This article was written by the Peace Brigades International- Colombia Project
One of Northeastern Antioquía’s (Nordeste Antioqueño) most emblematic human rights organizations is the Humanitarian Action Corporation for Coexistence and Peace in Northeastern Antioquia (Cahucopana). Since its foundation, in 2004, its main aim has been to defend the rights of peasant and miner communities and to generate protection mechanisms to live in peace, amid an armed conflict that has been perpetuated over time.
In 2022 several human rights organizations raised the alert to the humanitarian crises that are ravishing the territories. As in many regions of Colombia, in Northeastern Antioquia, it is not only the inhabitants who face risks but also those who speak up to defend minimum guarantees for life and to remain in the territory. This is the case of Cahucopana president, Carlos Morales, who suffered a serious attack on 27 February when armed men shot at him, his partner, and his son—a minor—while they traveled by motorcycle in the city of Barrancabermeja. Morales, a recognized peasant leader for the last 16 years, choose to resist displacement despite the attacks against him and the serious threats against other members of Cahucopana, an organization that continues to stand alongside the communities of Northeastern Antioquia.
According to the emblematic peasant leader, the dispute for this region is due to all of its natural wealth, such as lumber, gold, and fertile soils with big landowners wanting to implement large-scale cattle ranching. “All this wealth calls the of armed actors” where “major state abandonment” can also be seen, in the sincere words of human rights defenders. A return “to the time between 2004 and 2008” is a real fear. This was an era when extrajudicial executions and mass displacement were daily events in Northeastern Antioquia. It is worrisome, as Morals explains, that since the Peace Agreement, there was a return “to confrontations between the armed groups, aerial bombings, murders, and an increase in human rights violations suffered by peasant communities”.
Given the lack of institutions that guarantee minimum protections for the communities, for decades Cahucopana has promoted collective protection measures, such as humanitarian actions. These actions can be used not only by community leaders but also by the peasant and miner communities who are exposed to serious risks in a conflict-ridden territory. These humanitarian actions aim to accompany and make visible, nationally and internationally, the serious human rights violations experienced by the communities, who resist the armed conflict amid oblivion and state abandonment. Attending a doctor’s appointment, filing a complaint at the Prosecutor’s Office, or registering to vote can be extremely complicated and, sometimes, even unattainable tasks for the communities. To complete these common tasks, the rural inhabitants of Northeastern Antioquia must travel to the village of Remedios on exhaustingly long trips over roads that lack adequate infrastructure. Additionally, traveling these roads can signify serious risks due to the presence of multiple armed actors.
Humanitarian Action, collective measures to reach the areas forgotten by the state
At the end of March 2022, we accompanied a humanitarian action convened by Cahucopana in Carrizal, township of Remedios. There was participation from institutions such as the National Ombud’s Office, the Governor’s Office of Antioquia, the Ministry of the Interior, the Inspector General’s Office, and the Civil Registry Office; as well as members of the international community, including MAPP-OAS, UNHCHR, and UN Mission II.
The most notable aspect of this humanitarian action was the participation of approximately 2000 people who traveled from Tamar Alto, Panamá Nueve, El Piñal, El Carmen, and other rural areas to participate. These are likely places that are unknown to the readers, they often do not even appear on a map, but this mass participation exceeded expectations. Trucks, cars, and motorcycles started arriving in the morning. Despite the early morning rains—which had raised concern among the organizers—the participants were able to reach the village of Carrizal.
Carlos Morales stated that an essential piece of the collective protection measures, is the international community’s role in “supporting the communities and organizations so that they can continue defending the territory”. Fortunately, incidents such as the attack against the leader and the recent threats against members of Cahucopana—which seek to impede the efforts of the human rights organization—have not produced the effect sought by the victimizers. Instead, it has led to a series of responses and actions from the international community to back the organization.
Thanks to Cahucopana’s work, more and more leaders are taking on a protagonist role in the defense and protection of the territory. Nevertheless, as Carlos Morales notes, it continues to be essential that “the Colombian state safeguard the communities’ security and ability to remain in the territories. It must recognize these protection mechanisms from the differential, gender, and cultural perspective of the mining, peasant, Indigenous, and Afro communities because we are the communities who truly live the conflict”. What is clear is that Colombia’s historic debt continues with the communities, and with human rights organizations like Cahucopana, that preserve life, protect the territory, and resist for peace, in the middle of recurrent attacks and threats.