Land of Egrets, Guava Trees and Big Hair!

Juanita and Paola speaking with El Garzal community leaders

This past Saturday, July 19, I traveled out to the Magdalena Medio region with two colleagues from Justapaz, Jenny and Angélica. We were looking forward to meeting again with the community of El Garzal and strategizing with them about how to best support their ongoing struggle for their land and to visiting the rural community of El Guayabo for the first time, after having heard about their struggle from Pastor Salvador in El Garzal and from the Christian Peacemaker Teams

Delicious stew in the making.

We were also joined by my wife, Paola, a physical therapist, and Juanita, a public health educator, both professors in the health sciences department at Bogotá’s Rosario University. They were there to do some initial research they hope will lead to a project aimed at improving El Garzal’s access to health services. Currently it can take anywhere from two to eight hours to get to the nearest doctor from El Garzal.

In the afternoon, Jenny, Angélica and I spoke with the community leaders about the challenges of their case. Up until the middle of last year we were hopeful that the case was making progress in Colombia’s Rural Development Institute – Incoder, but after a change in Minister of Agriculture, the Director of Incoder and the Coordinator of Incoder’s Land Management Division, we are back to the drawing boards. The community, probably better than we do, understands that this is a long and difficult process and their resoluteness is an inspiration. 

Pastor Salvador with pictures
A special treat on this visit was finally delivering a bunch of pictures and beautiful picture books [web-based photo essay/pdf], from M.R. Georgevich, a UCC delegate who visited El Garzal in 2013. The smiles that lit up the community members’ faces as they found themselves in the pictures were priceless. 

Sunday began by saying goodbye to Paola and Juanita at 5:30 a.m. – on their way back to Bogotá, followed by a 6 a.m. worship-service at the El Garzal Foursquare Church – in this climate it is best to beat the heat by getting an early start. After worship and a breakfast of arepas, scrambled eggs and black coffee, we set out on the hour-long hike to the edge of the river. There a large canoe with an outboard motor – known here as a Johnson – awaited to ferry us across the Magdalena River and to the community of El Guayabo.

As we arrived, the community proudly displayed their new sign, which told of who they are, “a peasant community defending their territory”, what they believe in, “civility, justice and peace”, and who supports them, numerous organizations including the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Sign identifying the El Guayabo peasant community
We met with the community on the farm where riot police had shown up last week to evict them. Eventually the eviction failed, as the community nonviolently resisted. We gathered under a large mango tree to hear of how they had taken over the land after a previous owner had abandoned it over thirty years ago. Pastor Abel of the El Guayabo Foursquare Church joined us and opened the meeting with prayer. We learned that most of the community attends one of the three churches with services there, the Foursquare Church, the United Pentecostal Church and the Catholic Church.    
One of the El Guayabo farms

A highlight of the meeting was sharing prayers and messages of support we had received from churches and individuals in the United States, Mexico and Colombia. 

We join with Christian Peacemaker Teams and their call for urgent action on behalf of El Guayabo. You can sign a petition to the police inspector here. Please continue to keep both El Garzal and El Guayabo in your thoughts and prayers.

Saying goodby to El Guayabo
After spending the night with different families in El Guayabo, we set out early Monday morning for the three-hour trip back up the Magdalena River to Barrancabermeja. There we met the Middle Magdalena Peace and Development Program – led by the Catholic Diocese of Barrancabermeja and heard their thoughts on how we could best support the communities of El Garzal, El Guayabo and Las Pavas. Most striking was their longer and broader view of how all of these land disputes point to a larger regional dispute between large landowners, in cahoots with neo-paramilitary groups and drug-trafficking mafias, to push peasants off the land. They encouraged our continued and deepening involvement on behalf of these peasant communities. 
It’s amazing what getting out of forced conscription can do for hair and smiles!

In the afternoon, we met with conscientious objector, Jhonatan Vargas, who was forcibly recruited against his will, and in violation of his fundamental right to freedom of conscience, by the Colombian army last year. Since being allowed to leave the army base where he was being held, Jhonatan has refused to return. The Colombian Constitutional court has ruled that forced military conscription of C.O.s is a violation of Colombia’s constitution, but the military has refused to comply. Jhonatan is one of the brave young men who have taken personal risks in order to further this important cause. We were happy to hear that he has now finished his first semester of mechanical engineering studies at the Industrial University of Santander. I was struck by how much Jhonatan’s hair grown since I had last seen him… clearly enjoying it’s newfound freedom!     

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