russian roulette: the unlawful eviction of el tamarindo

BENEATH THE SHADE OF a tree we stood, freshly chopped sugarcane in hand, gnawing on that chewy plant and sucking the juice out of each bite. No matter how much noise we made, it was not enough to cover the whir of the bulldozer plowing down Nelson’s plantain trees right before our eyes. His was one of the last plots of land to be destroyed in December 2015, when a private company unlawfully evicted over 70 campesinos from an area formerly known as El Tamarindo.

My heart was all over the place that day. Temporarily relieved by the smiles and hugs of those who were about to be evicted, the heaviness in my chest turned into resentment at the sight of the corporation’s representatives arriving to finalize the eviction. How could they live with themselves for the suffering they had caused so many families?

DSCN1278Despite the tension, everyone exchanged casual banter. Small groups of people conversed in hushed voices, but there seemed to be an unspoken effort from all parties to remain civil. Marisol, one of the campesinas, even handed me a snack (see photo on right). A gift of comfort in the midst of an ugly situation. It captured so perfectly the resilience of El Tamarindo.

The final signing of documents occurred with little fanfare. The leaders of the community went about it methodically and silently. After recurring threats of eviction throughout the previous weeks, they’d known this day was coming. There was nothing left to do but to acquiesce to the demands of the powerful.

DSCN1282For years the families fought to remain on the land, which had been abandoned when the campesino Colacho made the first settlement 14 years ago. They came from different parts of the country, forcibly displaced from their previous homes. Over time they worked the land and filled it with crops of all kinds: plantains, yucca, corn, cantaloupe, tomatoes, pumpkins, sesame seeds, papayas, mangos, guavas, and more for miles and miles. Their productivity gained such a reputation that customers used to come directly to them to buy groceries.

Then their government made a deal with the United States of America. Signed in 2006, the United States-Colombia Free Trade Agreement went into effect on May 15, 2012. That same year the first invasion of El Tamarindo took place. But why? What does a bilateral trade agreement have to do with a community of small farmers living on the outskirts of town?

The trade agreement expanded the boundaries of existing duty-free zones in Colombia. Duty-free zones are areas where foreign goods are imported without being taxed, i.e. without import duties. The district of Atlántico, of which Barranquilla is the capital, has three permanent duty-free zones. Guess where El Tamarindo was located?

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The woman on the far right is the lawyer of the company that evicted El Tamarindo and offered them money to buy new land. The man next to her kept eyeing me suspiciously before telling me to put my camera away. I may or may not have complied.

A community that had lived in relative obscurity quickly became a magnet for opportunistic businessmen. Strangers, including representatives from the aforementioned corporation, Inversiones Agropecuarias Los Turpiales S.A.S., began showing up at El Tamarindo to claim title to this previously uninhabited land.

According to Colombian land laws, if a self-proclaimed landowner tries to claim a piece of land after campesinos have lived there for more than five years, the “landowner” along with the State must indemnify the campesinos, e.g. insure them against their loss or provide reimbursements. That did not happen with El Tamarindo. On the contrary, on more than 40 occasions at the request of so-called landowners, the police tried to move the campesinos off the land.

Year after year they saw sections of their territory destroyed, homes and crops alike uprooted. The initial evictions were violent. On my first visit to El Tamarindo in September 2015, community members recounted these horrific experiences. Guns, chainsaws, bulldozers. Motorcycles and cars zooming by their houses late at night to harass them. A member of their community lost her life due to the depression that resulted from experiencing these cruel evictions.

I couldn’t understand their words, but I felt the distress in their faces and voices.

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This used to be fertile farmland filled with houses, livestock, crops, and families. The gold dome in the background is a giant concrete mixer that has become for me a symbol of the oppression of El Tamarindo.

By the time I arrived, only one section remained. Called El Mirador, this last strip of land gained recognition as a United Nations humanitarian zone. With the help of religious leaders, lawyers, human rights defenders, and local supporters, El Tamarindo’s case was taken up in Colombia’s Constitutional Court. Considered the highest court in the country, the Constitutional Court guards the constitution of Colombia and protects individuals against violations of human rights.

Meanwhile, El Tamarindo received notification from the police of an eviction scheduled for December 4, 2015. On December 1, the Constitutional Court issued a three-month stay of eviction to give the families time to relocate to lands that met their needs. When I visited El Tamarindo two days later, uncertainty hung in the air. Would the police obey the court’s petition?

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Rev. Chris Lieberman (lower R) and his congregation in Louisville, KY, hold signs and candles in support for El Tamarindo in Dec. 2015, as part of the solidarity campaign I helped launch.

Yes, but not really.

The December 4 eviction was suspended. We rejoiced. We regained hope.

The following day, the eviction was rescheduled for December 7. We continued our advocacy campaign. Our US partners got in touch with the US Embassy in Colombia.

The December 7 eviction was also suspended – and rescheduled for December 9.

On December 9, the local authorities decided they’d had enough fun playing Russian roulette with El Tamarindo. The local police and the anti-riot police arrived to begin the evictions. How I wish I could have been there standing side by side with the families, offering my presence as an international witness and sharing their pain. I was told to stay in the office in case the situation grew violent as had happened so often in the past.

During the rest of the week, the atmosphere in the office felt subdued as we went about our daily tasks and received updates on the situation from afar. I was thankful for our US partners who called for the end of the evictions, demanded responses from the US Embassy, and expressed their support for El Tamarindo.

DSCN1283The toughest part for me was that nothing seemed to make a difference. God knows how long and hard the campesinos of El Tamarindo had fought to stay on their land. They got organized and set up meetings and demonstrated in public. When staying on their land proved unattainable, they rightly demanded help in relocating to new land where they could continue farming. For years the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, my ministry site, walked alongside El Tamarindo, building trust and advocating for them at both the district and national level. Numerous other actors, including the British Embassy, visited them and heard their stories.

Yet there they were, standing at the same table with their oppressors to sign an agreement that offered only a fraction of what they had asked for: money to buy 10 hectares of land for 10 families instead of 400 hectares for the 100+ original families of El Tamarindo.

When the leaders of El Tamarindo had signed all the papers, the lines on their faces loosened with relief. It wasn’t until later, when I talked to my co-worker Germán about it, that I understood why they smiled: Yes, the agreement fell way short of their initial proposals, but with it came the end of fighting a losing battle. At least for these 10 families, the dream of living on their own land without harassment was becoming a reality.

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Members of El Tamarindo and of the company posing with the checks that would pay for the campesinos’ new land.

 

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beneath the guava tree

¡VEN!

LUIS MIGUEL PAUSED just long enough to make sure I was following him before he dashed off. A few seconds later I stood next to the young boy in front of a tree.

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Nov. 2015. Luis Miguel plays with one of the accompaniers from the Presbyterian Church (USA).

¿Qué es?” I pointed to one of the green fruits dangling on the low-hanging limbs. I thought I heard aguacate before he disappeared into the tree.

I stayed where I was, thinking about all the bugs that lived down there. Luis Miguel’s head poked back out from under the branches. “¡Ven!” he insisted.

It was such a simple phrase, one I’d heard consistently since the day I started living with my host family – so much so that I had come to detest it.

But this time was different. When Luis Miguel said, “Come!” it was not a command. It was an invitation. An invitation to play, to share a moment, to enjoy each other’s company.

Luis Miguel’s face lit up when I crouched down to follow him. It felt like we had entered another world. Never before had I seen the “interior” of a tree. The branches were so short that they were touching my head even as I squatted. I did my best to ignore my aching knees while Luis Miguel poked the dirt and talked to me.

I did not understand a single word he said, but the way he moved about in that space made me think that he’d found refuge under these branches many times before. I felt like a friend getting in on a secret, like an honored guest getting shown a favorite room of my host’s house.

That moment is forever etched into my memory. It’s the first one that comes to mind when I think about Luis Miguel and his family, who were displaced in December 2015 along with their neighbors in El Tamarindo. I don’t know where they live now.

Every time I visit some of the relocated families from El Tamarindo, I feel a little sad that little Luis Miguel isn’t there. I miss his endless energy, his lust for adventure, his wild imagination, and his charm. Wherever he is, I hope he is safe and finding new friends to explore nature with.

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Árbol de guayaba. It turned out to be a guava tree.

holiday greetings from barranquilla

 

So this is Christmas…

No snow. No peppermint hot cocoa. No “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” stuck in my head. It doesn’t feel like Christmas, I whispered to my journal.

And yet I’ve never felt more excited for Christmas.

This year, removed from the usual cues that spark my “holiday spirit,” I found Advent. I found space to remember the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, to marvel at the complexities surrounding its simplicity, to breathe.

This year, within the space of Advent, I feel a sense of urgency for the Word-made-flesh. Some of you know about El Tamarindo, a community I’ve come to care about. El Tamarindo consisted of internally displaced persons who began to be unlawfully evicted just a couple of weeks ago. The families have been harassed and mistreated by local authorities and elites for years. And now they’ve been forced to relocate.

But I’ve come to know El Tamarindo as more than “victims.” They are lovers, storytellers, coffee addicts, playmates, workers of the field. Yes, they must hold unspeakable pain and trauma in their hearts and minds; who can forget the fear of being forced to flee or the desolation of seeing their house destroyed? Yet they continue to live. They continue to laugh, to share, to give really good hugs – extending the hand of God even to outsiders like me.

This year, I feel a small sense of the vindication Mary must have felt when she sang, “God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” And the joy the shepherds must have felt as they hurried to find the Savior. And the deep peace Simeon must have felt when he finally saw Jesus.

So this is Christmas. It feels strange. Partly because it’s still 85ºF outside, and I haven’t decorated a single gingerbread house or human. But mostly because for the first time in a long time, I am excited for Jesus.

May your Christmas week be filled with joy & wonder as you celebrate the birth of our Messiah! You are beloved.

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In El Pueblo, the neighborhood I visit on Wednesdays for Bible study and fellowship. In November we celebrated the birthdays of 3 long-time community members.

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Thanksgiving dinner with my team (Alex, Emily & Sarah our fearless leader)! Grateful for the 10 days we shared together in Bogotá to rest, debrief, join different conversations on peacebuilding, and explore the nation’s capital.

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My host family (Jonathan, Jennifer, Ignacio, Stephanie & Marta; not pictured: Marta Lucia). Their hospitality and generosity are daily extensions of grace.

el tamarindo in the news

A STORY OF El Tamarindo’s struggle appeared in today’s edition of El Heraldo, a leading newspaper in the Caribbean region of Colombia. El Tamarindo is a community of small farmers who were displaced by their country’s armed conflict. In recent years they have come under threat of eviction because the land they occupy has become part of a duty-free zone.

Below I have translated the news story as best I can. The original story is found at http://www.elheraldo.co/local/familias-protestan-en-la-catedral-para-evitar-desalojo-232378. According to my knowledge at the time of this blog post, the unlawful eviction scheduled for today was once again suspended. The families of El Tamarindo are staying put for now but remain vulnerable to the whims of the local government.

Families protest at the Cathedral to prevent eviction

By Álvaro Pión Salas · Monday, Dec 7, 2015

Norma Baldovino holds a banner with a clear message for the mayor’s office of Barranquilla: respect our rights, NO to eviction.

The 40-year-old woman is part of one of the 44 families living in El Mirador, a strip of the property known as El Tamarindo, who could be evicted today as an effort moved forward by the owners of the land before the Police Inspectorate.

The terrain is located on one side of the road La Cordialidad, between Barranquilla and Galapa, in the International Duty-Free Zone of Atlántico (Zofía). The Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial (POT) established that the land in that zone are for industrial use and therefore cannot be inhabited.

Baldovino is a native of Chalán (Sucre) and raises her poster because she fears passing the Day of the Little Candles (today) on the street. She arrived in 2007, after having been in different places, trying to get settled.

The reason for her nomadism is that she had to flee her town after her house was attacked in 1996 “by the 37th Front of the FARC” and her mother was wounded and consequently passed away in a hospital in Corozal.

Like hers, the other 23 families were displaced by the violence of the Colombian armed conflict. They arrived from Cesar, Magdalena, Bolívar and Sucre to rebuild their lives but again have to gather their belongings to move to a place that is yet to be determined.

“We are tired of being moved from one side to another. We are not fighting for those properties, we only want a place where we can cultivate our food and our animals. The only thing we ask is that they relocate us,” Baldovino assured.

Solutions

Alfredo Palencia, director of Unidad de Víctimas in Atlántico, pointed out that an agreement had been reached last week to make sure the eviction would not be immediate.

“The order for exit is tomorrow [Monday], but the victims will have 15 days to leave the land. Money will be deposited in a trust fund for them to use to buy land elsewhere and continue their economic recovery,” Palencia indicated.

Regarding those who are not injured by the war, he asserted that it is the District Government that should find them a solution.

Other proposals that were presented in negotiations were to relocate the families en Villas de San Pablo, although the argument remains that the families cannot farm and that the only thing they know how to do is to work the land.

That’s why they hope that the administration will help them relocate when they leave the premises and that they won’t keep moving around the country to settle.

repost: angels in el tamarindo

ON THURSDAY I joined a group of about 15 faith leaders, lawyers and justice & peace advocates on a visit to El Tamarindo, a community of women, children and men who have been displaced at least once and have relocated to land just outside the city of Barranquilla. It was my 4th visit to El Tamarindo, and I was excited to see familiar faces again.

I’d like to share the following piece by Rev. Sarah Henken, a short but compelling story on our time at El Tamarindo. Sarah is my site coordinator/mentor this year and serves as mission co-worker in Colombia through the Presbyterian Church (USA). The original post can be found on her blog.

Angels in El Tamarindo

Posted on December 4, 2015 • By Sarah Henken

Today is Angel Gabriel’s birthday. Yesterday, our words shrouded by the uncertainty of whether his home would be destroyed today once again, he told me that his birthday always brings sorrow.

Gabriel is a member of ASOTRACAMPO, the association of campesinos resisting one more round of unjust and violent uprooting from their homes on the farmland of El Tamarindo. (If you’re unfamiliar with this courageous community, I’ve written about them on this blog and for the journal Unbound.) They had received word that an eviction action would take place today, but at the last minute that action was stayed yet again. An unexpected respite from the immediate threat, but not a full reprieve. The eviction could take place as soon as Monday.

While they wait to be relocated to new farmland—land to which they can hold undisputed title—they don’t sleep easy at night. This year they have had their water shut off, received threatening phone calls, faced intimidation at meetings with the rich and powerful who want their case to go away. They live crowded together, neighbors previously uprooted taking refuge on their farms, with little land available and not much heart to plant crops that may soon be razed to the ground. And yet, life finds a way.

Fields which a month ago were dry have grown lush and green; a little bit of water has renewed their beauty. As we sat in the oppressive heat, we prayed for the movement of God’s Holy Spirit to flow amongst us, and the breeze picked up to refresh us over lunch. For a community whose path was unclear, a new door has opened as the constitutional court plans to review their case.

A poem for Advent by Ann Weems begins: “Angels still appear to those / ready to receive blessings / in spite of the barren / impossibility of their lives.” El Tamarindo is one of seemingly countless places where hope is hard to find right now. And yet, we await a miracle, an incarnation, for Christ to come and join us in the midst of impossibility and show us the way. This Advent season, it seems we need that improbable blessing more than ever.

I pray today for hope in the face of impossibility, for protection from harm, for light that counters darkness, for hearts of stone to regain their humanity, for wisdom in choosing words and actions, for strength and imagination to nurture peace in the midst of so much violence. And I pray with thanksgiving for Angel Gabriel, that God guide and uphold him, and bless him with many happier birthdays to come.