María* is tired of being forced to move from place to place. The 54-year-old adjusts her colourful headscarf and sighs heavily. She is one of Colombia’s six million forcibly displaced people.
By Maeve McClenaghan, 30 March 2015, 17:08 UTC
For years María called El Tamarindo home. Nestled in the outskirts of the city of Barranquilla, Atlántico Department, in northern Colombia, the farm had become a safe haven for many people who had previously been forced from their homes by the country’s on-going armed conflict. The first families moved to the land in 1999, others came later setting themselves up in four areas of the farm. At one point 135 families were working the land there, but the peaceful life couldn’t last.
In 2008 local businesses claimed ownership of the land through legal proceedings. The local authorities and state security forces became involved and the first forced evictions started.
In November 2013 it was María’s turn. State securityforces and other armed men, thought to be linked to paramilitaries, moved in and threw her, and many in her community out. Areas cultivated by the peasant farmersthat were once lush and green have been left barren by bulldozers.
María cannot stop dreaming of what she has lost.
“The day of the eviction was so painful,” she recalls. She was at home with a friend, “They took me, pulled me out, took everything outside and tore everything down.”
She was removed from her house by armed men. Outside, others were being thrown out of their homes. It was a panicked scene and María explains how she was ready to run for her life.
“What was I afraid of? That they would do what they always do in Colombia and there would be a massacre; we have seen thousands of those,” she says shakily.
According to international law, the Colombian government is obliged to properly consult with the community, clearly identify the areas earmarked for eviction, and provide adequate notice to those threatened with eviction. In this case that simply did not happen.
“I had arrived in Tamarindo in 2007. I was working on the little plot of land I had. I grew everything, bananas, coconuts, guava, mango, tamarind. It was so beautiful.”
You can’t imagine, being kicked out had the worst impact possible on my life. To be as poor as I am, and 54-years-old and to have everything you own taken from you…. I had to leave everything I’d sown, all my plants, my animals- the chickens, pigs and turkeys I had there. I lost it all.
Maria from El Tamarindo
“Why did they have to treat us like that?”
While she misses her little plot of land, María is too afraid to go back.
“I have never tried to return [to the plot she was evicted from], it is too dangerous. There are still armed men all over the place and we are too scared to go back. There are still a few people living on their plot of land in the area but they live in fear.”
María, along with most of the residents of El Tamarindo who were forcibly evicted, now live crammed into the only small plot of land that remains, “El Mirador”. On 13 April 2014 the families declared El Mirador a “Temporary Humanitarian Space” naming it the “Refuge of Peace and Hope”, as part of a strategy to protect themselves and prevent further forced evictions.
Farming enough food to live on has become near impossible. People are going hungry. It is a critical situation aggravated by recent cuts to the water supply.
The children of the community have been particularly affected; they have a poor diet, there are not enough resources to send them away to school and they have no place to play.
In desperation, some have moved to the city of Barranquilla. “There, people work on markets trying to make a bit of money,” explains María. However, as peasant farmers with little city-experience, they are facing new hardships.
Now, many of those evicted from the area are asking the local and regional authorities to quickly resettle them elsewhere, to a place they can call home and from which they will not be forced to flee again, as promised by the regional authorities – a place where they can live in dignity with all their basic human rights respected, including adequate housing, water and a decent standard of living. Amnesty International is joining in that call.
“The local government isn’t interested in us, they don’t care that we are people too. If I could talk to the President I would tell the government not to wipe out poor families. There isn’t even the slightest intention to help our communities,” María says.
To this day, the peasant farmers who sought a new life in El Tamarindo continue to be threatened by paramilitaries, who have had a long history of collusion with state security forces, and still face the frightening prospect of being forcibly evicted and dispossessed from their lands.
One of the most recent threats the community received was a pamphlet from a paramilitary group known as the “Black Eagles Northern Bloc Atlantic Coast” (Bloque Norte Costa Atlántica Águilas Negras). The document was delivered to the house of Juan Martínez, one of the leaders of the El Tamarindo community, on 11 January. It threatened the lives of several individuals, including those from El Tamarindo.
“People like María and Juan Martínez are not asking for much, just a safe place to call home and a chance to work the land. The government of Colombia has legal obligations to these people, both to ensure that their rights are respected and protected and to provide redress for the violations they have suffered. Many have suffered repeated forced evictions and displacement; it is time they were provided with a place to settle for good,” said Marcelo Pollack, Colombia Researcher at Amnesty International.
María is left dreaming of a place to call home.
“To be honest it is like they killed me the way they threw me from my home,” she sighs.
“I just hope that God helps me find a home before I end up in the grave.”
* Name changed to protect identity
Read more about El Tamarindo: Colombia: A land title is not enough