May 28, 2011

US media coverage of accompaniment


09 Mar 2011 18:19

Source: alertnet // Jon Stibbs
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One of the Afro-Colombian community's buildings in Curbarado, which has fallen into disrepair amid the uncertainty surrounding their lives. PHOTO/PBI

BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Armed with little more than T-shirts, brave international volunteers are protecting Colombian human rights activists under threat because of their efforts to help people uprooted by the country's long-running internal conflict return home.

"You have to be constantly alert and remember if you weren't there, the person you are accompanying could be killed," says Hendrine Rotthier, a 28-year-old Belgian moral philosopher who is a member of Peace Brigades International (PBI), an organisation that provides security and moral support to individuals and groups whose human rights work puts their lives at risk.

The mere presence of unarmed PBI volunteers - a service known as accompaniment - can be enough to keep local human rights defenders alive. It shows they are supported by an international organisation with influence in the Colombian capital, Bogota, as well as in the United States and Europe.

Rotthier's own safety depends on being immediately recognisable as a PBI accompanier, thanks to her foreign appearance, white logo-printed T-shirt and car.

She works in the sweltering heat of the Curbarado river basin's thick rainforest, an area in the impoverished western department of Choco. It has been greatly affected in recent years by the conflict between government troops, leftist rebels, cocaine smugglers and far-right paramilitary militias in the South American nation, which has lasted for more than four decades.

The Afro-Colombian community in Curbarado endure some of the world's highest annual rates of rainfall, building their basic wooden huts on stilts to avoid flooding.

They were among 20,000 vulnerable people displaced from their homes in 1996-7 by fierce fighting and intimidation by right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas and the army, fleeing to safer parts of the country.

Hundreds returned between 2006 and 2008, but found their highly fertile land was being farmed by agricultural businesses.

CORPORATE THREAT

Last year, the public prosecutor began investigating 24 palm-oil growers for their connections to the paramilitary groups that had displaced the community. And the Constitutional Court, Colombia's highest legal body, ruled in 2010 that the lives and land of the Curbarado people must be protected.

But they face ongoing threats of violence from the paramilitaries supporting the banana, palm-oil and cattle-farming firms that want to evict them and take over their land permanently. They have also suffered intimidation from left-wing guerrillas who have been fighting an insurgency against the government for decades.

Rotthier and her PBI colleagues are there to accompany members of the Inter-church Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), a high-profile group of human rights defenders with six young Colombians operating in Curbarado.

In its efforts to provide agricultural, social, psychological and legal support to the returned Afro-Colombians, ICJP finds itself pitted against the violent groups trying to stop them reclaiming their land.

It is dangerous work. One ICJP employee recently had to leave the area after a plan to kill him was uncovered. Amid such threats, the accompaniment offered by PBI allows ICJP staff to carry out their work in relative safety.

ICJP's Father Alberto Franco says PBI's "political impact and physical presence provides protection and strengthens the communities and human rights defenders".

NEW 'INVADERS'

In mid-December, the returned community faced a new threat when hundreds of unknown displaced people began to move in. "Weeks later, they are still coming, cutting down trees and dividing the land into plots," says Rotthier.

The identity and motivation of this new group of displaced people is unclear. But it is thought their unannounced arrival is designed to dislodge the Afro-Colombian community.

"Behind the invaders are the industrialists and people interested in sabotaging the work of the Constitutional Court, those linked to the judicial process ... (together) with the collaboration of the paramilitaries," says Father Alberto.

Despite the court order to protect the Afro-Colombian community, ICJP accuses the police, army and authorities in general of inaction regarding the new arrivals. Meanwhile, the paramilitaries have made fresh threats to ICJP members and local people.

Rotthier says it is "permanently tense within Curbarado, but the tension has recently risen to a higher level".

The latest developments could be a precursor to more violence in Curbarado, where nine leaders of the displaced community were killed last year.

Confronting the armed groups responsible for forcing more than three million Colombians off their land in the past few decades is extremely dangerous. Last year, 40 human rights defenders and community leaders were murdered, reported verdadabierta.com, a Colombian website specialising in the conflict.

Colombia has one of the highest levels of internally displaced people in the world. Its remote and vulnerable communities of Afro-Colombians - the descendants of slaves brought over by the Spanish - and indigenous groups have borne the brunt.

The government has an ambitious plan to resolve the crisis with a far-reaching law to return land to communities that have been forced to leave. But the obstacles met by the Afro-Colombians of Curbarado in their struggle to reclaim their land - despite high-level support from ICJP, PBI and the justice system - suggest that implementing a land-restitution programme across the country will be a tough challenge.
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