Chava has been a leader of the Afro-Colombian communities in the South of Choco for over 20 years. Her struggle has been to defend life and territory on the San Juan River. Although she is not threatened with death, her life is constantly at risk. Every day she must move between areas ravaged by armed groups and exploited by illegal mining, coca crops and deforestation.
By: Juan Miguel Álvarez | EL MALPENSANTE
Posted: April 22, 2020
Day 1. Threats
The arrival in the boarding point is at mid-morning. The sky is overcast and the ground is wet. It has rained and it will rain, although the weather lately has been one of intense sunshine, the typical burning rays of early January. In the fiberglass boat, about thirty passengers pile up. In front of us, the brown water of the Calima River; direct route leading to the wonderful San Juan River. If from here you could draw a straight line in a northeastern direction, Bogota would be almost 500 kilometers away.
We go with Elizabeth Moreno Barco, a 52-year-old Afro-Colombian woman, one of the most important and beloved leaders of the Afro-Colombian communities living in the Southwest of the country. She has been seated in the most comfortable place: In front in the second row, just behind the boatman, so that her legs fit. Since we arrived in this small port called Bajo Calima – four shops, a barn, a street -, everyone has greeted Elizabeth. They call her Chava or Chavita. Although the diminutive is pure affection because she is enormous: 1.75 meters, wide back, long arms and legs, hands like mallets.
We will take four days on the San Juan River against the current to reach the Istmina municipality. It is a journey of approximately 250 kilometers -out of the river’s 380 km- through the lower and middle basins that are, as a whole, the fundamental watershed of the Southern part of the Choco Department. And although it is also inhabited by indigenous peoples, Choco is the Colombian province with the greatest predominance of Afro-Colombian people. Because of its poverty and government abandonment, it is already commonplace to say that this region, along with the state of Bahia in Brazil, is the closest thing to Africa in this part of the world.
Besides gold mining, the San Juan basin is currently fertile land for coca leaf cultivation and an unregulated area for timber extraction. Although trade and basic service businesses operate in the municipalities – restaurants and bars -, the silver of illicit origin is mainstreamed into the region’s economy. This resource is disputed by illegal armed groups. Drug trafficking gangs that sometimes act as paramilitary groups, such as Los Rastrojos or El Clan del Golfo, as well as guerrillas, have been present in this area. Before their demobilization after the peace agreement signed in November 2016, the FARC used to move through the river and it was common for them to hang banners at the entrance of a ravine saying WELCOME TO THE 30TH FRONT OF THE FARC, as if it were their information desk for the public.
However, the predominant guerrilla in this region is the National Liberation Army (ELN). This is a group that initially claimed to be Guevarist and encouraged by the Cuban Revolution, but it operates as a network of regional action autonomies that has given room for multiple tendencies and ideological currents. The front that has thrived in the San Juan River is called ‘Ernesto Che Guevara’ and its most visible commander, alias ‘Uriel’, has made known through his Twitter account that he feels like a Maoist, a practitioner of “protracted people’s war”.
The moorings are released, and we depart. The boat quickly reaches about 60 kilometers per hour. All the cargo -boxes, sacks, bags and baggage- is placed on the bench in the middle to affirm the center of gravity over the water. Chava strokes a girl sitting on her right, brushes her hair with her hand, hugs her. She is her niece, and she is taking her to meet her mother. For her co-workers and people who know her as a community leader, Chava is the “iron woman.” They highlight her charisma, her capacity to listen to all voices without losing patience; her courage to face political discussions even with armed leaders; and her willingness to work for the well-being of the communities she represents. In addition, for her family, Chava is the matriarch. She is the guide and the source. She is a single mother of four, a grandmother of two, a daughter looking after her mother, the third of five siblings, the most admired and beloved aunt.
Before reaching the Docordó pier, two hours away at full speed, a military checkpoint stops the boat. It is a medium-sized river battleship, with antennas and artillery, from which two fast armed boats known as piranhas hang. The Marines ask for IDs and ask me what I am doing here. Chava gets out of the situation by saying that I am going – including the cameraman Hernando Sanchez – with the General Community Council of San Juan – Acadesan, of which she is the legal representative. They ask her to prove it and she presents an administrative document from the Council.
First of all, mistrust. In Colombian red-light areas, the public forces always take note of visitors. Who they are, what they come to do, when they leave. Journalists are also asked when the report will be published. Nothing very different from the control exercised by the illegal armed groups. Yesterday, Friday afternoon, Chava had to call some peasants who live in the jungle to tell the ELN that she was going to navigate the territory with a journalistic team to document the threats against the San Juan River and its ecosystems. They thanked her through a message for reporting the situation, that is, for being forced to consider them an authority. “We are the owners of the territory,” Chava told me, somewhat outraged, referring to Acadesan. “But we can’t ignore the fact that those people are in there and armed, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Docordó is a village of less than a thousand inhabitants that serves as the municipal capital of Litoral de San Juan, the southernmost municipality of Choco. It is a community that has been expanding side by side on a cobble stone road about ten blocks long parallel to the river, which begins and ends in the jungle without connecting to anything else. Motorcycles and bicycles pass by and even a car that someone brought along to show off on that straight line with no destination. Chava often comes to address Acadesan’s issues and to visit part of her family. Here, she keeps a small fiberglass boat docked, which she has put at the service of her position and in which we will continue from now on. The gasoline to travel these 250 kilometers comes from two drums with which we will get the fourth day and a third one for the return. Each drum contains sixty gallons. One gallon costs, on average, 14,000 Colombian pesos, a little over three dollars. While in any city in Colombia, no matter how expensive it is, a gallon costs less than three dollars, or less than 10,000 Colombian pesos. There are no gas stations here with digital meters and fuel dispensers; gasoline comes in absolute scale containers —ten- or twenty-gallon jars and drums—bought from a stand on the bank.
As there are no roads, everyone depends on the ability to move through the water. Children are first taught to jump into rivers and swim, then to master a canoe and paddle, and finally to operate and repair an outboard motor. What does depend on each one is the shrewdness to read the shapes of the river and the routes of the riverbed, know how to avoid a shallow stretch that hits the engine, choose the right side to follow a meander, and understand when to speed up or slow down. This is explained to me by Dagoberto Mondragon (48), alias Dago, Chava’s right-hand man in Acadesan and who will steer the boat from now on.
The first destination is a community located on the right bank of one of the seven mouths of the San Juan River in the Pacific Ocean. It is called Togoromá. Until 1999, this village was located at the corner of the river that becomes seacoast. That is where Chava and her older children and brothers and sisters were born. The people lived an uncomplicated life – saltwater and freshwater fishing, hunting, and selling of wood – which ended when sea erosion began to pierce the shore and weaken the foundations of houses, and the whole community was forced to move to this gully, two or three kilometers away before making contact with the sea.
“My umbilical cord remnant and my placenta are buried over there,” Chava tells me as we walk along the pier.
In the culture of the Colombian Pacific, it is customary to bury the women’s umbilical cord remnant and placenta in the back of the house, to force them to take root and stay in the territory. In the case of men, the umbilical cord remnant and placenta are bagged and thrown into the sea in an attempt to make them fond of walking.
“What do you think of it?” Chava asks me with a laugh. “We women have to stay in the house.”
In its new location, Togoromá became a village of 185 satisfied families. No one endured hunger and no one thought of leaving or moving in search of fortune. It had a dispensary equipped with sufficient implements for basic care, a school where more than 100 children attended to be educated to the ninth grade of middle school and a small Catholic church with its respective and competent clergy leadership.
Chava began to play her role as a social leader here. From 1993 until 2010, she was the ‘community mother’ who took care of and fed the children under five while their mothers worked or left the village. She was also part of the local community council until she became its president. She was the beloved leader of those 185 families, ancestral inhabitants of this coastal area. If a dispute arose between two neighbors, she had to mediate to reach conciliation; if an event occurred in the village that put people at risk, she was the first to seek help.
“We lived very quietly here; we were very close.”
On January 5, 2013, the war tore our world apart. The Gulf Clan had been fighting a jungle war against Los Rastrojos for the control of a cocaine route to the ocean. When they arrived in Togoromá, rifle shots came and went, no matter if peasants were in the way. Luckily, no one in the community was killed or seriously injured. The problem arose in the hours that followed. Since the public forces never arrived, the peasants didn’t know what to do because they had no information about the fighting: whether it was over or if it was going on or if the armed men were lurking around. Faced with the option of remaining locked up in their houses unable to go out to hunt, fish or cut wood, the peasants preferred to move. Like everyone else, Chava adopted that decision out of fear. In less than a week, Togoromá was left in a ghostly emptiness.
“Here I have my roots, my youth,” she says somewhat nostalgically, beside a tall churima tree that stands a few meters from the shore. “Here I thought about my future until we had to flee.”
Upon exhausting the Government humanitarian aid for the first months of displacement — food, cash, temporary shelter— less than half of the inhabitants returned to their homes. It was a huge depopulation that ended up getting worse because when they saw that coexistence was no longer what it used to be, many of the returnees chose to leave completely until the village was left almost uninhabited. Today, there are only 23 families, some of them with only one member.
The public equipment was abandoned and became deteriorated: In what was once the medical center, the instruments are useless and moldy, syringes are scattered on the root-eaten floor and the stretchers are marshy foams; there is no parish and where houses used to be, there is only vacant land covered by the grass; in the school, the chairs are piled up and rusting and the boards are stained by the scratches made the day before the displacement.
Chava was one of those who didn’t come back. After spending some time in Docordó, she wanted to start from scratch in Buenaventura —Colombia’s most important seaport, two hours away on a combined river and road route and located not in Choco, but in the Valle del Cauca department— but without losing her role as a social leader. By that time and since 2007, she had been serving as a member of the Acadesan board of directors; in other words, Chava was already one of the most prominent leaders of the territory of the middle and lower San Juan basins. She had already gone through the 250 navigable kilometers and clearly distinguished the threats to life in the river: State abandonment, armed conflict, glyphosate spraying on coca crops that ends up damaging crops’ subsistence and poisoning the forest mass, indiscriminate logging for timber trade, illegal mining that destroys the soils and contaminates the water with residual chemicals, and the non-existent management of domestic garbage upstream.
“The San Juan River is a dump,” she says. “All sorts of waste come to this downstream part: refrigerators, stoves, furniture, dead animals, dead people who dry up on a bank because no one dares to lift those bodies out of fear.”
Here in Togoromá, Chava left the wooden frame of what was to be her house: A two-story bungalow on piles, traditional along Colombia’s Pacific coast. When she started building it, back in 2012, Chava wanted three things: enough space to accommodate the three children she maintained – the firstborn was already independent -, a balcony on the second level, and windows on the side walls to observe from a distance everything that might happen in the community. Now, standing on that balcony, she contemplates the brown bed of the San Juan River: Its bank flanked by a screen of jungle trees and its flow of patient waters.
“I couldn’t even finish my house. It was an investment I lost,” she says.
One of Chava’s frequent complaints is that Togoromá inhabitants never received any support from the government beyond the humanitarian aid. Since the return of these few inhabitants occurred without any guarantee that their rights would be restored, depopulation was inevitable. Today, many people believe that the village will disappear in the medium term. When the elderly die, it is very likely that young people, with no one to revere, will leave in search of a life in which they can form or become part of a community.
Day 2. The Social Organization
The Docordó cemetery is a colorful sloping garden, a piece of land stolen from the forest on the right bank of the river, which goes down from the wooded edge to the water. Tombstones, crosses and mausoleums are spread out along the ascending paths. Protected by a roof of zinc sheets, there is a rectangular tomb where the five victims of the Carrá massacre rest. It is a box covered with white and grey porcelain. On top of it, there are fallen pots with spilled synthetic flowers. Chava marked this stop on the itinerary, just before restarting the trip on this morning of the second day, after having talked last night with some families who survived the massacre.
This is what happen: After leaving Togoromá, we went into a marsh that is a narrow and swampy bend of the San Juan River, surrounded by mangrove trees and their roots exposed as octopus arms, heading to another coastal village called Pichimá. There, the community complained to Chava that the dispensary is in ruins, that the health promoter has no contract and works only by vocation, and that in these ten days of January there were twelve confirmed cases of malaria. Then, we went to Docordó to spend the night in a hotel. But before going to bed, Chava took us to a house at the end of a path where several of Carrá massacre survivors live in a crowded house.
The massacre took place on March 25, 2017. At about five o’clock in the afternoon, a handful of ELN guerrilla members subdued the seventeen families who lived in the community, located about fifteen minutes upstream from Docordó. They entered each house looking for members of paramilitary gangs who were supposedly hiding in the hamlets. They found no one and shot to kill. Those who had the necks under their boots were shot in the head. Those who ran in terror received rifle bursts in the back. Terrified, a young man threw himself into the river hoping to escape, but his forehead hit a piece of wood hidden in the waves of the water. Injured and drowned, he became the fifth victim. Since that day, the village has been completely empty and at this point, almost three years later, no family has been able to return. The reason is simple: The group responsible for the massacre has not left the region; on the contrary, it is settled there.
The ELN appeared in the San Juan River at the end of the ‘80s. It had been deployed from the mountainous part of central Choco and its objective was to spread a certain symbolic nationalism among the Afro-Colombian population so that they would believe themselves to be exceptional and threatened by the development plans proposed by the government in power at the time. The concept of “national liberation” consisted in the fact that, once the communities were aware of their yoke to a colonialist state, they would be motivated to join the armed struggle to win their definitive liberation. Without State constraint to their community projects, they would join the protracted people’s war to help liberate the rest of the country’s peasant communities and strike a blow to seize power.
To carry out this strategy, the ELN had to promote the support in the territory, that is, managing to conform an initial autochthonous force with men recruited from the communities, knowledgeable of the topography and trained in the ancestral culture, plus gaining the families’ moral and political support. To some extent, this guerrilla model worked for them because up to this point they seem unrelenting.
In the last three decades, the FARC and several paramilitary groups passed through the South of Choco and none have been able to adapt with the same versatility; the paramilitary forces because it has not been their method and they only appear if given the order, and the FARC because their model was not one of rooting, but of repopulation. When the areas of the country they had under their control were attacked with spraying on the coca crops and military operations, this guerrilla opened up space in other areas bringing along peasant settlers expert in the plant’s production chain. Just to mention one case, the line of public transport boats operating through the lower San Juan basin is owned by mestizos from the Amazon foothills who arrived in this region some 15 years ago hand in hand with this guerrilla group.
The massacre left Carrá without leaders trained by the social organization. Threatened, they had to leave the region. Since then, Hamilton Guaitotó, a 30-something mulatto with shapely muscles, is the one who bears the responsibility of guiding the survivors. Last night, he told me that if it were up to them they would return to their land immediately; it would take them as long as it takes to pack up their belongings. If they do not return and stay as outcasts, they will lose the collective ownership title to the land comprised by the local community council of Carrá.
“We don’t want that,” he insisted, “we are just a few, ten families, and we need to go back so that we don’t disappear.”
Malaguita is the next stop on the trip. It is ten o’clock in the morning and we have advanced less than an hour after the cemetery of Docordó, under an inclement sun. Chava tells me that this community has not suffered serious violence from the armed conflict despite its “strategic location up and down the river.” The most prominent leader is Dago, but after he started working in Acadesan his spokesmanship was taken over by Esciober Vanegas. A 43-year-old man who expresses himself calmly and with mastery of conversation. We are sitting under the shade of a bower from where the community can see boats and canoes passing in the distance.
Esciober says the fish are sick. When he was a child the river ran dark and clean, but about twenty years ago it became turbid and ochre. At this moment, if people bathe in the San Juan river “they get pimples and itchy skin”; species such as the timuro and barbudo suffer from sores.
“We take the healthy fish from the ravines,” he says. “If you eat something from the San Juan River, you don’t know what you’re eating. Out of five or six fish, two or three come out with sores. Twice we took out a healthy barbudo fish, started cooking it and worms came out. Nobody here knows why that is. What we do know is that upstream people are throwing chemicals and garbage into the river.”
After a break, Esciober tells me about the community’s plans to offer ecological tourism. He describes the natural attractions they would offer: Waterfalls, pools, birds, trails. He says that in view of the advance of the government mega-projects in the region, they want to be prepared for the number of visitors that, they assume, will arrive.
“Now they seem very far away,” he says, “but if you think about it, ten or twenty years are not so many in the life of a community. What we want is to prepare ourselves to be the ones who can offer tourism services to the people who visit us, instead of some outsider who shows up here to start a business.”
The curious thing is that the mega-projects mentioned by Esciober are the ones that pushed the Afro-Colombian communities of San Juan to organize themselves as a political structure in Acadesan in the late ‘80s: The Bahia Malaga naval base located in the Buenaventura area, the road that goes into the jungle in order to mobilize troops from the base and that also brings the Uramba Bahia Malaga National Natural Park closer, a multi-purpose pipeline from that same point to the Buga municipality in Valle del Cauca, the channeling of the estuaries by cutting down mangroves to open more doors to the ocean —which was never done — the deep-water port that is still under discussion and the Calima II, III and IV hydroelectric power plant plan, all discarded.
The acronym ‘Acadesan’ means San Juan Peasant Association. Official documents place its origin between 1988 and 1990. Although it coincides with the arrival of the ELN—in chronology and based on the idea that the development proposed by the central government does not do justice to the ancestral culture— it was the Lauritas (Mother Laura’s Missionary Sisters) and several indigenous organizations of Choco which explained the Afro-Colombian people the danger that the development of these mega-projects represented for their communities’ life. In his office at a university South of Cali, anthropologist and former priest Jesus Florez explained it to me like this: “We missionaries showed the communities the maps of the mining concessions and the plans for the logging concessions, we told them: ‘realize what is happening.’” The peasants were being hired by logging companies to help open up the trails to bring in machinery and cut down the most valuable trees in the forest. In return, they received a pyrrhic daily wage. The largest concession in the area was in the hands of Pulpapel, a subsidiary of Grupo Cartón de Colombia – current Smurfit Kappa. It began in 1959 with 15,000 hectares and had its third expansion in 1974, with which it completed an extension of 54,000 hectares, with authorization to cut 84,000 tons of wood per year for thirty years.
The clergymen made the Afro-Colombian people see that if this exploitation did not stop, they would soon run out of natural resources to survive, that the territory should belong to them simply because they had inhabited it for over a century and that they should be the ones to make decisions on how to use the land.
Just at the beginning of his government, in 1983, President Belisario Betancur enacted the Plan for the Integrated Development of the Pacific Coast with which he intended to modernize this region based on the country’s economic centers: Medellin and Antioquia, as the place of power most closely related to the center and North of Choco, an area crossed by the Atrato River; Pereira and the Coffee Growing Axis, as the region in direct contact with the upper basin of the San Juan River; and Cali and Buenaventura, with the middle and southern basins. “And this relationship has been increased,” adds Florez. “At the same time, the plan was to integrate the area with the so-called ‘Asian tiger’ countries, and now with China. There are also plans for Brazil and Venezuela to be connected by 4G roads to the Pacific, entering Colombia. The Afro-Colombian communities were left in the middle of multiple interests.”
With the issuance of Law 70 of 1993, the State recognized the possession of land by Afro-Colombian communities, their traditional production practices in the riverside soils and their right as ethnic minorities protected by the Constitution to collective title to the territory. This law authorized the technical process for the creation of local and general community councils and established their hierarchical structures. It also expanded the functional capacity of previously constituted organizations, such as Acadesan and Acia —Atrato Integrated Peasant Association— by turning them into general councils. If as associations the peasants could barely agree on claims or production, as community councils they began to be owners and authorities of the territory, as well as getting involved in aspects regarding their development plans.
The General Community Council of San Juan – Acadesan received the collective property title in December 2001, on a portion of land around the lower and middle river basins equivalent to 683,591 hectares, distributed in five Choco municipalities: Litoral del San Juan, Medio San Juan, Istmina, Sipí and Nóvita, and in three of the Valle del Cauca department: Buenaventura, El Dovio and Bolivar. This council is governed by a board of directors comprising eight members plus the legal representative. Each member represents one of the eight geographical zones into which the territory is divided, inhabited in its entirety by 72 communities that attend the assembly with three delegates each. Chava has been elected twice as the legal representative in this meticulous organizational system.
Our fifth stop of the day is the community of Corriente Palo. The most remote point we have reached so far, two hours in this boat on the Copomá river, an affluent on the left bank of the San Juan River. It is four o’clock in the afternoon.
Upon leaving Malaguita, Chava took us to a community called Coco to show us that people are still waiting for the state to help them solve the lack of water and electricity infrastructure. We then stopped at Taparal, a hamlet with more abandoned houses than occupied. Since the end of the ‘90s, there was a factory there producing triplex, a type of chipboard used to make office and residential furniture. The company had to stop production in 2018, after the ELN ordered not to cut wood trees from the forest for six months, under penalty of death. Dozens of workers from the San Juan area were left unemployed and left the hamlet. Under the shed of what used to be the factory, I saw machines that could have a second life, even if they were being eaten by humidity. I also saw, scattered under the open sky, the logs of wood that were going to be processed before the closing, now useless as raw material.
Here in Corriente Palo, one of the most delicate problems of the Acadesan territory is evident: The cultivation of coca leaves. Small fields planted with this bush are noticeable on both sides of the river minutes before entering the village. Its bright and uniform green stands out among the opaque greens of the trees. Already in the houses – underneath them, among the piles – the precursors lies before the eyes of the whole world: Urea bags and gasoline drums. A local explains to me that if I went into the wooded paths of this community for a few minutes I would find bigger crops along with the cambuyones – production sites – where they process the leaf into coca paste. According to the most recent UN survey on coca cultivation in Colombia – UNODC 2018 –, there are an estimated 1,116 hectares of coca in the Acadesan territory.
Chava introduces me to two local leaders: Carlos Alberto Victoria (42) and Jose Diaz (39). They seem nervous and a little bit shy. They are tall and strong. They cover their bald heads with caps. Hernando focuses on them with the camera and Chava pushes them: “Do it, we all know what this is about here!” Carlos Victoria decides to speak and does so between confession and complaint:
“The truth is that here we are devoted to wood and coca leaf. The wood alone is not enough and the only way to maintain our families is the coca leaf. Even though the government knows that, we are the ones who are aggrieved. Those who get rich are others, those who traffic it. We barely cultivate it and the operatives are against us: They fumigate us, they take away our gasoline, our supplies and they burn our cambuyones. And if they catch you, they incriminate you in things that are not true. The whole world knows that’s Colombia’s economy and they try to hide it. See, you work with wood and you have to sell it on credit and they pay you when they want. You plant bananas and no one can buy them; you raise pigs and chickens, and the same story. The only thing they buy from you is coca.”
“What do you expect from the State?” I ask. Victoria gets tangled up when answering. Other people have joined the interview and are surrounding these two leaders. Chava is observing them defend themselves from the press as if it were a test in community leadership training.
“Something in exchange for never planting coca again,” Victoria finally replies. It is clear that he cannot imagine a different future. “But we are not going to be fooled by proposals of pigs and cassava, because we know full well that those crops don’t generate enough to buy a pair of pants. If the State offers us a real way out, we’ll take it. Nobody here wants to continue growing coca.”
“Are you aware that nothing legal is going to be as lucrative as coca?” Victoria remains silent and nobody else say a word. “Would you be willing to give up coca, even if the solution proposed by the State gives you less money?” There is another silent moment, so I move on to the next question: “Have you imagined what kind of activities you could do to replace the coca crops that would satisfy you?”
“Productive projects aimed at production and commercialization,” Chava answers upon seeing these leaders clueless about, but in a very low voice as if she did not want to interfere in the interview. I ask her to explain herself. “Here rice grows very easily. One of the projects is to install a mill and the necessary machinery to cultivate rice, process it, pack it, brand it with our name from the San Juan region and put it on the market until it is sold to the consumer. We have the same idea with achiote, cocoa and sugarcane products.”
The money for these plans to become real working models must come from a government policy, resulting from the peace agreement with the FARC, called Territorially Focused Development Programs (PDET in Spanish). Designed for the country’s 170 municipalities most affected by the armed conflict, the South of Choco was prioritized along with the five that make up Acadesan. Chava herself participated in the policy formulation dynamics.
“We are ready, as a social organization, to make the necessary contributions, both personal and from councils, so that these PDET become a reality. It is the only opportunity we have to leave the crops for illicit use and get out of this backwardness.”
There are two reasons why these communities say they are willing to leave coca behind, in case they manage to find a production model they consider fair:
First, neither this plant nor marijuana are symbolic, nor do they arrogate mysticism within the Afro-Colombian cosmogony, as is the case with some indigenous peoples. If they do not plant it again, these communities would not be undermining the mythical foundations of their culture. The second reason is that these villages have proven with their own blood that every economic benefit granted by coca comes with added violence.
The list of acts of war suffered by the population of the San Juan area is extensive and comes from all sides. At the hands of the public forces, they have suffered atrocities and abuses of authority: The Navy has taken away gasoline, groceries and even the boat’s engine if nothing is invoiced in their own name with the excuse that “that” could be for the guerrillas. Between 2012 and 2015, years of intense glyphosate spraying, the plane passed by dropping the herbicide after the armed helicopters directed a burst of machine gun fire at the forest. The poison fell on the coca at the same time as it fell on the subsistence crops and water sources. Although the government has always said that it does not pollute the water and that the collateral damage is lower, researches published by respected academic journals suggest an increase in miscarriages in areas sprayed with glyphosate. Chava and these leaders tell me that of course there have been miscarriages, as well as people who have had pimples, stains, fungus, diarrhea and respiratory problems.
“Things happen in this territory that the rest of the country never learns about,” Chava says, with an air of complaint. “Nobody talks about us. You hear about what happens on the coast of Nariño, in Atrato, Bojaya, in the northern Cauca, but not a thing about San Juan.
At the height of the FARC’s power (about ten years before the peace agreement,) during anti-guerrilla operations by the public forces, peasants were held back and assaults of enormous force were committed against tiny villages of unarmed people. There were weekly bombings and each explosion devastated colossal portions of the forest. The attacks not claimed by public forces and presented as perpetrated by paramilitary groups were worse: selective assassinations and massacres, torture and disappearances.
The guerrillas are responsible for the rest of them: forced recruitment of minors, occupation of villages, confinement of entire communities by planting anti-personnel mines, more massacres, more displacement and selective assassinations of community leaders opposed to subversive political approaches and illegal funding economies.
The elders remember the days before this violence and tell those stories as those of a world gone by, a world where they lived without fear. A part of this was narrated by the Colombian poet Eduardo Cote Lamus in his book “Diario del Alto San Juan y del Atrato,” written in 1958. As a teenager, Chava rode on steel-hulled cargo boats from Docordo to Istmina, leaving goods and people at every stop. They took four days and sailed until late at night. With no sunlight, the boats were guided by the shadow cast by the treetops on the water with the moon’s glare. After the war, no one could sail at night again. It was forbidden by the armed groups. The guerrillas threatened to attack any boat, no matter how small, with the excuse that it might be a covert military action. The public forces took similar measures: Although they do not support this restriction so strictly, they have informed the communities that given the difficulty to recognize navigators at night, they can respond with a pre-emptive attack.
“What do they ask of the illegal armed groups?” I continue with the interview in Corriente Palo. Victoria gives the floor to Diaz, who starts saying that this violence “does not exist in a vacuum,” there is a reason for it.
“I strongly refuse to let armed people come to my village. But when I have complained to the guerrillas, they tell me that they are fighting for education, health, decent work and basic sanitation. I look around me and none of those things are available to my people. So, I ask the government to give us arguments so we can tell the armed groups to leave. What are those arguments? That we are provided with health, education, decent housing… and so on. I dare say that the armed groups live under a true lie: They say we need education and I say we need education, but if I have not obtained it through legal means and it is unlikely I will ever get it, why look down on illegal ones? It would be great if one day, when a member of an armed group comes, I could tell him: What are you looking for with that gun? Housing? There it is. Health? We already have it. Education? Also got it. So, there’s no reason for you to carry that gun.”
“Alright,” I accept the argument without mentioning that with guns won’t get you anything either. “But you would tell the government that. What would you say to the illegal armed groups? To the ELN guerrillas around here? Would you ask them, for example, to stop recruiting minors?”
“This is going to make us look a bit bad,” says Diaz, a little afraid. “The ELN doesn’t take anyone by force. There are people who go there because they see it as a lifestyle. They have arguments, and there are people who idealize those arguments.”
“If the government hadn’t abandoned us for so long, no one here would seek out the guerrillas,” adds Victoria, without giving me time to ask questions or to point out that according to international law, the recruitment of a minor will always be considered as forced no matter the circumstances. “But here we have no options and then we see them with gasoline to move through the river, with money, doing well, and we’re screwed… So, those who don’t know any better go with them because they believes in what the guerrillas have.”
Driven by the visceral answers to my question, Chava gives the coup-de-grace with this answer: “For the State, everything we Afro-Colombian, indigenous people and peasants do is illegal. And it is the State itself that put us in these conditions.”
Day 3. The Defense of the Territory
Dawn breaks Cucurrupi.
A cock crowed in the early morning and a dog barked in the distance. All in all, it was a quiet, restful night. We all slept at a family’s house and got up early to bathe in the river. Except for some buildings in Docordo and Malaguita, none of the communities we visited so far have aqueducts. People have to collect rainwater for cooking and personal hygiene. But there are many of us in this house and there is a drought. The tank storing the rainwater is less than halfway full.
Cucurrupi is on the left bank of the San Juan River, very close to the mouth of the Copoma. And this side of the river runs today with a scary-looking foam, curdled like cream. I can see that everyone, including Chava, is avoiding it. I try to push her away with my hand and I remember what Esciober told me in Malaguita: itching, sores and worms on fish. If merely bathing in the morning is a daring and reckless act, what about the rest of the day’s activities?
After breakfast, Chava and I sit down to talk; we put two chairs at the entrance of the house. She tells me she slept well, that while she’s on her turf she always has a good night. When she has to travel to other cities she has been accommodated in comfortable and beautiful hotels “with very good beds,” but she doesn’t sleep well.
“I only sleep well when I’m here.” She smiles, showing her white, polished, powerful front teeth. “I don’t know if it’s the air, the sound of the river, the people, the weather, or all of it.”
During the talks between the National Government and the FARC, Chava was brought to Havana as part of the group of ethnic minority leaders to discuss how the peace mechanisms should be implemented in their territories. She was then taken to Quito to deliver the document ‘Humanitarian Agreement. Now in Choco!,’ which sought to propose a ceasefire and protection for civil society while peace talks with the ELN progressed (which ultimately failed.) In-between these trips, Chava met delegates from the embassies of European countries cooperating with Colombia in Bogota.
“Every day I wake up dreaming of a better territory. That’s why I knock on doors that help me make our needs visible, so that the State will look at us and realize that we are extremely forgotten. That is my constant struggle.”
While she is working for Acadesan, Chava is also a member of the Pacific Region’s Inter-Ethnic Truth Commission. This body was created by over thirty social organizations and since May 2019 it has been working to prepare a consolidated report on the serious damage caused by the armed conflict in the Colombian Pacific region. There are ten commissioners and each one is responsible for a representative case in a specific area of the territory. Chava is responsible for documenting the ways coca leaf cultivation and gold mining have affected San Juan area’s communities. Likewise, the commissioner representing the Darien region – Northern Choco – is responsible for evaluating the damage caused by African palm monoculture; the Buenaventura and the Valle del Cauca region coastal zone, the impact of maritime and port mega-projects; and so on, in each of the ten areas.
“The damage to the territory is this work’s backbone, because the territory is seen as the set of life comprising natural resources, communities and production relations with the land,” explained Camilo Alzate, a young journalist linked to the Commission’s communications strategy. “Here’s a hypothetical example: Chava may find that mining has sedimented a river and it became impossible for the community to trap fish on the banks. By not being able to continue fishing with an ancestral technique, there is a loss of ethnic value. Thus, this commission’s document intends to show that the armed conflict has caused an ethnocide in the Colombian Pacific because it has deteriorated the communities’ relationship with their territory.”
When we were in Togoroma, I asked Chava about the threats against the San Juan River. First and foremost, she mentioned two that could be taken as one: the State’s abandonment and the armed conflict. The empirical reasoning she and her communities make, considering the purpose of this commission, is that damage to the territory is environmental damage: Territory and environment are one and the same.
Anthropologist Jesus Florez explained it to me thusly: “We always measure environmental damage as that caused by man to nature, but we never say the same thing about the damage man does to man in the context of these territories. Above all, the armed conflict has caused serious environmental damage because it has caused serious harm to the communities’ survival.” When people cannot navigate at night, when they cannot move around their land because of anti-personnel mines, when they cannot go hunting with pneumatic weapons – called machomalo or machosolo – because the public forces seize them, when they cannot fish because the river is contaminated and when they cannot cut trees down due to a guerrilla veto, their survival is in danger as they cannot feed themselves or maintain their ethnic group’s continuity. “In the mid-2000s, there were many regions in Choco that endured hunger because of the armed conflict,” added Florez. “A contradiction. It is normal for people to be hunger in deserts, but in the midst of the forest’s resources it is absurd. So, when communities protect natural resources, they protect their own existence.”
The Cucurrupi leaders give us a tour of their community. They lack the same things as the others: Drinking water, electrical interconnection so as not to depend on combustion plants, health centers and improved school location. The children’s canteen is in ruins. Nearby there is an unfinished, cement multiple court for futsal, basketball and volleyball.
Cucurrupi has been a determining factor in Acadesan’s history. Luis Granados, one of its founders, was born here. It was here where the first meetings were held, starting in 1988, between the leaders and the religious congregations that helped the social organization. Years later, when Acadesan was already the general community council, Chava was elected here as legal representative. She was the first woman to reach that position, and the only leader who stood up to the FARC when the guerrilla wanted to take over the organization.
The story of that election goes more or less like this: The nearly 300 leaders and delegates from the 72 communities of San Juan had gathered in the community hut – a bower with a floor and plank walls with plastic chairs – for an assembly that sought to overturn the then-acting board of directors. It was October 2012, and Chava was part of that board of directors. The argument for the revocation was that the Council was selling the territory to individuals. The board of directors showed documents and meeting minutes and proved the claims were false, and that it was a rumor spread with the sole intention of appointing another board of directors. The attendees accepted the explanations and adjourned the meeting. They all started to leave the hut but had not taken five steps when a FARC commander made them go back inside. It was FARC leader ‘Mamajuana,’ escorted by his men.
The insurgent confronted the board of directors not only about the alleged sale of the territory but also about another rumor saying that the board was accusing the guerrilla group of destroying the infrastructure in some community on the river. Without letting go of his shotgun, ‘Mamajuana’ denied the accusation and showed himself as an indignant revolutionary who was on the people’s side, and for whom these leaders were mere sell-outs. The nine leaders of the Council board were left frozen in place. Both issues could cost them their lives. The normal course of actions in cases like this, under FARC justice, was death to traitors. No one was even able to lift a finger. Until Chava, full of courage and bravery, dared to stand up from the table and tell ‘Mamajuana’ that none of it was true, that all board meetings were documented, that no one was giving away the territory for personal gain and that the accusations of infrastructure damage caused by the FARC were also a lie. But not because the council was incapable of reporting the guerrilla’s crimes, but because nothing had actually happened. Seeing her so daring and resolute, some of those present supported Chava; others continued to be intimidated and silent. In the end, the meeting forced by ‘Mamajuana’ ended without any change in the board of directors.
Three years later, on September 19, 2015, an assembly was held to elect the legal representative for the 2015-2019 period, for which Chava ran. Her courage in confronting the guerrilla commander had infected local leaders and aroused their admiration and respect for her. In the elections, Chava won with 85% of the votes.
After the FARC’s demobilization, community leaders throughout Choco have had the opportunity to talk informally with former guerrilla commanders and have begun to understand some of the war movements. Acadesan members knew that the exact opposite had happened in that revocation assembly: The FARC had made a pact with a gold mining association to bring in machinery and the only way they could begin excavations without using weapons was by discrediting the current board of directors to have it revoked and thus set a board of directors favorable to their ends to give the authorization. The worst thing for the San Juan community organization was that some local leaders were convinced and lent themselves to that scheme.
It is 3 o’clock in the afternoon and we have just landed at the Noanama community. We are already on the grounds of the Medio San Juan municipality; Cucurrupi was the last station of the Litoral municipality. The end of the trip is near.
Chava takes us to the Lauritas’ house, a congregation of nuns that arrived here in the ‘50s. These nuns, together with Claretian and Diocesan priests, have been the moral and technical support for the peasant organization in Choco. The house is a building with high ceilings, corridors like passageways, enormous rooms, a giant courtyard with fruit trees and poultry, flower beds and small singing parrots.
The most beloved and respected nun is Sister Carmen Palacios. She is 87 years old and has been in Choco since 1959. As a missionary, she has witnessed the territory’s great modernization phases, which she summarizes as follows: The platinum and gold mining boom of the mid-20th century, the lumber boom of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the war between guerrillas, the Public Force and paramilitaries of the ‘90s and the consequent boom in coca crops and second mining boom of the 21st century. In addition to being understanding and generous, she is known as a woman who has the gift to heal people using the traditional medicine of the Wounaan people. Stories abound of dying people she has taken from death’s grasp: From those suffering from tropical diseases, such as malaria, to war wounds.
Sister Carmen met Chava around the time of her first election as Acadesan’s legal representative.
“She was an outspoken lady from the coast who talked a lot,” she recalls, laughing. “She was not well known as a local leader, you could see her participating in the assembly, but she did not seem to have much ability. I thought: ‘To make her like Marina or Luis Granados, she’s got a long way to go…’ Marina is a leader of Corriente Palo. One sister did believe in her and told me that Chava represented a future for the organization, but I didn’t see how. I said, ‘This little girl from the coast won’t be up to the task.’ And you see, Chava was braver than everyone else.”
After she was elected, Chava began to visit Sister Carmen to listen to her advice. But in 2019, at the end of Holy Week, she came to be healed of an anxiety crisis that plunged her into depression. Chava would wake up after midnight and not sleep again. If she were in a hotel, she would leave her room and walk down the corridor. At her home in Buenaventura, Chava would go up and down the second-floor stairs ten or twenty times before dawn. As she sailed down the San Juan River, she felt like jumping into the water with the boat at full speed, as if she wanted to escape from her place in the world.
“Here we treat her with plants and our healing processes,” says Sister Carmen. “She had a lot of tension with council issues because I have heard people asking her for what she doesn’t have, what she can’t get. They make her feel bad and that hurts her.”
Chava said something similar to me this morning in Cucurrupi, that leaders always think of others, but “the collective never thinks of leaders.” If she puts on new shoes, she told me, there are people who accuse her of “stealing the money from the communities.” She also told me that her family responsibility was very high, that she did not have a fixed salary and had to support a house with four children, two grandchildren and her mother. The children, moreover, decided not to attend university even though she offered it to them, and she was a little frustrated about that.
“Yes, the family thing too,” Sister Carmen confirms. The children don’t want her to be involved in this because they know that whoever gets involved in this puts a mark on their own back” The sister touches her jugular with her right finger. “She knows what she wants, and she loves her people, that’s why they haven’t killed her,” she continues. “When she was first elected, people said, ‘That one smells like death.’ And nothing happened because her ambition to get elected was not to make money but to work for the people. In any case, we daily pray for her life, because we are in a country where social leaders are killed every day.”
Day four. The Risk
Near Istmina, the San Juan River gathers domestic waste in its banks. The tree branches in the water are covered with rags, packages, bags, bottles. They are as colorful as a Christmas tree. In the port, the largest in the river, boats of different draughts pile up. From long, thin wooden indigenous canoes, to high-speed fiberglass boats and passenger boats like the ones on where we started this journey.
Istmina is a municipality located in the first Choco valley after the Western mountain range disappears through the forest. The Afro-Colombian population is still the majority, but the streets have more and more mixed-skinned people. The culture follows suit: while in the communities of the Litoral municipality everything is related to the ocean’s proximity, Istmina gets its philosophy of life from the mountain’s influence. The river also looks different. If in Litoral it is wide, deep and voluminous, and a swimmer would find it almost impossible to go from one shore to the other, here in Istmina it is tamed and calm, with a bridge for cars above that is part of the road communicating Choco with the countryside.
Last night, we slept in Sipi, a remote municipality that can be reached after going up the San Agustin River for two hours, another river that plentifully flows into the San Juan River. This morning, as soon as we left the hotel, Chava showed us what it means for a village to be confined by the threat of anti-personnel mines.
“About ten years ago, between the FARC and ELN – not allied but each in their own time – they set up their own protective fences to fend off Public Forces. As much as they were very concerned about the community, the guerrillas did not care about preventing peasants’ free passage through their work lands. I spoke with a 39-year-old man who lost his right leg below the knee after stepping on a mine one morning while walking along a path near the village. I learned about the case of two children who died inside their house after a mortar shell fell on them during a crossfire. I went to the cemetery hidden by the forest, after the ELN mined it three years ago. Since then, the dead are buried in the ground at the entrance, which is no more than three square meters. The graves of people buried beyond that point have gone unvisited since then. Jackson Arboleda, a young local leader, told me that he had already lost the count of Sundays that have gone by without putting flowers on his mother’s headstone.”
After Sipi, we quickly visited a village called San Miguel. In this section of the San Juan River, one hour downstream from Istmina, we see the destruction of the vegetation and the deformation of the river’s left bank due to mechanized mining. The dredges eat the bank’s edges and are advancing towards the forest’s bowels. Meanwhile, backhoes tear down trees and uproot vegetation to level the ground. It is one of the most sensitive damages to the ecosystems, an irreparable loss for nature. The biogeographic Choco tropical rainforest is considered one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots. There are records of almost 1,700 species of animals and some 6,000 vascular plants, at least 1,500 of which are endemic: They do not grow anywhere else on the planet.
The devastation advances at an alarming rate: On average, a ton of soil has to be ground to extract one gram of gold. A good-sized dredger is capable of producing a ton of gold per hour of work. And today, there are three active dredges in San Miguel, but in the surrounding area there must be more than ten. All over the Choco, they are referred to as ‘dragons.’
The middle San Juan basin communities’ familiarity with this type of mining is historically rooted. It was in Andagoya, a community near San Miguel, where the Choco Pacifico Mining Company operated under the name of an American and English capital consortium called the South American Gold and Platinum Company. Taking advantage of the lack of solid legal regulation for precious metal extraction, the company profited for decades without giving anything back to the communities. When it left in 1974, it left only machinery and just a few locals capable of operating it.
The job chain for a dredger is this: The boss can receive a monthly payment of COP 4 million, about USD 1,000; its operators, about USD 500 each. The kitchen lady, USD 700. In turn, the owners, who sell the gold, earn money depending on the amount of metal extracted. In a well-endowed soil, such as that of Medio San Juan, a dragon recovers between 20 and 30 grams of gold per day. In the market, a gram of 18 carats is worth around COP 170,000, about USD 40. The accounts show that owners earn more than a COP 1,000 a day. And everyone pays the ELN a fee that is not easy to pinpoint, but which can be as much as 10% of production. Off the record, some people in the community told me that this guerrilla group also owns 50% of one of the three San Miguel dredges.
Misgley Murillo, a 43-year-old local leader, led us through a crushed stone road to the extraction point. I saw the dredge in full operation: At one end it was gobbling up the soil and was expelling the residue on the other; inside it was storing the precipitate with gold and platinum. Both the assembly – a gold washing machine – and this voracious animal are owned by the community. A kind of mutual partnership divided among some 700 members – the hamlet has about a thousand inhabitants. Misgley explained me that they started working with this machinery when the ancestral technologies -the punt and almocafre– stopped working for them because the gold was too deep.
The soil degradation is depressing: Around the dragon rise hills of ground and gravel that were once forest. Local leaders and the inhabitants of San Miguel, in general, know it: This production model is not a sustainable consumption of natural resources. They are swallowing their own soil. In the end, this model contradicts the mission of the community councils, which is to defend the territory.
Perhaps this explains why Misgley and other local leaders would have tried to argue in favor of mining, telling me that it is a stable source of employment in a region where over 90% of the people cannot get a higher education and where many cannot read or write. And even if they could finish a degree, they could not be employed as professionals in San Miguel because there are no job positions for them. They also told me that they donate from their profits to the local community council and to a senior citizen’s home. Chava told me about backfilling, a strategy that prevents dredged soil from turning into a desert crater. They pour the processed material into the excavation holes, flatten it out and plant trees. There is no trace of what the ecosystem once was, but the community says it is trying to recover at least some vegetation.
Unlike the coca-growing communities that expressed their intention to abandon their crops, the communities that practice mining with dredges and backhoes do not seem willing to do the same. They do not see it as a big problem. Another leader called Hermencia Marmolejo, known as ‘Chocoana the Popular,’ told me this: “I won’t have to because I’m old, but we know that in the future we’ll have to move the town further inland, to keep working the gold on the riverbank.”
Istmina boils in forest heat. At mid-afternoon, when the sun is going down, the temperature is around 28° C. It is the largest municipality in the San Juan River’s course and its history is tied to the gold exploration of the late 19th century. Its name is a composition that emphasizes this fact: ‘Ist’ because this town is an isthmus on the San Juan River, and mina (mine in Spanish), for obvious reasons.
Acadesan has auxiliary headquarters here; the main one is in Buenaventura. And on the last few occasions when there have been massive displacements of peasant and indigenous communities around Noanama due to guerrilla confrontations with the army and bombings by the air force, Chava has received these displaced people in that house and provided them with food and survival supplies.
Before the farewell, we had a beer on a terrace over the river. She and her collaborators will spend tonight here and sail back to their communities tomorrow morning, this time with the current in favor. I have two questions left to ask her. One has to do with her status as a woman and a leader. What has it been like holding that position? How many questions have been brought about being a woman and having to take charge of leading villages full of problems that seem unsolvable? Chava smiles before answering.
“They always ask me that question,” she says. “There’s a lot of male chauvinism in this culture, but not only from men. Sometimes it is the women themselves who tell me: ‘You cannot, you are not capable,’ and it is the men who support me: ‘Do it, go ahead.’ There have been local organizations that have told me that I am not capable, that they believe we are the weaker sex. But women are not the weaker sex. We are the ones who birth children and we have this strength in our blood, as black women, as coastal women.”
Chava tells me that before having been elected the first time, some of the attendees stood up from the chair and said aloud that she could not be Acadesan’s legal representative because she was a young, pretty, coastal woman. “She could end up falling in love instead.”
“I’ve been on the board for almost 11 years, I’ve been separated for 10 years and I haven’t been in a relationship since. I was re-elected in September 2019 and I have shown that man and the community that I could do it. I showed them that being a woman, being young and beautiful is not an impediment to leading these processes. No one came here to fall in love.”
The other question I asked the first time, but without enough emphasis. We were in the boat with the sun facing us and we had just left Cucurrupi. We had already been through war-torn places like Togoroma and Carra, and others plunged into drug trafficking and guerrilla warfare, like Corriente Palo. She had already told me about her confrontation with FARC member alias ‘Mamajuana’. So, I thought it was time to ask her if she was threatened with death. She answered ‘no’ with such serenity that I had no reason to rephrase the question. Already in Noanama, I was concerned again when I saw Sister Carmen worried and warning her: “Take care, iron woman, because you can be killed any day now.” Chava hugged her and said: “Yes ma’am, we can die at any moment, but I am going with God and let His will be done.” And last night, as soon as I put my feet up in bed at the hotel in Sipi, I read on my cell phone that until this moment in 2020, when the first January fortnight has not yet arrived, the Ombudsman’s Office counts over 550 social leaders murdered throughout the country after the signing of the peace agreement at the end of 2016. Indepaz, an NGO that has devoted itself to quantifying this violence, says there are actually 750.
In his office in Cali, anthropologist Jesus Florez had given me his opinion on the matter. He knows Choco like few others and Chava for years, and from his academic work he knows how to read the danger faced by social leaders in the country. He said that because of the number of armed stakeholders in the territory, Choco is one of the most dangerous places for a leader to work. But he qualified the situation: “Chava does not work to earn money, which gives her extra protection. She is there because she wants to help the community. And the armed stakeholders in the territory can see that. If it were up to the guerrillas, they would have killed her already. The threat that could be posed on her comes from the State. A paramilitary action or something like that.”
“Are you threatened with death?” I ask Chava now for the second time, sitting on this terrace by the river, taking a sip of beer, afraid that she will say yes. You don’t have to be a psychic to anticipate that her murder, in addition to losing the intrinsic value of her life, would seriously damage the social fabric of the San Juan River communities and annihilate the little trust she has taught them to have in the State.
“No, or not as far as I know,” she says, as calmly as the first time. If someone is plotting my death, I haven’t been told. They’re probably talking about it behind my back.”