Colombia has suffered one of the worst and most hidden humanitarian crisis with 5.7 million people internally displaced, from between 6.8 and 10 million hectares of land. This amounts to more than the combined territory of Ireland and Wales and more than the whole of the population of Scotland.
The Pacific Coast of Colombia where mainly Afro-Colombians and Indigenous Peoples live demonstrates how ‘macro-economic plans’ have been motivating factors behind displacement. The region is rich in natural resources, biodiversity and minerals. It is strategically important militarily, politically, and economically.[i] Its natural wealth has attracted the attention of powerful economic interests, both national and international.
María Ligia Chaverra, former legal representative of the Curvaradó High Council and leader in the process to return to the region. In 2008 she was the target of an assassination plot and her life has been threatened many times – because she is the voice of the community as they seek to reclaim their land from palm plantation businesses. So endangered is her life that she has received special protection measures. But out in the rural area where she lives these protection measures are limited in their effectiveness. She has seen several other leaders assassinated in this struggle.
Maria Ligia: The community of Curvaradó have struggled for many years resisting displacement from their territory.
“We do not agree with mono crops, agro-industry and above all palm oil. This has led to the total destruction of the civilian population of the communities of Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó. The assassinations, the tortures, the disappearances, all of the terrible things that have happened to us, which have destroyed us, have been for palm oil, which we have never wanted.”
The first massacre displacing them from their territory was in a place called Brisas in 1996 the communities have suffered many attacks since with approximately 3,000 people forcibly displaced between 1996 and 97 from Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, “I remember that they threw many of them in the river Curvaradó”. The people of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó talk of how people were killed and dismembered and how they would see body parts floating down the rivers.
These communities fled for their lives. Their land was used for the cultivation of palm oil on an industrial scale. One paramilitary bosses, Vicente Castaño, confirmed that forced displacement on a massive scale has facilitated the implementation of mega-projects in agro-industry in this region.
Castaño, states, “…in Urabá we have planted oil palm trees. I myself convinced entrepreneurs to invest in those projects.”[ii] His reference is to the collectively owned territory of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, where 7,000 hectares of the land that was forcibly grabbed and from communities, has been planted with African oil palm.[iii] Palm cultivation was one of the economic strategies promoted by the paramilitaries, according to Castaño, paramilitary commanders “formed alliances” and “advised” manypoliticians, they also had their “friends’” positioned in corporations.[iv] This model of complicity between paramilitaries, politicians and business interests has been repeated in other areas of the country in order to grab land.
In February 2011 a Colombian State institution[v] confirmed that land belonging to the traditional community in the area of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó had been illegally grabbed. In same year, following investigations, the Attorney General’s Office formally charged 24 palm companies and/or cattle ranchers from this region for active participation with the paramilitaries in the violent displacement of the Afro-Colombian communities of Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó in order to obtain their land for palm cultivation. However, many more palm cultivators and cattle ranchers who had grabbed their land remain and have not yet been charged, and the communities continue to suffer threats, assassinations and disappearances.
Meanwhile the communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó have returned to a small section of their collectively owned territory Curvaradó – this return started in 2006. They are living in Humanitarian Zones on small sections of their land; this allows them to get closer to their original homes. However it is not without its dangers in just one 12 month period Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó reported 4 leaders killed and/or forcibly disappeared[vi], thirty-two death threats, and two attempted assassinations.[vii]
Enrique Petro Hernández – campesino farmer
“They destroyed everything and knocked everything down, they took everything with them. I had 110 cows which were my pension….and my wife had 200 hens but they left us with nothing…through this violence two of my sons have been killed, my wife is living elsewhere because she is too afraid to come back, it upsets her to see everything that we have lost, everything, everything we once had we have lost.”
Much of the land that Enrique Petro had was covered in palm trees. He states it was so hard when I returned I was surrounded by palm growers and paramilitary groups. When he moved back the land as far as they eye could see was African Palm.
He moved back to his farm with others from the community in an effort to reclaim their territory. However they were threatened as Enrique Petro explains:
‘when I returned [to my farm] the paramilitary groups threatened me they told me they wanted my land and the surrounding area to fight the guerrilla but they were lying. They really wanted my land to grow African Palm and make money from it. I realised that I was putting my life endanger returning to try and provide for my family. He went on to explain that the paramilitaries work for the businessmen getting them to force all the people off the land ‘it’s all about money…”
He went on to say “I have been one of the people who have denounced what has happened to us, that they were stealing our territory, and now they have their eye on me they want to kill me”.
Enrique Petro’s fear for his life was reasonable given that other leaders were being killed in 2008 in Cano Manso Community, Curvaradó Ualberto Hoyos was murdered.
Alfonso Salla, member of the community explains: ‘in 2008 in Cano Manso the leader of our community was killed his name was Ualberto Hoyos, he really cared about the community and he gave his life for the defence of our territory. They shot him seven times and left, five minutes later they came back and turned him face up, and shot him another four times. This was a really horrific blow for us. I think they thought that if they killed Ualberto – here in the community – that we would be frightened into fleeing but we didn’t go we stayed.’
Enrique Petro Hernández has received many threats against his life over the last years.
Another community member explains: we experienced 14 displacements in less than 4 years. We were forced from one place to another, 13 times we displaced inside our territory and once outside of it we know what it is they want, which is to cultivate palm on our land. If we leave the territory, it will be over for us, so that’s why we have to keep on resisting. This resistance has caused us to suffer hunger, because when we are forced to move from one area to another there was no time to cultivate and harvest our crops, but despite this we haven’t left the territory, not yet, because we realise that if we do, then it will be over for us. So we say, well, we haven’t sold the land, what is ours is ours, we are nobody, we have always been nobody, so let’s resist. We will suffer whether we run or whether we stay. We have had to face the situation as a community we say, if we die, we die, those who remain, remain, who leave, leave, but this land is ours.
Eustaquio Rivera member of Curvaradó community: These large scale development projects are going to destroy our territory and we aren’t going to be left with anything we want to conserve our land for future generations – if we the agricultural businesses continue to damage out territory want are …my children going to eat – they won’t have anything for their livelihood. As many of us say – you cannot eat money.
“Sometimes I fear that my children will become orphans says one leader of the community I have received so many death threats…”
“Our dream is to go back to our land where our parents lived before us”
According to the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and peace since 1996, 143 community members of the Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó Communities have been killed or disappeared.
“In their desire to economically exploit the collective property [of Curvaradó] the companies were really fronts that concealed the … alliance between the self-defence forces [paramilitaries] and businesspeople in order to continue to commit crimes…”, according to the Colombian Public Prosecutor’s Office
According to Padre Alberto who accompanies the communities of Jiguamiando and Curvarado there have also been strategies to use legal proceedings with false witnesses – people allied to the palm and cattle ranching business owners, people and authorities that are complicit in what has happened to the communities.
Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó
Between 2006 and 2012, five community leaders and the child of a community leader were killed in the process of trying to reclaim the land grabbed from the community:
- Orlando Valencia (2006) forcibly disappeared, tortured and assassinated.
- Ualberto Hoyos (2008) shot several times in front of the community.
- Benjamín Gómez (2009)
- Argenito Díaz (2010)
- Manuel Ruiz (2012) abducted, forcibly disappeared, tortured and assassinated.
- Samir de Jesus Ruiz (2012) – son of Manuel Ruiz community leader. Abducted, forcibly disappeared, tortured and assassinated.
Two Community leaders forcibly disappeared by paramilitaries according to reports by Amnesty International:
- Everto González (2011)
- Francisco Pineda (2011)
1996 At the beginning of the 1990s paramilitaries entered the region of Uraba (northwestern Colombia) and in 1996 the paramilitary Unit ‘Élmer Cárdenas’ commanded by Freddy Rendón Herrera, alias ‘El Alemán’, took control in the region where the communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó are based in Chocó.
1997-2001 Forced displacement of approximately 1,500 and the killing of approximately 120 people from the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó region.
1999-2001 Some families started to return to Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó.
2000-2001 In Curvaradó the communities are forcibly displaced once again. Immediately after this, a group of palm companies took over the land and started (illegally) cultivating African palm oil on land grabbed violently from the communities.
2003 The communities were awarded collective precautionary measures (special protection measures) from the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (IACHR).
2004 Verification Commissions were set up which consisted of Government Officials, Community Members, representatives from NGOs and INGOs. The idea was to identify the land belonging to the community and delineate the land from which they were displaced (see end note for story of one of the community members on the commission).[x]
2005 INCODER (Colombian Institute for Rural Development) report that 93% of palm oil plantations in the area are on land for which Afro-Colombian communities hold collective land titles.
2006 Community leader Orlando Valencia (assassinated) he had been publically speaking out against the forced displacement and the lack of state support to return to the communities’ land. He was forcibly abducted at gun point, disappeared, tortured and assassinated.
2006 Some families start to return to Curvaradó for a second time. They set up the first Humanitarian Zones in order to live on their land, despite the palm plantations continuing and illegal armed groups still operating.[xi]
2007 Attorney General Mario Iguaran stated that palm cultivators sought out paramilitaries to assist them with the forced displacement of communities for palm oil cultivation. Meanwhile false accusations and stigmatisation against organisations supporting communities, intensifies.
2008 Community leader from Caño Manso, Curvaradó, Ualberto Hoyos assassinated
2009: Community leader Benjamín Gómez from the Caño Manso Humanitarian Zone assassinated. Found assassinated on 27 August 2009 with signs of violence on his body. The Comision Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace) report the death occurred in an area where the both paramilitary groups and the 15th Brigade of the Army was operating.
2010 Community leader Argenito Díaz from Llano Rico is assassinated. Assassinated 13 January 2010; allegedly by paramilitaries. Mr. Diaz was on a public transport from Mutata to his home in Llano Rico when the vehicle was stopped, Mr. Diaz he was obliged to get out of the bus and was killed in front of the driver and the other 8 occupants. His death followed his attempts to obtain compliance with a judgement given by a Tribunal in Chocó in 2009 ordering to companies operating in the area to restore the community’s collective territory.
2011 (April) 23 individuals (palm cultivators and councilors) are formally charged with the displacement of communities. The charges brought against them include: conspiracy, forced displacement, falsifying public documents and environmental crimes.
2011 Community leader Everto González: Member of the Caracoli Community Council. Disappeared on 23 July 2011. The last time he was seen in the Curvaradó Region, he was approached by paramilitary members who forced him to go with them apparently to speak on the land issues. His brother Jorge Gonzalez was assassinated in 2000 by the Paramilitaries for refusing to give in land.
2011 Community leader Francisco Pineda, a member of the community council of Caracolí, isforcibly disappeared. On 1 August a group of paramilitaries was seen approaching Francisco. They then told him they were going to “resolve some land issues” and took him with them. Later on the same day, Francisco Pineda managed to contact his relatives to inform them he was being held by paramilitaries. His relatives have not heard from him since and his whereabouts remain unknown.
2012 Community leader Manuel Ruiz and his son Samir de Jesus Ruiz, Community leader of Curvaradó y Jiguamiandó, Manuel Ruiz and his 15 year old son Samir were intercepted, close to a military check point, by Paramilitaries on the 23rd March 2012 and forced to go with them. Members of the community found Manuel’s body the Wednesday after with signs of violence and a gunshot to the head. His son’s body was also found the same day. According to the Comision Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, Manuel had received several threats for claiming the restitution of land that was currently occupied by palm companies.
2013 (Sept) Two palm cultivators, Luis Fernando Zea Medina and Héctor Duque Echeverry, are sentenced to over ten years in jail for the crimes of conspiracy, forced displacement, and the invasion of ecologically important land through the removal of the communities of the collective territory of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó.
Names of Palm companies that settled in the region from 2000 (all Colombian):
- Urapalma – Katia Patricia Sánchez Mejía* (legal representative), and Javier Daza Pretel* (ex representative)
- Palmura S.A
- Palma de Curvaradó S.A – Gabriel Jaime Sierra Moreno*; Iván Patiño
- Palmadó LTDA
- Inversiones Fregni Ochoa – Claudio Adolfo Fregni Ochoa* (legal representative)
- Palmas de Bajirá
- Agropalma – Sor Enid Ospina Rendón* (legal representative)
- Selva Húmeda – Raúl Alberto Penagos González* (legal representative)
*Called to trial in 2011 for being joint perpetrators of the crimes of forced displacement, the invasion of ecologically important land and conspiracy.
- The situation remains very dangerous for community leaders reclaiming their land in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó. On 20 May 2014 a group of armed men entered the house where Enrique Cabezas was staying in Llano Rico in the Chocó Department. He managed to escape and make his way to the location where his bodyguards, assigned by the National Protection Unit (NPU) were staying. Just before the armed group entered the house Enrique Cabezas received a text message which warned him that he would be killed that night. Enrique Cabezas is one of the people who is reclaiming land in Curvaradó and who have been denouncing links between the post-demobilised paramilitary groups and the security forces in the region.
- Another land claimant, Yomaira Mendoza was threatened a few weeks earlier. Among the messages she received was one that stated ‘the order from the boss is to kill you’. Further threatening text messages followed on 21 and 22 May, forcing Yomaira Mendoza and Enrique Cabezas to leave the area of the Curvaradó River Basin. Despite moving to Bogota, they are both still receiving threats and are under illegal surveillance.
- Threats have intensified since January, when Yomaira Mendoza requested information from the Prosecutor’s Office on investigations into the killing of her husband. Yomaira has denounced those who initially displaced her family in 1997, and those who carried out her husband’s murder in 2007, including the alleged links between the military, paramilitaries and businesses in the area. Since January, Yomaira and Enrique have received over 80 threats via their mobile phones, the majority of which have been made from the same number. However, there has been no attempt made by the authorities to effectively investigate these threats.
- Previously the army have provided perimeter protection outside of the Humanitarian Zone of Curvaradó, a measure that is part of the government’s protection plan for the communities in the context of the land restitution processes in the Curvaradó River Basin. The communities consider that this is once again essential to reinstate.
- On 26 November 2017, community leader and land claimant Mario Castaño Bravo was killed. As a result, international civil society organisations released a public statement warning of the serious humanitarian and human rights situation that indigenous, afro-descendant and peasant communities continue to face within the Bajo Atrato region. Castaño Bravo was one of the brave human rights defenders (HRDs) denouncing the increased social and territorial control of the right-wing neo-paramilitary group the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC). Furthermore, he had publicly denounced the links between the State, the business sector and illegal armed groups.
Paradoxically, the business of growing palm oil in collective territories in the Uraba has been generously supported by the State. It is not just the Army that has collaborated in the protection of palm oil activity, but the Superintendent of Private Security and Surveillance has granted several licenses to various companies for the protection of the businesses. Also, as El Espectador reported in a piece on 3 December 2006, credit has also been granted by Rural Business Incentives (‘Incentivos de Capitalización Rural’) at the Banco Agrario for palm oil businesses up to a value of $10.957 million.[xiv]
In June 2005, the Ombudsman, via Resolution 39, issued a warning about the illegal appropriation of land belonging to the black Communities in Uraba. In separate resolutions from 6 March 2003 and 7 February 2006, the Constitutional Court had warned the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (IACHR) that it should urge the Colombian State to protect displaced communities in Chocó from interventions of private companies in the collective territories of ethnic groups.[xiv] Resources from the Banco Agrario and the International Development Agency have been used by at least one of the companies being investigated by the prosecutor.[xiv]
[i] Colombian Platform for Human Rights, Democracy and Development, III Civil Society Alternative Report to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Bogota, March 2010.
[ii] ‘Habla Vicente Castaño’ (Vicente Castaño speaks out), Semana magazine, N° 1.025, June 5, 2005.
[iii] Colombian Platform for Human Rights, Democracy and Development, III Civil Society Alternative Report to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Pre-Sessional Working Group, 25-29 May 2009, page 8.
[iv]‘Habla Vicente Castaño’ (Vicente Castaño speaks out), Semana magazine, N° 1.025, June 5, 2005.
[v] the Superintendent of Notaries and Registration,
[vi] CIJP, “Asesinatos en Jiguamiandó, presencia paramilitar y cultivos de coca en Curvaradó”, 8 September 2011.
[vii] Families of the Local Community Council of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, Communiqué for public opinion, 2 September 2011.
[xi] On their return, families find the land radically changed, much of which for the cultivation of African palm oil.
[xiv] Alfonso Salla, member of the Caño Manso Community in Curvaradó explains in a video interview