WORDS BY Sandra Ramirez Acuna
Defending the land can be deadly in certain parts of the world. A Colombian land defender shares her new year wish with The Frontline: to care for the land without the fear of death.
We wake at 5 a.m. I grab the thermos, a backpack, paper, and markers and jump in our old jeep that has seen its share of rough terrain. Three hours across rivers, broken roads, and landscapes vibrant with green, water, and light. From time to time, men on horseback carrying rifles flash by.
We arrive at a remote school, and colleagues from the local peasant association welcome us with more coffee and beaming smiles. Yet our destination is further still, and we set out on foot, another two hours along a twisting path through the hills.
Finally, around 10 a.m., we arrive at Pedro María’s house where caturra coffee plants grow. Several families are gathered with rubber boots, hats, and machetes. We’ve come to finish the wastewater treatment system on his farm.
Our Colombia is a place where, despite centuries of exploitation, the land still provides for millions of working people. It’s also a place where those who rely upon and defend the land are under constant threat of violence. As we start the new year, let’s honor those whose lives were cut short—and manifest a future where we can finally live in peace.
We begin work, always laughing, in the middle of coffee plantations, thick forests, clouds, mountains, and the sound of stunning birds that live peacefully alongside us. To build the wastewater treatment system, we reuse plastic tanks, hoses, and bottles. The strongest take turns using the spade while the unrelenting sun makes us sweat.
By midday, we break and meet around the table. We tell stories of a Colombia of decades past. Of the bombings of the ghost plane, the atrocities of the paramilitaries and the guerrillas, the horrors of the leg-breaking mines, the loved ones for whom we are still waiting.
Since the signing of the peace accords in 2016, which nominally ended Colombia’s long-running civil war between the government and armed guerrilla groups, this has been our dream. A dream of working as a community to return to the lands vacated by the armed groups, those lands that have always belonged to us but that we were forced to abandon. It’s a dream we’ve kept alive for years—a dream that we’ll continue to pursue in 2022.
We chose agroecology. We chose organic crops, making a bet on international sustainability certifications and fair trade markets. We chose healthy soil, clean air, and good food for the world.
Now, free from mountain wars, free from the gunfire, free from planes spreading glyphosate, and free from the mines, we decided to make the transition from coca and heroin crops, which are illegal, and instead grow what our ancestors seeded: delicious, aromatic, chocolatey Colombian mountain coffee.
We chose agroecology. We chose organic crops, making a bet on international sustainability certifications and fair trade markets. We chose healthy soil, clean air, and good food for the world. We compost with coffee pulp and farm waste, reuse garbage, and eliminate the use of agrochemicals. This approach—this decision—is why we’ve gathered at María’s farm to build this sustainable wastewater system. The pandemic and violence have made it hard for us to sell our crops, but our love for the lands helps us believe in a brighter future this new year.
As the sun sets and we finish our last coffee of the day, María warns me not to be out too late. Because even after the peace accords, the threats to those who protect the land haven’t disappeared.
New armed groups moved into the vacuum that the FARC rebels left behind, hoping to revive the narco-trafficking trade. Our pleas to the authorities about their presence have been met with silence. It’s politically inconvenient to acknowledge the existence of these new armed groups. We’re also facing opposition from major agrochemical groups that want peasants to buy their genetically modified crops and seeds. They see no future for organic food in our region. And so, the politicians ignore us. We hold onto faith that future elections will change our future, but we know change will take time, especially given the economic interests in our resources.
Our claims to our land, drinking water, energy, health, education, and environmental sustainability are in direct opposition to the interests of these armed groups. So, they burn coffee lots. With every community meeting comes more reports of these brutal acts. Threats, persecutions, physical assaults, sexual assaults, displacement, and murders all become part of the rural scenery.
The police, corrupt to the core, have decided to support our attackers, so we’re on our own. Still, we stick with our decision: We choose the land.
The police and armed groups know the way to silence us is by attacking community leaders and removing anyone who makes noise. In response, many of us have left our lands, and many have lost their lives. In Colombia, 65 environmental defenders were murdered in 2020. Their killers go unpunished; fear is once again the protagonist. Meanwhile, our politicians tell the world beautiful lies about their stewardship for the environment.
All I’m left with are questions. How can we talk about climate justice without social justice in Colombia? How can we turn the tide on the climate crisis if land defenders are systematically attacked? How can we speak of a just transition if we leave behind the communities that have already suffered the worst of climate change? How can we end another year with more deaths than the last?
These remain unanswered.