Maria Ligia Chaverra is 77 years old and has been fighting for the rights of her community for 20 years, in the midst of the armed conflict which has terrorized the Colombian region of Bajo Atrato. Despite being displaced multiple times during the conflict, she has never given up her struggle to reclaim the land and resources on which her community depends. Her advocacy was instrumental in setting up the first Humanitarian Zones in Colombia, and she continues to speak out against the killings of land restitution leaders, such as Mario Castaño and Hernán Bedoya in late 2017. On September 5, 2018, her lifelong struggle was recognized when she won the National Prize for the Defense of Human Rights, awarded by the Church of Sweden and the organization Diakonia.

In this moving interview, Maria Ligia talks to PBI Colombia about her life, wartime experiences and long struggle for human rights. More details of her story can be found in this article by Nathalie Bienfait, PBI Colombia.

On building a home

"I came to Curbaradó on February 20, 1959. My husband and I were very young when we arrived and here we grew old. I lost him to the war a year ago, because of the fear of hearing the bullets pass overhead. He got very afraid, his heart suffered, and that took him to his grave. On Saturdays and Sundays all the young people go to the river and I stay here in my house alone and it’s hard, very hard. Because before we were a couple, and we would cook together and watch TV and I wasn’t afraid because he was at my side. But now when everyone goes and I find myself alone, it’s really hard.

I was one of the first settlers of Belén de Bajíra. We heard that they were going to build a village on the Timiridó River, the river in Bajíra. It was a Sunday, I remember. We went there, even though there was no road, we crossed the forest and the rivers until we got there. We found a shop right there on the floor, all the goods were laid out on plastic sheets. We bought some shoes from the man who had the shop. And then we stayed and built the village. The road from Belén de Bajíra to the port of Brisa was also built by us. I worked every day under the sun, assuming the task of collecting money from the communities around to build that road. It wasn't the city people who built it. Now, those of us who built it can't even walk it."

On war and displacement

"When war broke out here in 1997, the operatives, the murders, those who knew about war left and those like us who did not, stayed. We had a sense of belonging, a livelihood: our house, many animals, a hog pen with 80 animals, so it hurt us to leave. We thought that the war might not arrive in the end. But in 1997 everybody had left, only my family remained. I stayed with three daughters and my husband, and never left the territory. We were displaced thirteen times to different parts of the territory. We spent six months in the mountains, with only sun and water and the roots of the trees to make our homes. My daughters were pregnant, they gave birth there. 

I also have two daughters who I didn’t birth to but I raised. One fell sick and was always clinging to me. During the entire war, when I heard shooting, I wouldn’t grab my things and take cover. I would only reach for her and sweep her up in my arms and that’s how I would run during the whole war. 

The people went into exile but we resisted – they can kill me here, but I won’t leave."

On their return to the land

"We were brought back from the mountains by the pastoral group of Riosucio lead by Father Armando Valencia, and by a Spanish organization called Peace and the Third World (Paz y Tercer Mundo). I had spent the last 10 years hiding in the forest with no sight of the Curbaradó River, so the day I came out of the jungle and looked at the river, it seemed to me like the sea. We started to clear an area to build a community, because there wasn't a single soul there. And when we cleared an area, people came back little by little to see what the situation was like, until eventually the whole population had returned. When the people started coming back the whole territory was planted with oil palms - there was only sky and palm trees, not even a single guava tree.

There was no way to enter the land because there were fences and padlocks everywhere, signs saying “Private Property”. The palm growers, the businessmen had taken over our land. But little by little we started recovering the land and planting our crops again. All those barriers we tore them down without bullets – only with dialogue, advocacy and the support of international organizations, we are here today.

Our return to the territory was thanks to the brothers in Cacarica, which was the first humanitarian zone in Colombia. They made friends with the brothers from Luamando and spoke with the Justice and Peace Commission to extend the humanitarian zones. I had to travel to Canada to declare the area a humanitarian zone, and little by little they got bigger. They created one in Bella Flor de Mayo, and after that in El Tesoro, Buena Vista and then it was our turn. We travelled to Europe to tell people about the situation, we made declarations about the situation we communities from the Bajo Atrato region found ourselves in, and we talked about the creation of the humanitarian zones as a protection mechanism for the civilian population. I was always well received, and everyone congratulated me when I received the Prize."

On the peace process

"I have seen a change since the peace talks and the accords they signed. We have not had to run anymore. But it is a disgrace that the Government has not fully upheld the Havana Accord. They signed the peace – it was agreed that there would be no more killings of leaders, that the territories would be returned to their true owners, but this agreement has not yet been fulfilled.

The threats come because we have spoken out about how they took us from the land by fire and blood. If you denounce those things they single you out, and then the threats and deaths follow. All they think of is the oil palm and the banana plant. There are so many multinational projects planned for this area because in Urabá the land is tired but here the land is fresh, fertile, good and flat. That is partly the reason for the murders of leaders who reclaim the land from those who want to grow only bananas and oil palms. Those leaders are a thorn in their side. 

We are hoping that the bad-faith occupiers can be evicted. This process is already underway. They have been confronted clearly about the collective territory of the campesinos, who have land titles for what was theirs. But you know that the rich are not like the poor people, they are ruthless, they went in and knocked down the houses. Those with money are the owners of the world.

Hope is the last to die and Rome wasn’t built in a day. When Simon Bolivar freed the five Republics he didn’t do it in a day. He fought, and fought, and fought, and finally freed the Republics, but it took a huge struggle. One day we can achieve this victory."

On the future of the struggle

Humanitarian Zone in El Tesoro Colombia"The role of leadership is to defend human rights above and for all for the Colombian communities, so that they have the right to live in dignity, in our own way, and no money can take that from us. Leaders with a conscience, who don’t allow themselves to be bought, and in whom the whole community can trust.

Peace for me starts from the communities. We want dignity, so that everybody can live in peace, regardless of wealth. For people to die only when God is calling them. Furthermore, the government could find it in their heart to support the poor people, provide projects, good prospects for the poor to survive. We don’t want to live like the rich, just to be able to survive."

On PBI and the need for international support

"Curbaradó is in chaos now because they’re persecuting many leaders, threatening, killing. There’s a lot of fear, and now more than ever we need your support and accompaniment because when our enemies see PBI they’re afraid, because other countries aren’t like Colombia. Here they kill Colombians and it’s nothing, but if they mess with an international then it’s different. Colombia doesn’t want the criticism of other countries, so they restrain themselves and have more respect. We are very grateful to the Justice and Peace Commission and to PBI, as they have been here with us among the bullets.

Now more than ever I ask that you visit the communities, visit the area, because they have threatened us: “When the gringos leave, you’ll see…”

Of course, publish my words. Do it because I understand you need resources for mobilization. Above all, we need more volunteers, because now that there’s "peace" in Colombia, the funds have been cut. We have to make the true situation clear. The communities need peace, they need support, they need a decent life."

On winning the National Prize for the Defense of Human Rights

"Winning this prize is an honor for all the struggle I’ve undertaken in this process. I feel happy and the communities feel happy too. For me it represents the 20 years we have defended human rights. Some people, when they heard of the prize, thought it was money, a car and 50 million euros. They don’t know what it symbolizes and what it’s worth. It represents more than 50 million euros to us.

Since 1999 I have been struggling in defense of life and land. I have resisted with my own flesh and I will continue the struggle for our children’s future. I want my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren to live in a new Colombia, not this Colombia that I have lived through, but a Colombia at peace. I will struggle until the end because I spent my youth working this land. I built my family here, I had my husband, eight children and 40 grandchildren. The place where you’ve put in your own sweat burns in your heart."