Restoring the Montes de María, between illusion and fear
Peasant farmers remain watchful after the handing over of titles and subsidies in Mampuján, due to fear of violence following the purchase of thousands of hectares for agro-industrial projects.
The Montes de María over the years became a symbol of violence. Hundreds of massacres, like El Salado, Ovejas, Chengue or Las Brisas left more than 200,000 farmers displaced from the countryside to the slums of various cities. Despite this history, the handing over of 93 property deeds to the displaced people of Mampuján, a corrective measure taken by María La Baja, Bolívar, and the struggle for a regional land restoration action plan that was started last weekend by Juan Camilo Restrepo, agricultural minister, is starting to make hope blossom once again for those people who have suffered so much under the violence of the region.
"Listen, they gave me title to my home, my land, but we aren't going to be able to take back our lands that easily," Carmen, a title beneficiary, said to VerdadAbierta.com.
Most of them now live in Maríalabaja, in a neighborhood called La Rosa de Mampuján, and they go to their lands every day, six kilometers away, which has been their informal custom over many generations.
The government's strategy in Montes de María intends to restore land that was taken away from the original inhabitants and to create at least two environmental reserve zones.
This will make up a specified area where it will not be possible for one property holder to have more than one Family Agricultural Unit (UAF)— a plot of land with variable size, determined by the soil quality and the distance to the market—. The idea is to avoid extortion of land titles and concentration of ownership.
In order to protect family farms the Ministry of Agriculture announced they will document and investigate cases of land seizures and land abandonment, with a combined committee made up of the Attorney General, the General Prosecutor, the police force, the Agricultural Arbitration Commission and the National Notary Public, which has already reviewed 1400 title registrations.
Since then, 5925 property claims, more than 160,000 hectares, are protected in Bolívar and 1935, almost 30,000 hectares, in Sucre. The plan also contemplates formalizing property owned by families over many generations, but without official title. It wants to adjudicate vacant land in the region, and institute production projects there.
But beyond the discussion of numbers, fear still persists with the farm workers, partly because of the massive land purchases undertaken to cultivate palm and teak, also due to the continued activity of paramilitaries. After all, the state has only handed over a piece of paper.
"The arrival of the palm farms bothers us, before there was only pancoger (cultivation of subsistence crops). Through the Viso and San Onofre, in the flat plains, it's loaded with palm. The moment will come when the land will not produce anything more, it won't support palm or anything else there," Carmen said to VerdadAbierta.com.
Since the 'paras' demobilized, in 2005, the price of land shot up. According to many farm workers, over 10 years a hectare cost 300,000 pesos at most. Now it is offered for 3, 4, or as much as 6 million pesos.
Because of the displacement of the population, the land "rested," there are huge marshlands such as María La Baja for irrigation and they are close to Cartagena, one of the principal seaports. A report from the Montes de María Observer finds that in María La Baja palm cultivation has increased 200 percent since 2003, and it's predicted to reach 10,000 hectares within a few years.
After more than 10 years of being abandoned, the return of the farm workers to their lands would require investments they may not be able to afford. "That is just talk; moreover, there's no water, electricity, it is necessary to take the risk, start at zero," a farm worker told VerdadAbierta.com. For someone who was displaced, it can often be more realistic to sell than to return.
Some farmers also said that with the displacement, they lost years of earnings, because of this they weren't able to pay on their debts and so now it's hard to refuse to sell their property.
Gabriel Pulido, a community leader from Mapuján, summarized the situation to the Restrepo ministry: "We weren't rich, but we had autonomy."
The Montes de María Observer calculates that 59 percent of the population's needs are not satisfied by what has been done in the region to ease the consequences of war. In Bolívar, 20 percent of children under 5 are at risk of malnutrition.
Therefore, many farm workers told the Santos Administration representatives that came to hand over titles, among them the vice president, Angelino Garzón, that it's important to shield the properties in Montes de María by administering titles. However, help is also needed in the form of housing, education, health, and infrastructure investments.
Mampuján was a pioneer in the Justicia y Paz [paramilitary demobilization] law. Last June, a judge issued the first criminal sentences against Edwar Cobos, alias 'Diego Vecino,' and Úber Bánquez, alias 'Juancho Dique,' for the massacre and displacement of this town's people (see article: La primera condena de Justicia y Paz).
Besides eight years in prison and fines for the two ex-commander 'paras,' a genuinely fair sentence would have overcome the poverty conditions that existed before the arrival of the 'paras' and would have guaranteed the people's return. During the trial, the national and local governments compromised on investments each would make. However, six months later, for the farmers there hasn't been much progress.
"The subsidies aren't enough, the governor made commitments, the municipal administration too, to repair the roads, to put in sewers, ditches. It's simple, what's missing is the will of the officials to get it done", said Gabriel Pulido.
In the Montes de María there has not been a massacre in 10 years, nor a massive displacement. But with the killing of peasant leaders and the presence of armed gangs, to many it appears to be a cruel joke when the government urges them to organize and denounce these bands of criminals.
Although the government has made great strides and Montes de María is one of the main zones of protection for the public police force, Cristian, a farmer from Mampuján affirmed: "No matter what laws are enacted, there will come a time when we will be left alone. And when the rat sleeps, the tiger comes out. There is the fear that history will repeat, it is rumored there are still paramilitary groups over there, we were lucky to escape with our lives the first time, we don't want to expose ourselves again."
They already risked their lives before and they don't want to do it once again.
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