Churches in Colombia support victims of land dispute

By Marcelo Schneider
Posted May 4, 2012

[World Council of Churches] While drug production and trafficking are the main problems in Colombia, it would be misleading to think these are the only ones. Land grabs in the country serve as the pivotal reason behind armed conflicts and human rights violations. In this situation, churches in Colombia are struggling to support victims of land disputes, as well as raising awareness about the issue on local and international level.

To develop an ecumenical response to the land grabbing issue, which has resulted in forced disappearances and killings of thousands lately, the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) along with the World Council of Churches (WCC), ACT Alliance, The Lutheran World Federation and other ecumenical organizations have decided to initiate a programme inspired by the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).

In a meeting in Colombia’s capital Bogotá in 2009, church leaders stressed the need for an ecumenical accompaniment programme and advocacy to address violence in the country. The same year, the human rights situation in Colombia was the theme of the WCC’s United Nation’s Advocacy Week in New York.

In response to the call from its members CLAI, with support from the WCC and the ACT Alliance, developed a local structure of ecumenical engagement to support victims of the conflict over land and territory in Colombia called the Programme of Ecumenical Accompaniment in Colombia (PEAC).

PEAC is currently in process of implementation with the Rev. Christopher Ferguson of the United Church of Canada as its international coordinator. A national coordinator will be appointed soon and PEAC is expecting the arrival of the first ecumenical accompaniers later this year.

Conflict in Montes de María

One of the main focus for churches in Colombia is the region of Montes de Maria. The region is located in the Northwest Colombia. The region consists of countryside lying along the coast and functions as a corridor between Venezuela and the Caribbean.

Due to its strategic location and wealth of natural resources, Montes de Maria was the target of many territorial disputes and internal armed conflicts. It was in Montes de María that the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a farmers’ resistance group which became part of Colombia’s largest guerrilla movement, went on to take control of the area.

The region also has a strong presence of paramilitaries, who established a reign of terror, beating down and driving out social organizations and establishing strict control points, displacing many people from their lands. Montes de Maria was one of the epicentres of massacres, intimidation and land grabs.

In Montes de María, churches have a long history of standing with the people and social movements seeking peace and social justice. The region has a visible Roman Catholic presence. In the 1980s church leaders struggled to restore peace and promoted pastoral dialogues through ecumenical initiatives.

The Ecumenical Network of Colombia (Red Ecuménica de Colombia) coordinated efforts among Presbyterian, Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal and Methodist churches and civil society organizations. A regional development network initiated the “peace laboratory” project promoted by the Roman Catholic and Mennonite churches. One WCC member church, the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, has supported local and regional social organizations through a network called Agenda Caribe which accompanies groups such as the cooperative of the Finca Alemania in San Onofre.

Supporting communities in Finca Alemania

The Finca Alemania is a small farmers’ collective in Montes de Maria that is emblematic of the violence and political complexity of the conflict. It is also a symbol of the strength of the people in their struggle for justice. Located a few kilometres away from the town of San Onofre, its inhabitants have returned to the area after having been harassed and displaced by one of most vicious of the paramilitary forces.

When the 57 families established the collective farm, they took loans (around $545,000). As they were not able to pay back the loans with interest, they were driven off the land, their buildings were ruined, and cattle were stolen. With the help of human right groups the community has received a court ruling providing relief from the threat of foreclosure. Yet the issue of the debt is not fully resolved, and the situation for many is uncertain.

In the struggle to reclaim their land, one of the community leaders, Rogelio Martinez, was killed on 18 May 2010. Traumatized, the families of the Finca Alemania considered abandoning the farm. However, Julia Isabel Torres-Cancio, the widow of the slain leader, did not leave. When the other members of the collective saw Julia’s determination to remain on the land, they decided to join her struggle to defend their rights

Julia is now the chair of the board of collective. As she sees it, conflicts in San Onofre are caused by land grabbing, where violence and intimidation are used to force people to sell their lands. “We stand invisible in this conflict. Therefore, it would be good to have outsiders witnessing our daily struggle to defend our land,” she said.

“The death of my husband was part of the plan for another forced displacement,” said Torres-Cancio. She believes that her decision to stay in Finca Alemania broke a cycle of displacement. For Bishop Francisco Duque of the Episcopal Church in Colombia, the socio-political situation in Montes de María reflects experiences of the civil society in Colombia, as well as the need for support to communities faced with violence.

“It is necessary that religious institutions unite efforts to be present and visible in these regions. Since we know that in areas where there is visibility for the accompaniment, the action of armed groups decreases due to the shift in political scenario and the empowerment given to the local communities,” said Duque, who presides the CLAI Colombia Roundtable.

— Marcelo Schneider works as the WCC communication liaison for Latin America, based in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He travelled to Colombia including Montes de María and Finca Alemania to report on the ecumenical initiatives in the country.