Since 2015, the community of Valparaiso, in southern Caqueta, has organized to defend water from oil exploration. Jose Antonio Saldarriaga has been one of the leaders of this resistance. Chained to a bridge or on hunger strike, peasants and organizations in the region have managed to stop the extractivist advance in the midst of threats and armed attacks, according to community’s reports.
Saldarriaga Chained for the Water
Impassive, determined, Saldarriaga banged his fist on the table and, with the power of the last word, silenced the voices of the leaders around him on May 4, 2015: “No, no and no. How are we going to stop them? All that you propose is very nice, but those people are coming here and it is time to stop them. I have a proposal and I think it’s the definitive one: I’m going to the creek right now; there I’ll chain myself to the bridge and when the Chinese arrive we won’t let them in.”
Residents and leaders of the five veredas that make up the core of La Florida, in the municipality of Valparaiso, had been meeting in the school for hours looking for a way to stop the entry of the Chinese oil company Emerald Energy, which was about to begin the excavation of a stratigraphic well in the territory. Community members had proposed contacting the media, seeking support from NGOs, writing to the Ombudsman’s Office, not signing any paper, not giving even a glass of water to the engineers who set foot in the area. No, no and no.
Emerald Energy Colombia, a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned company Sinochem, is the operator of 8 out of 19 current oil contracts awarded in Caqueta (the others are Ombu, VSM 32, Durillo, Manzano, Ceiba, Capella and Cedron). The El Nogal Block, with an area of 293,394 hectares, began operations in 2013, after having complied with the requirements for certification of ethnic communities’ presence and the environmental procedures corresponding to phase 0 of the contract with the National Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH in Spanish).
In February 2015, the company signed an amendment to the agreement with the ANH to build the stratigraphic well, an exploratory drilling to collect geophysical and underground fluid information. Three months later, they were making their way to La Florida, to start the project in the same place where the Texas Petroleum Company opened a well in 1959.
Emerald Energy, those were the Chinese who were on their way. The Chinese that the Valparaiso community was not going to let in.
“I’m going to the creek right now; there I’ll chain myself to the bridge and when the Chinese arrive we won’t let them in”José Saldarriaga
Saldarriaga did not wait for an answer. He got up from the table and walked the nearly 500 meters that separate the school from the bridge over the La Cacho creek. Peasants, board members, women leaders and mothers followed his lead, including Ximena Lombana, Blanca Barragan, Wilson Baquiro, Juan Chavez and Fermin Caballero, a young man from the vereda who received the order: “Fermin, go to the hardware store in the village and tell Polo to send me a four-meter chain and two padlocks.”
After a murmur of misgivings and fears, voices began to join in: “I chain too, I chain too, I chain too, I chain too.” Jose Antonio Saldarriaga was the first during all that night in May 2015. He sat on a milk can and stretched the chain over his lap, tightening the links with his huge hands used to working the land.
The next morning, when the Emerald Energy trucks and machinery arrived at the bridge, he told them, “No, no and no. No, no and no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. It’s forbidden. People from here can pass, but you cannot.”
They managed to contain them. At least for that day. Thus a chapter of this unequal struggle began to be written, that – according to the testimonies of Jose Antonio Saldarriaga, Wilson Baquiro and Gricel Ximena Lombana – has involved gunshot wounds, threats, stigmatization and forced displacement for the leaders and residents of Valparaiso, for almost six years of opposition to the oil project.
For 66 days, on the bridge over La Cacho Creek, men and women from La Florida shared with Saldarriaga those links of resistance, chained for the water.
The Water of Caqueta
Caqueta, in the transition between the Amazon and the Andes, is one of the departments with the greatest water wealth in Colombia. “This privileged position of Caqueta in terms of water wealth is only rivalled by that of Choco due to the high rainfall in the Pacific,” says Marlon Pelaez Rodriguez, a biologist with a postdoctoral degree in aquatic ecology from the University of Sao Paulo and research fellow at the University of Amazonia.
This is not just a statistical truth recorded on hydrographic maps. It is an unavoidable experience when entering the 88,965 km2 of the third largest department in the country.
The complex water system comprises 4,676 bodies of water, including basins and aquifers, which are considered subject to use planning to regulate their management and use, according to the environmental authority Corpoamazonia. Waterfalls, floodable savannas and rivers, such as the mighty Orteguaza, visible from the sky minutes before landing in Florencia, or the immense Apaporis, or the one after which the department is named and runs through it from end to end, or the Hacha river, serene and cold until the rain makes it wild and violent against its rocky foothills. There are also streams, brooks and creeks, such as La Cacho, which calm waters reflected for 66 days the silhouettes of men and women chained to a bridge.
It is not only a symbolic treasure. This water is used by the people from Caqueta in agricultural activities, cattle ranching and also for human consumption. For such people, whether native or adopted, this wealth is a conscience that is expressed with pride and serves as a reference to locate places and memories.
Over the course of more than ten years working on community development projects with the region’s farmers, Gricel Ximena Lombana has witnessed how landscapes defined by the abundance of water have changed profoundly over the past half century. “When talking to them about how their vereda used to be, how the water used to be, we realized: Gosh, all the water they have lost! The stories told by the old people from Caqueta speak of that delight, of that beautiful relationship they had with the water, abundant and clean, but they also show the impact of colonization policies,” says Ximena, who worked for years with the Southern Vicariate, the social arm of the Catholic Church in the region.
“When talking to them about how their vereda used to be, how the water used to be, we realized: Gosh, all the water they have lost!”Gricel Ximena Lombana
southern Caqueta has historically been a land of colonization and bonanzas. Rivers have been the main routes of this process. The Orteguaza is considered the river of the Caqueta colonization; mainly since the 19th century, missionaries, soldiers and settlers have made their way to the jungle through its navigable channel. The extractive economic waves and the armed conflict have been the main reference points of the relationship between the Government and society in the department. Karla Diaz, a researcher from the NGO Ambiente y Sociedad, has delved into this history of unequal wealth framed by forms of violence caused by the bipartidism system, guerrillas and paramilitary groups.
The review of the past is not obsequious and confirms that the present, marked by oil and illegal mining, is part of a process of violent exploitation of resources to which the region seems to be condemned, with episodes as bloody as the rubber bonanza of Casa Arana and its poor treatment against indigenous slaves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Caqueta and the Amazon are still seen as that setback of the nation, those empty spaces, enclaves of progress, that need to be civilized, that correspond to a very colonial perspective. You would say: ‘Nooo, we do not undergo that anymore’, but it is still like that and there is still this fiction of the Amazon as a no man’s land, from where it is possible to extract without major repercussions. The idea of El Dorado is still present and has guided all the processes of settlement and organization, during the rubber, quina and fur bonanzas, even the livestock policy promoted at the time by Incora also had that very extractive perspective,” says Karla. “And now oil works under the same logic.”
It is an old story and people from Caqueta know it. What brought them together in that school in La Florida in 2015 and then led them to chain themselves to the La Cacho bridge was precisely the imminent reoccurrence of that story. The immediate precedent was the seismic exploration carried out by the oil company Pacific Rubiales in the nearby municipality of San Jose del Fragua and in the Ombu Block, in San Vicente del Caguan, by the Emerald Energy itself since 2009.
According to the article Contrademocracia vs. extractivismo: la movilizacion popular por la defensa del territorio en el sur del Caqueta (Counterdemocracy vs. extractivism: the people’s mobilization for the defense of the territory in southern Caqueta), written by Karla Diaz herself, together with Andres Agudelo, the exploration in San Jose caused subsidence of the ground, cracking of buildings, and absorption of wetlands and fish ponds, impacts that showed the public entities’ lack of capacity to monitor and control the activity.
According to Karla Diaz and members of organizations such as the Commission for the Life of Water, thanks to citizen pressure, a dialogue between the parties began and there was a rejection of the use of public force and attacks against the peasant population. [VLO1] The media attention also helped to pressure for a review of whether or not mining-energy projects in Caqueta were appropriate and a moratorium on the El Nogal Block was requested.
The department’s ecosystems are as threatened by mining and oil dynamics as they are by deforestation
The department’s ecosystems are as threatened by mining and oil dynamics as they are by deforestation. Native species, such as the Titi Monkey from southern Caqueta, Plecturocebus caquetensis, described as a species only eleven years ago and classified as ‘in critical condition’ (the most serious) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of threatened species, are part of this fauna at risk of extinction due to the environmental impact of economic activities.
The same applies for the region’s water. According to Marlon Pelaez, “many of Caqueta’s aquatic ecosystems show signs of disturbance, which sometimes is not evident nor shows a sign of concern by the authorities due to the abundance of water resources we have. But, if this continues, other bodies of water may be seriously damaged, as is already happening in the La Sardina and Perdiz streams, in the urban area of Florencia.”
The need to defend this Caqueta’s water resource, the urgency to break the chain of violent extractivist bonanzas and the dream of recovering these stories of abundance was the reason that led the community of Valparaiso and the southern Caqueta Vicariate to create the Commission for the Life of Water in 2012 –a group that gathers the communities of Morelia, Albania, San Jose de Fragua, Belen de los Andaquies, Curillo and Valparaiso to confront the extractivist onslaught– and also driven Saldarriaga to get up from his chair to say “No, no and no.”
The Birth of Resistance
“They really astounded me, they killed all my enthusiasm, when they hit Juan Chavez with that bomb. That was the hardest day on the bridge. The antiriot squad (Esmad) arrived at 7:30 in the morning, they were going to capture me. I was chained up and my fellow demonstrators went to the bridge to tell me: The security forces are on their way, watch out!, and I told them: I’ll wait for them here. I was convinced that if I was chained, defenseless, fighting for the common good, they could not do anything to me, it was a childish confidence. The fellow demonstrators did not let me stay on the bridge, they took me to a house and the police went there to get in. They stopped them at the door: Here you respect private property! When the fight broke out, I couldn’t stand staying hidden any longer, I came out: I’m going to let them kill me. The date of Juan’s death was July 29, 2015. Wilson’s was the following year, on August 16, 2016.”
I was convinced that if I was chained, defenseless, fighting for the common good, they could not do anything to me, it was a childish confidenceJosé Sandarriaga
Saldarriaga remembers those dates with the incorruptible precision that defines moments marked by life or death. The Valparaiso leaders had lived 66 days of peaceful resistance, until June 30, 2015, when the public forces attacked the villagers.
According to Karla Diaz’s investigation, the security forces had paid several visits to the area urging the peasants to abandon the La Cacho bridge. The result –as recalled by Jose Antonio Saldarriaga– was the eviction by the Antiriot Squad (Esmad), between June 29 and 31. Ten people were wounded, three of them seriously. Juan Chavez was one of them.
An explosive blew up in his face.
Saldarriaga keeps it in his memory as if it were yesterday and recount it with the impassive toughness he has accumulated after the persecution, threats, reports and forced displacement he still undergoes. “When the Esmad arrived, the people received them singing the national anthem and told them that they were guarding the territory. The Esmad said: Give us permission, we are just going to pass, but at once they went to hit Mr. Narciso Zambrano with a stick, they were going to throw him into the water and that’s when everything started, that was the trigger. The people began to hit with clubs and throw stones. The grenade exploded about 12:30 – 1:00 in the afternoon. The confrontation had moved from the road to the pasture. Juan arrived and said: Let’s catch those guys that are coming that way, he got a little closer to them, he put that shotgun and fell off the horse, they kicked him on the ground, they hit him with sticks, all of them took the shields, and rescued Juan, his head was disfigured by the explosion, we all thought he was going to die. Juan can’t do hard work and he is a farmer. When he gets too much sun, he gets a headache. But well, it is a miracle that he is alive. He only has visible scars on his face and a droopy, wrinkled eyelid.”
“Juan can’t do hard work and he is a farmer. When he gets too much sun, he gets a headache. But well, it is a miracle that he is alive. He only has visible scars on his face and a droopy, wrinkled eyelid.”José Saldarriaga
The news spread in the local media and the images of the violent attack by the Esmad, captured on video by the camera of Jesus Anderson Garcia, reached national television channels, such as Canal Capital. “There were 13 wounded, four seriously. The Ombudsman’s Office did not intervene, nor was there any intervention by human rights defenders, nothing,” recalls Saldarriaga.
Wilson: The Skin of Resistance
“On the one hand, I remember those days very nice, because with the resistance we had on this bridge we settled in a lot, many friends. But it was also a difficult moment because of what happened to me: On August 16, 2016, I was wounded by a firearm in the back: The National Army shot me,” Wilson recalls.
“On August 16, 2016, I was wounded by a firearm in the back: The National Army shot me”Wilson Báquiro.
The events occurred during a peasant mobilization in the Lusitania vereda, as part of the community’s actions against the arrival of Emerald Energy and the exploration of the El Nogal Block. The protest was going by peacefully until an argument between soldiers and some demonstrators triggered a violent reaction by the military. Shots were fired: Three people were wounded, the most seriously wounded person was Wilson Baquiro, a 46-year-old peasant from Valparaiso. The bullet perforated his colon. To this day, the bullet remains inside his body and the scar on his skin.
“We were claiming our rights very respectfully, that we do not want the most precious thing in our region, which is water, to run out. Our life is water and we know that, where these companies operate, it always runs out and gets contaminated. We demanded that they leave, that they respect our water. And that is when they reacted brutally and shot me.”
After the attack by the security forces, Wilson filed a report with the Attorney General’s Office. Four years have passed and he has received no response. His strength is diminished. After three surgeries, his recovery is not complete and his ability to carry out his daily work in the field is even more complex due to the pain of the wound that still persists.
“At the moment of the shot, I felt like a hot blow, but what hurts the most is the fact that it is the public force who is attacking you. If such force is public, they are there to defend the peasant, so why did they have to do that to me? Why does this have to happen? What kind of country are we in? What kind of country do we live in?”
A year before these violent events, on May 4, 2015, Wilson had been one of the first to ask for a turn to get chained, to take Saldarriaga’s place on the bridge over the waters of the La Cacho creek. The resistance on the bridge and the Esmad’s attack are for him two sides of the same story, bitter and sweet chapters of a struggle in which you win and lose: The physical consequences continue to affect his body, but the objective of that sacrifice has been achieved and the exploration of the Northern Block continues to be interrupted.
“At the moment of the shot, I felt like a hot blow, but what hurts the most is the fact that it is the public force who is attacking you”Wilson Báquiro.
The attacks on Wilson and Juan Chavez and the threats against Saldarriaga are part of a long list of human rights violations against leaders and residents of Valparaiso devoted to the defense of water. According to the report from the Commission for the Life of Water in southern Caqueta, entitled Más agua, más vida. Caquetá es Amazonia (More water, more life. Caqueta is life): “In the events of 2015 and 2016, there were 22 wounded (4 seriously), more than 20 people beaten, 10 illegally detained (later released). Damage to property. Stigmatization and persecution of leaders who protect the ancestral vocation of the Caqueta Amazon and oppose mining and energy projects.”
The report was published as a book by the Southern Vicariate, which is part of the Diocese of Florencia. Gricel Ximena Lombana was in charge of compiling and writing the document with indigenous communities.
Ximena: The Voice of Resistance
Gricel Ximena Lombana was born on the banks of other waters, pretty far from the generous purity of the rivers of Caqueta.
Born and raised in Bogota, in the Venecia neighborhood, next to May 1st Avenue, she moved at a very young age to the 80th Street with 68th Avenue, next to the Reina stream. “You know the rivers near my neighborhood: They are black, polluted, full of garbage. If we wanted to go to a clean river, we had to go to the small towns near Bogota,” recalls Ximena. This is just the beginning of an interview scheduled for 45 minutes, but lasted 3 hours.
“Few things make me shut up,” says Ximena. She knows what her voice is for and uses it: Not being able to control the torrent of her words, she speaks for herself and for the people of southern Caqueta. In her hands – her sharp tongue – she has the responsibility to carry the message, to complain about abuses, to report threats to the four winds, as if she were a human loudspeaker.
Together with Saldarriaga, that afternoon of May 4, 2015, Ximena walked the 600 steps that separate the La Florida school from the bridge over the La Cacho creek. As part of the Southern Vicariate team, she had been part of training and management processes with farmers in the area and was one of the most resounding voices of the Commission for the Life of Water.
Heir to the teachings and leadership of Sister Clara Lucia Loaiza and Father Arnulfo Trujillo in the Southern Vicariate, Ximena was committed to the preservation of the resources of southern Caqueta and closely followed Emerald Energy’s incursion into the region since the beginning in 2009. She had also witnessed first-hand the way in which the oil company’s relationship with the community, with the land and especially with the department’s water had taken a series of turns to the detriment of the interests of the population and the environment.
“they talked about ‘negotiating’. What negotiation, if there is nothing to negotiate here? Water is not negotiable, water has value, but it has no price!”Gricel Ximena Lombana, Vicaría del Sur
“At the beginning, they arrived with a conciliatory, friendly attitude to approach the community and to comply with the environmental care standards required for a project like this in an apparently committed manner.” Things changed quickly and drastically. The conciliatory rhetoric began to crumble. “At one point, they talked about ‘negotiating’. What negotiation, if there is nothing to negotiate here? Water is not negotiable, water has value, but it has no price!” The attempt at dialogue did not prosper, it only ended up fracturing the relationship between the inhabitants of La Florida and those of the La Curvinata vereda, who did agree to Emerald Energy’s proposal and were willing to sell their land.
“After that phase of talks in which they made an effort to appear to be friends of the community, they began to reveal their real faces: They went from negotiation and dialogue to manipulation and lies. Then came blackmail, threats and violence.”
Regarding this change in the oil company’s strategy since the beginning of 2015, all the consulted sources agree in mentioning a person who began to carry out a very specific task: Frighten and misinform the community. “the nickname of that person was Peligro (danger), with that I tell you everything. He began to pay visits to Valparaiso, to the core of La Florida, house by house,” recalls Ximena.
The message that was disseminated among the population spoke of the economic benefits they would obtain if they let the oil company in and, when the answer was negative, the argument turned to the imminent expropriation, to the tragic promise that the territory was going to get militarized and that they were going to end up losing everything. The conclusion –they felt the company wanted to make them believe– was that it was better for them to hand over the land nicely than to wait until everything got worse and being taken out by force anyway. The rhetoric began to leave a mark on the people, especially among the inhabitants of La Curvinata. Fear spread and the danger was no longer the name of a single person.
Given the imminent risk, Ximena was one of those responsible for convening the media and civil society to generate a sort of shield of opinion around the community of Valparaiso and its leaders. Her preventive work allowed for the presence of the Ombudsman’s Office, the Municipal Inspector’s Office and the media from the first days of the peaceful protest led by Saldarriaga on the bridge over the La Cacho creek. This containment line temporarily guaranteed the safety of the demonstrators and facilitated the organization of a formal space for dialogue between the parties, mediated by the municipal inspector at the time. The meeting was convened for May 6, 2015.
Ximena cannot forget that date.
On the one hand, that day represented the achievement of having scaled up a community organization process to a departmental issue that awakened the interest of national public opinion. On the other, the dark side, it was the direct and public threat against her life.
“Jose Antonio Saldarriaga and I were threatened by Luis Miguel Angarita, Emerald Energy’s manager for corporate affairs on security and communities”Gricel Ximena Lombana, Vicaría del Sur
“At that May 6 meeting, Jose Antonio Saldarriaga and I were threatened by Luis Miguel Angarita, Emerald Energy’s manager for corporate affairs on security and communities. He held this position with a bombastic and contradictory name. Corporate affairs… security… communities… At the entrance of the Mayor’s Office of Valparaiso, that gentleman approached and told us in front of everyone: ‘Take care, stop instigating the communities to do illegal things because it could go bad’, and from that moment on the persecution against Jose Antonio Saldarriaga began, which has not stopped to date, and which I have been a witness of.”
We unsuccessfully tried to meet with Emerald Energy to hear their views on the threats involving one of their former officials and to understand the current status of their project in the El Nogal Block. Neither two mails sent on March 5 and 9 to the company’s email nor fifteen phone calls between March 5 and 24 received a response. In fact, its website www.emeraldenergy.com is down and the number listed for the company results in the same response from the operator: “I’m sorry. An error has occurred.”
At that moment, in the middle of the Valparaiso, Saldarriaga again banded his fist on the table and challenged Angarita: “Let’s do one thing: Let’s organize a municipal assembly. If the community of Valparaiso says no to the project, you leave the territory, but if the community says yes, then we stop protesting, we leave the bridge and you can do whatever you want,” he proposed. The following week, on May 11, with the La Estrella Sports Center completely full, Valparaiso as a whole said No to the company. Luis Miguel Angarita was not there, but Ximena was.
Although she grew up near other bodies of water, polluted, cold, Ximena became a defender of the land and water of the Amazon, since she was “born” again in Caqueta, rebaptized in the waters of the Hacha River.
In 2004, when she first arrived in Caqueta, it was deemed a red zone, subject to violence. While being in Bogota, Ximena only knew what was in the news: That version of guerrilla takeovers, paramilitary violence, and the empty chair left by the now extinct FARC during the failed peace negotiation with then President Andres Pastrana in San Vicente del Caguan in 1998.
“The water has guided us with its perseverance, drop by drop. But, also like the water, when we have to be impetuous, we go all out”Gricel Ximena Lombana, Vicaría del Sur
“As soon as I got off the plane, everything changed: On one side, the mountain range; on the other side, the plains; all over around, a lot of water… and the smell, I can’t forget that sensation of smelling Caqueta for the first time. Then I was taken on a trip to the Hacha River and that crystalline river is the reason I stayed here. Swimming in that green water, I thought: I am not going back to Bogota, I am going to give myself this opportunity to work in Caqueta. In that river, my friends baptized me as a person from Caqueta and I stayed here. The water has guided us with its perseverance, drop by drop. But, also like the water, when we have to be impetuous, we go all out. It has been six years of resistance and they have not been able to defeat us.”
Saldarriaga: The Stomach of Resistance
Watching him walk through the streets of the Andes neighborhood, in Alto Las Malvinas, in the south of Florencia, neighbors shout “Ole, Pole”, and Saldarriaga replies, smiling with his fist in the air, “Pole until death.”
Saldarriaga is not only a committed farmer who became a leader when he had to stand up to prevent Emerald Energy’s machines from entering. His active role in the community and his first-hand knowledge of the situation of the territory and the interests around it are the result of his political training in unionism, the MOIR and the Alternative Democratic Pole (a left-wing congressional coalition), the Pole to which he is devoted until death.
“My conduct is evidenced in the farm work and community action. I have always, for about 38 years, been a community leader and now I am president of the Association of Boards of the municipality. The movement to which I belong politically has given us a lot of clarity about what extractivism is and the misfortunes caused by multinationals that never end up in wellbeing but in problems for the community. If anything has characterized me, it is that the people who know me best are the ones who trust me the most,” says Saldarriaga.
The courage with which he has faced the chaining, the Esmad and the hunger strike, the absolute serenity with which he recounts his resistance and the increasingly distant date of the latest threats he has received could give the impression that the black and indigenous blood of Jose Antonio Saldarriaga is unbeatable, that the danger is over for him or that he has always been beyond fear, but this is not the case.
“I felt as if my hair was standing on end, as if something was running under my skin, like an emptiness in my stomach. There, with the chain in my hands, I was very afraid, but I never felt alone because I was accompanied by the community”José Antonio Saldarriaga.
A way of turning fear into almost reckless courage has been a part of him since the first night he was chained to the La Cacho bridge. “At night, I heard a noise and said: The guerrillas are coming to kill us because we did not comply with the order to meet with them. But no, it was probably some birds or the Caqueta Titi monkey, which sometimes came there to play with us. It rained very hard, we woke up like soaked chickens, it was a night of great uncertainty, too much. I felt as if my hair was standing on end, as if something was running under my skin, like an emptiness in my stomach. There, with the chain in my hands, I was very afraid, but I never felt alone because I was accompanied by the community,” he recalls.
A couple of weeks later, Saldarriaga faced with the same determination the moment when Emerald Energy’s Luis Miguel Angarita publicly threatened him and Ximena Lombana -according to their denunciations and testimonies-. “He told us to be careful, that we did not know what ground we were treading on. So I confronted him, I told him that he had no reason to be harassing the people of Valparaiso who were against the company. That was the beginning of my safety ordeal. And that has been all these years: When it is not one thing, it is the other or the other.”
As soon as the events occurred, Saldarriaga filed a complaint against Angarita with the Ombudsman’s Office. “The Prosecutor’s Office also has a record of this threat, even a year later, when I was on hunger strike, a girl from the administration of Valparaiso told me ‘be careful, they are going to screw you, they are going to imprison you.’ A little later a judicial police officer came to me and told me that he needed to see me later on and I answered ‘sir, I am on hunger strike, I am not going to move from here’. Then he told me to go to Belen de los Andaquies, that my proceeding was there.”
After twists and turns, after talking to three different prosecutors in Valparaiso and Belen, he finally understood that it was time to ratify the complaint against Angarita, but they really wanted to ask him to retract and withdraw the complaint. “I went to the prosecutor and told him ‘Sir, I am so-and-so and I am here to see what proceeding I have brought here with the Prosecutor’s Office’. He told me: ‘Oh, yes, there is a proceeding here, but since you are such a bad guy that nobody wants, then you will see if you collaborate’. I answered: ‘What, what, prosecutor? I am not a criminal, I need to clear up whatever it is. I am willing to pay jail time if I have committed a crime, but let’s settle this once and for all’. Then he told me with a smile: ‘No, it’s simply to see if you ratify your complaint against Mr. Luis Miguel Angarita’, and I told him: ‘Of course, I will ratify it, of course, don’t mention it! We went through the ratification proceeding, but time has passed and nothing has happened.”
The negligence and judicial persecution continued, as two versions of a biased justice system. A week later, he received a summons from the same prosecutor to face charges of libel and slander. According to the prosecutor, he was falsely accusing Luis Miguel Angarita of having threatened him. “We appeared in the hearing. That was in the middle of 2017. Although I did not need to bring a lawyer, a lawyer went with me. Angarita did bring a lawyer, our cell phones were taken away, but not theirs. My lawyer immediately said: ‘Wait a minute, this is a donkey and rider fight, how come they take away our cell phones when we go in and this man comes in chatting and talking on the phone? That’s how it was,” recalls Saldarriaga, impassive.
“All these alliances that exist between multinationals and public authorities constitute the denial of the voice of the other. We live in the middle of a violent peace”Karla Díaz, Ambiente y Sociedad
These mechanisms of manipulation of the system correspond to a form of passive violence, as or even more dangerous than a direct attack, because it takes place on the borders of invisibility and neutralizes the victim by not granting him/her access to the resources for the administration of justice, to state protection or to the media which he could have if he had suffered a physical aggression. According to the researcher Karla Diaz’s analysis, “The ways in which they sought to silence the communities, not only by means of direct threats but also through a lot of institutional ruses, make it impossible for them to participate in decision-making spaces. All these alliances that exist between multinationals and public authorities constitute the denial of the voice of the other. We live in the middle of a violent peace. For people like Jose Antonio, there is a certain tranquility, in theory, and threats of physical extermination are receding, but the fear is latent. I believe that there is no social leader in the country who, when confronting an oil company, is not afraid, because that’s the oil dynamics: It’s known that there is a possibility of a violent repercussion.”
Almost a year after the complaint, in 2018, the situation did not improve. According to Saldarriaga, the aggressions by the police, the Army and Emerald Energy continued. It was then that he called a meeting with the Municipal Council, where he announced that he would begin a hunger strike to protest the situation. He did not expect anyone’s approval. He only wanted to ask them for arranging police surveillance in case, in the middle of the hunger, he passed out or fell asleep and someone might attack him.
The hunger strike took place in the La Estrella Sports Center for five days, until Jose Antonio Saldarriaga achieved his goal of making the extractivist threat visible by drawing the attention of the national media. Thousands of peasants from the municipalities of Solita, Solano, Milan, Belen, Albania and Florencia accompanied him in the sports center. They were there with him as a gesture of gratitude and solidarity for his leadership and his efforts to protect the water and territory of southern Caqueta from external interests.
Four years ago, Saldarriaga moved to the Andes neighborhood of Florencia. In that house, at the end of 2017, a neighbor told him very worried that a person had been looking for him, a merchant, and that the merchant had left him a package to deliver it to a cab driver, he was even given the 3,000 pesos for the shipment to the municipality of Solano. The next day, the Army’s Gaula group arrived to ask if “a Mr. Saldarriaga” had left a package. “Do you know what’s in that package? It is an extortion from the Black Eagles to the Gutierrez family, a wealthy family from Solano.”
Upon learning of the situation and that the farce involved him and two of his sons, Norbey and Cristobal, Saldarriaga contacted Colonel Alberto Bustos, the commander of the Florencia Battalion, a friend of his. The colonel contacted the other commanders, introduced Saldarriaga to them personally, and made it clear that he had nothing to do with the Black Eagles. He also spoke with the Inspector General’s Office to clarify that it was all a farce to open a criminal case against him and his sons, a mechanism similar to the one used with the cases of the so-called false positives: Extrajudicial executions committed by state agents and framed in the criminalization of the victim.
“That moment is the most serious that I have had as a risk of death. I expect to be killed by guerrillas, paramilitaries or common delinquency, but not by the people in charge of public order. No.”
Without ceasing to feel fear and without pausing, Saldarriaga continues to be a community leader from the departmental capital, but his daily farm work takes place on a small plot of land in the Venecia neighborhood – yes, just like the Venecia neighborhood of Ximena’s childhood and just like that other city in Italy (Venice) that owes everything to its waters – an hour away from Florencia by motorcycle.
“I wish I could live in Valparaiso. It feels pretty bad to be able to return to your home, but only to visit. I always have to go accompanied by two or three people from the town, and always unexpectedly, but what can we do? that’s the way things are. Although I have not received threats since 2018, I do feel a lot of uncertainty and even more with the government we have and seeing how friends who are leaders throughout the department are displaced, disappeared and killed all the time.”
He lives here and works there. Although threats have diminished, he only dares to return to Valparaiso on short, sudden visits, accompanied and never at night. The plot of land where he works every day in Venecia has chickens, dogs, a fish farm and a few pigs on a hectare and a half of land. The land he is afraid to return to in Valparaiso, where he lived for 45 years and had to leave because of the pressures he received for his struggle for water, covers 130 hectares now desolated.
A few meters from that land is the bridge over the La Cacho creek, a concrete block of a few square meters that contains the history of an entire territory, a silent monument to the struggle of a people who renamed it as a symbol of their effort: “Bridge of Resistance”.
Blanca: The Ears of Resistance
In a little corner next to the window, in front of the stove, in the kitchen of Blanca Barragan and Simeon Cortes’ green house, right there, not an inch away, it is the only spot where cell phones have a signal for miles around.
Blanca’s house is located on a steep hill in the village of La Florida, just 400 meters from the now called Bridge of Resistance. Throughout the 66 days during which Saldarriaga, Wilson, Juan, Fermin and many others chained themselves to the bridge over the La Cacho creek, the strategic location and the possibility of communicating by telephone with fellow demonstrators in Valparaiso and Florencia turned this house into a sort of center of operation and telecommunications station of the resistance.
“Telecom. This here was like Telecom,” Blanca says with her loud laugh.
At an event for women leaders, Ximena Lombana presented Regina Soto and Blanca Barragan as key players in this process: The former at the head of the stove that fed the entire resistance; the latter as “our communications operator.”
“Why are you doing that to me, Ximenita? Ximena did it as a way of recognizing their struggle, of giving them their place, but the effect was not as expected: “She felt her safety was compromised,” recalls Ximena. “For me, it was a learning experience as a facilitator of the process, because sometimes by giving them the limelight, you actually end up causing fear in leaders. She wanted to continue with her low-profile leadership and I wanted her to be recognized for it.”
“That’s where you stand to get a signal,” Blanca points with her mouth to a basket in which several cell phones are stored. She speaks loudly. She laughs. She is angry because we did not tell her earlier and she only had one fish for each of us. We don’t know if she’s really upset, but she laughs derisively. She mocks us, as she has always mocked expected or unwanted visitors, as she has also mocked sadness and fear. “You came and there is nothing here, but it’s worse with those who came and brought everything.”
She refers to the armed men who came to her house five years ago, loaded with a lot of meat and demanded, very nicely, that she cook it for them. “They arrived with their shipment and their pounds of meat, and they told me ‘my dear, are you going to do us the favor of cooking this meat for us?’ And I was afraid, but I couldn’t say no to them. And one of them started to talk to my son and said a lot of outrageous things to the boy. That’s when I put my hands in the boiling oil and I didn’t even realize I was burning. I was trembling, and another man asked me if I was afraid, what I was afraid of, and I don’t know where I got the strength to say yes, that of course I was afraid knowing everything they do to people, everything that comes out in the news.”
“They took turns to chain themselves, but my role was here at the window taking the calls and running to the bridge to inform them.”Blanca Barragán.
“What do you want me to talk about? Well, about that time, about the suffering we went through when the resistance began. People talked about that everywhere and we heard everything: That the oil company was coming, that they were going to take everything, and they began to come to the houses, to the farms. We were informed, the Vicarage helped us a lot. The worst day was when they almost killed Wilson. The Esmad and the Army came to give all the boys a blow. They took turns to chain themselves, but my role was here at the window taking the calls and running to the bridge to inform them. A very nice fight. We still think that we are winning. If we are fighting for the defense of the life of the water, the water sources, which is what we have to take care of and protect, then we are winning.”
On that green horizon, which surrounds Blanca’s green house, an immense sunset falls – yes, the sky here seems bigger, perhaps because of all the water where it is reflected in–. On that same horizon, demonstrators ran amidst the Esmad’s rubber bullets, the threatening shields and the deafening explosions.
“What are ears for me? Well, everything. They are everything. I listened to the calls, they asked for an ambulance, and then I listened to the siren of the ambulance that was arriving, and they called again and said: There goes the police, watch out. And I also heard the wailing, the screams of the neighbors on the sidewalk, and sometimes what I heard was so horrible that I didn’t even want to look. I closed my eyes, but you can’t close your ears.
Anderson: The Eyes of Resistance
The images of the Esmad attacking the peasants in an area between the bridge and Blanca’s house soon invaded social networks and were broadcast by national and worldwide media. These shots were captured by the camera of Jesus Anderson Garcia.
“All this is on Facebook. There is a video called La vida es de los arriesgados (Life belongs to the daring ones) by two girls from Bogota. There is another video that is not well known: Que no muera ella (may it [the Amazon forest] not die), made by a local guy named Jesus Anderson Garcia. He is the director of a film festival called Mambe and is very committed to the cause. Many of the images of the resistance are his,” says Ximena.
The local guy is huge. A man with a broad back and necklaces around his neck; an environmental engineer and visual storyteller; an immense cacique with a jaguar embroidered on his shirt at chest level. He carries a backpack on his back with his camera and, next to it, an acoustic guitar with which he composes songs dedicated to the river, to the Embera Chami indigenous people –who have been displaced to this region by the armed conflict–, to the birds, to the water and to the very Jose Antonio Saldarriaga.
“The first image I saw of Saldarriaga chained was taken by Ximena with her cell phone, an image that quickly went viral on Facebook and in WhatsApp groups,” recalls Anderson. “After that image, it was as if something opened up, I started to get more and more information from leaders, from organizations, I started to receive everything. Seeing what I was defending, I decided to pluck up the courage and act; then I turned on the bike.”
The Bridge of Resistance is almost invisible, just a concrete slab completely covered by mud and weeds. you can pass over it quickly, traversing the entire history of a region without even realizing it. Before reaching that point on the unpaved road aboard his bike, Anderson faced a couple of swampy stretches. On one of them, he ran aground.
“It was not a blockade. The resistance never blocked the bridge or the road. The people who needed to pass could do so without any problem. The only thing that was obstructed were the cars and machinery of the company that was going to build the well. The officials themselves could go to the camp they were building down there. But not the machinery,” says Anderson. In his case, he was not stopped by chains but by the condition of a road affected by the powerful humidity of a region that lives off water and by the neglect of a Government that ignores the periphery. The unpaved surface was a quagmire.
After trying hard, he gave up. He was about to run up the one and a half kilometer to the bridge when several pickup trucks with polarized windows appeared, led by a National Police patrol car. They helped him not because of a gesture of generosity or the simple fulfillment of their commitment to citizens, but simply because the motorcycle was blocking the road. Several policemen got off the patrol car to pick the motorcycle up along with Anderson, put it on the truck bed floor and took Anderson with them.
The truck only stopped when it reached the bridge over the La Cacho creek. The commander quickly got off and shouted at the community who was resisting peacefully.
“I want this area vacated immediately. Leave now, none of this is yours. Beat it now…”
Anderson opened the backpack, took out the camera and pointed it at the commander before the undaunted eyes of the policemen who looked like they wanted to tear their skin off, with frightened faces, with a grimace denoting the thought that surely ran through their heads. “Shit, we helped him get to the enemy.”
As soon as the commander realized that this omniscient eye was looking at him like an open window to the world, the tone changed from violent harangue to civic request.
“Citizens, please collaborate. This Emerald Energy’s project is for the good of all, for the progress of Caqueta. The company has all the permits to do its work. Please collaborate.”
Emerald Energy oil company personnel were in the armored van behind the polarized windows. Perhaps Chinese or Colombians, perhaps security and community managers. A closed window separated the gazes of two halves of the world. Ximena, Wilson, Juan, Blanca, Simeon, Fermin and Saldarriaga were there. Anderson’s eyes and camera lens had the power to turn the eyes of the world over an invisible bridge.