More than 50 years of conflict between the government army, guerrilla rebels and paramilitary groups have led to the deaths of over 200,000 people and the internal displacement of seven million citizens, leaving visible scars on the landscape and people of Colombia.
Poverty is widespread in this area, even among farmers who cultivate and produce the illegal drug crops. Since many families rely on this income, they have little choice but to keep growing the illicit crops and protecting them from the frequent official eradication programmes.
Colombia is the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, fuelled by demand from the US and Europe. The economics of this drug trade, intertwined with poverty and inequality, has fed the cycle of unrest over the decades.
Cultivating marijuana risks bringing armed conflict and drug abuse to the local community. Yet without the income from these illegal crops families say they are unable to pay for children’s school uniforms and to put food on the table. During a working day a person usually collects two sacks of coca leaves weighing 70kg. For this they are paid 24,000 pesos (about £6), about twice as much as they would receive harvesting coffee.
The guerrilla community
The area was until recently controlled by FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas who, as part of the peace accords, are now restricted to designated camps under UN supervision. To maintain stability and to prevent any other armed groups, including the Colombian national army, from entering the area, locals have formed an unarmed vigilante groups to monitor all movement inside the territory.
Life in the remote mountain village of Pueblo Nuevo has been acutely affected by the armed conflict between the national army and the FARC-guerillas.
President Juan Manuel Santos, elected in 2010, started secret negotiations with the FARC in 2012
An agreement that was eventually approved by both houses of parliament in November 2016, despite much political opposition and an initial No vote in a referendum on the terms of the first version of the agreement.
The local population has been repeatedly displaced because of fighting between the various armed groups who operate in the strategically important Calima River system but the recent peace process has led to a period of unprecedented quiet.
With the conflict winding down in rural and remote parts of the country, scientists have started to gain access to formerly no-go areas where they are discovering new plant species
A troubled peace
As part of the peace process, the FARC has moved into UN-controlled areas. They will staying in the camp for several months where they will receive training to prepare them for civilian life. However, the peace process is far behind schedule. Houses that should have been ready months ago are still under construction; many guerrilla fighters are still living in tents. More importantly, they are questioning the government’s ability to protect their lives if they lay down their weapons. Right-wing paramilitary groups are active in the area, civil society leaders are being killed and many of the areas previously controlled by the FARC are being taken over by illegal armed groups involved in extortion and drug trafficking.
Emergence of FARC
In 1964, a group of farmers who had survived a government massacre decided to found the FARC, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group. Their declared aim was to topple the government and bring freedom to the people.
President Santos once declared that “making war is easy, making peace is much more difficult”. And so it seems now. In many previously FARC controlled areas, other armed groups are now moving in and a growing number of FARC dissidents are rearming and returning to their former way of life.
Since the adoption of the peace process, both previous FARC members and almost 300 social leaders and human rights activists have been murdered while millions of internally displaced have yet to get the land back that was taken from them.
Social problems persist – Colombia ranks among the 10 least equal societies in the world – and two thirds of farm land is controlled by just 0.4% of farmland holdings.
In some areas an estimated 95 per cent of the residents have been forcibly displaced from their original homes due to the conflict with the FARC. Many slum areas are dominated by paramilitary gangs who extort and oppress the local population. However, after a house in their neighbourhood was used as a torture and execution site by a paramilitary group, the citizens of Puento Nayero eventually found the courage to force them out and declare their neighbourhood a Humanitarian Zone. With support from NGOs and a government programme, they are now striving to keep it safe.
Illusion of peace?
Juan Manuel Santos had been elected president on the strength of his promise to bring the weakened rebels to the negotiating table and sign an enduring peace. The agreement became a reality and was signed by President Santos and Timoshenko, then the FARC commander-in-chief. Symbolically clad in white for the occasion, the former mortal enemies shook hands with the world as their witness. Finally, peace had come to Colombia – or so most thought. Immediately there were setbacks. And today, despite the efforts of many, there is a long way to go.