Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Protecting their mother: Afro-Colombians fight to reclaim their land from palm oil

Upodate: a version of this blog was published on August 30 on the Women's International Perspective.

Palm Oil plantation next to Camelias.
Photo by Charlotte Kesl

The first thing I notice after disembarking from the canoe that carried me across the Curbaradó River and scrambling up the bank are palm oil trees. Their rows of short, stout trunks topped by long green fronds stretch as far as my eye can see. I am visiting the Curbaradó River basin, located in Northwest Colombia near the Panama border, precisely because of the bitter struggle between afro-descendant farming communities and the palm oil companies that had taken over the land after the communities were violently displaced, yet I am taken aback by the overwhelming presence of palm oil trees, destined to become ingredients in cosmetics and snack foods

I soon turn my gaze to the military checkpoint a few meters from the river bank. I also know to expect this, and after years traveling in Colombia’s conflict zones, it doesn’t faze me much. My companions and I are waved through their gate made of guadua, a bamboo relative. The soldiers are part of the perimetral protection that Colombia’s Constitutional Court ordered last year as part of a process to restore the land to its “ancestral” inhabitants—those displaced afro-descendant farmers.  

A few more meters down the path I see a white flag suspended on a very long wooden pole. Shortly after, we approach a sign just behind a line of barbed wire fencing announcing the Humanitarian Zone of Camelias. We enter through the gate, passing between two houses suspended a few feet above the ground. I later learn, after hearing some gruesome snakebite tales, that the height protects from snakes, as well as from flooding during the rainy season.

Interviewing Cristobal.
Photo by Charlotte Kesl

After finding the house where we’ll be staying and guarding our groceries from all the tropical bugs in clear plastic tubs, I sit down to talk with Cristóbal Reyes. His baggy dark blue oxford shirt doesn’t hide his slight frame, and he regularly checks his watch to see if it’s time for us to leave to accompany him part of the way back to his home in Nueva Esperanza (New Hope), in the neighboring Jiguamiandó River basin. He doesn’t hesitate, however, when I ask him to tell me about the violence that led to the displacement of all the Afro-descendant and mestizo campesinos – small-scale farmers—in Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó river basins, starting in 1996.