Conveying exactly what life is like in the Campo (the Colombian countryside) may prove difficult. The distance between dirt-floor homes and fully-wired houses lies in more than geographical distance. Understanding what occurs in small, Colombian, mountain hamlets will provide evidence concerning the complex issues of armed groups in the country. The problems involve remote, localized economies, a U.S.-funded Colombian military, powerful multinational mining corporations, and people struggling on all sides. In this struggle, neutrality is impossible. As nonviolent followers of G-d, we picked the side of the mining Campesinos (people from the countryside). They are a forgotten people even though corporate greed and military might cannot forget the abundant resources they protect.
For all the talk of creating small, local economies in progressive U.S. cities such as Portland or San Francisco, nothing in the States compares to the town in the Campo our small Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation visited. As the miners pull raw material from the ground, they take 50% of the money made from the ores (gold, silver, lead, etc.). The other 50% is given to the refinement workers who also have a mandatory minimum wage. Others in the community farm on small plots of land, raise cattle, or run simple shops in order to support the region with goods. Nearly all the money recycles through the town, sustaining it as well as the surrounding area.
When talking with the leaders in the Campo, it becomes clear the government, in the past years, cared little for the region. The roads, school, and other infrastructure projects received miniscule funding from Colombia’s governing bodies. Presently, not much has changed. While the residents lament the state’s lack of aid, they take pride in their own constructive efforts. They boast of how they built a road, and they do not let you forget that they all pay to send their children to school. No adequate healthcare exists in the region, despite their best efforts. This area seems completely off the government’s map.
Oddly, in spite of governmental apathy toward the area’s basic necessities, upon former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s orders, a small contingency of soldiers established a base about a half mile from the town and a forward encampment no more than a football field away from the town plaza. Interaction with the soldiers stationed at this base revealed to our delegation the army’s desire to protect the region from the leftist guerillas. The security and protection of the Campesinos sounded like their primary objective. A lieutenant intimated how their activity safeguarded the people. Meanwhile, a man in the mines received a compound leg fracture after rocks tumbled onto him. The nearest health center (not hospital) is three hours away across rocky, rough driving in the mud. The nearest hospital where actual operations for serious injury can occur lies 11 hours away. Under such conditions, a compound leg fracture can be fatal.
Good thing no guerillas attacked.
Is the Colombian government interested in the well-being of women and men living in the Campo? The army seems to think so, but precedent begs to differ. The Uribe presidency has been notorious for using military strength to displace Campesinos. The numbers include a staggering average of 300,000 displaced people per year over the last 10 years. Colombia ranks third in the world behind Afghanistan and Sudan in total volume of internally displaced people with over 4 million. Typically, these displacements are done “legally” under the theory that in the city, the people will enjoy the benefits of improved infrastructure. Once the people are out of the way and safe in the big, unfamiliar city, the land left behind by these displaced groups becomes subject to transnational corporations who exploit the resources and export the profits. What is more, the place we visited sits at the base of a mountain that may contain the largest gold reserves in Colombia. In the surrounding areas, a Canadian-based multinational mining corporation, AngloGold Ashanti, has been receiving large quantities of land concessions from the Colombian government. The largest gold reserve in the country cannot be far off their radar. The combination of a military base applying pressure, poor health and education due to subpar infrastructure, a powerful multinational seeking gold, a huge quantity of gold, and a history of internal displacement might make the perfect formula for driving these artisan workers off their land, out of their homes, and into the growing population of unemployed city dwellers.
Can this be stopped? We certainly hope it can. Nevertheless, in this potent situation, we see only a microcosm of the greater issue. The prevailing winds of the new so-called global economy places profits as higher values than people. Thus, even violence is permissible when securing new capital. The answer to the question, “Can this be stopped?” is a simple “Yes,” but only when we stop. If we in the global North cease our exuberant habits and live simply, the violence in Colombia may begin to end. When people not profits become the highest value, perhaps Colombia’s government will provide for the poorest of the poor rather than force them into urban unemployment. The time has come for us to realize our own complicity in violence under the auspices of making a better life for ourselves. The time has come for us to realize peace can only occur when the only violence is the destruction of our own desire for material wealth and satisfaction.