Life won´t always be like this: we´ll soon be taking, for example, mtultiple-day hikes through the muddy mountains to outlying areas of the Community. Nonethless, calm and quiet is exactly what we want, because it means the community is safe and we’re being most effective as accompaniers. With all this calm I might feel a bit useless, but the many times in just the few days I´ve been here that people have expressed their utmost gratitude for us just being here to accompany them reminds me that I am doing my job, even when for the moment I’m swinging in a hammock reading Barbara Kingsolver.

Recent Extraditions: The human rights implications

(with help from teammate Chris)

Though we don’t have reliable internet access here, I know that before I left US news was covering the extradition of 14 paramilitaries to the US to be tried for drug trafficking, so I thought I’d give a little a little perspective probably not heard there.

Colombian president Álvaro Uribe said he OK’d the extradition of these individuals because they were still running their drug trade business from jail, and the only way to stop that was to get them out of the country. US authorities had requested the extraditions as part of the United States’ War on Drugs (more on the failure of that later), which requests the extradition of traffickers to stand trial in US courts on drug-related charges.

However, those extradited were not only involved in drug trafficking, but also countless assassinations and human rights abuses. By extraditing these men, the Colombian government avoids receiving testimonies regarding their crimes, many committed together with Colombian politicians and members of the armed services.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Long-Awaited Arrival and a Quick Departure

Wow. Well I`m finally in Colombia, 18 hours later than I was originally supposed to arrive. Some of you know of my unbelievably terrible luck with airlines, and that luck once again reared its ugly head. But I got through it and I'm here, albeit a bit late. The thing I think was particularly difficult about all my delays was the weird state of limbo in which I felt caught: I had said all my goodbyes and packed up all my things, and was still feeling plenty of sadness from that, but didn't yet get to experience the excitement and distraction of a new place and people and language. It feels good to be in a real world again, not in an airport!

Don't think that my waiting stopped when I arrived in Bogotá, however. Immediately upon arrival at the airport I was whisked by my more seasoned coworkers to the office of DAS, which is kind of like ICE (Immigration, Customs and Enforcement) in the U.S. Because I have a visa for longer than 6 months, I have to get a cedula, which is the photo ID card that every Colombian (and aliens like me) must carry at all times. Apparently you're not allowed to smile for the ID photos - let me tell you, mine is not pretty, particularly since it was taken outside against a blue sheet hung on a wall. But whatever.

In some ways, being here in Bogotá feels rather familiar: I've been here before, even to this very apartment in which I'm staying, and I spent a week in training with the other volunteers also here, so I already know them a bit. We`ll see how that changes when I'm having to settle in San José, which will happen quite soon: Julia, the other new volunteer who arrived two days ago, and I leave Saturday! As much as I might like to spend a few days hanging out and getting familiar with Bogotá, I´m looking forward to starting the next little phase of my life there....