The neighborhood San Rafael de la Bonga in San Basilio of Palenque, where the displaced people of The Bonga live. (PHOTO BY ORSETTA BELLANI)
Montes de María is an area located in the south of the Bolívar department, in the Caribbean region of Colombia. It is one of the areas that has suffered the consequences of the conflict in Colombia and is located about 50 km from Cartagena de Indias.According to official data, nearly 50 percent of the population of Montes de Maria has been displaced by the armed groups operating in the area: the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the paramilitaries of the Heroes Block of Montes de María of the defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), created in 1998 to defend the interests of the landowners and fight the Marxist guerrillas.
In Montes de Maria is San Basilio de Palenque, an African-descent community founded by slaves who ran away from the port of Cartagena de Indias, which from 1533 was a slave port. San Basilio de Palenque is known for being the first town in America that was recognized as free in 1713.
To that people the people of the community the Bonga were displaced. “On April 5th, 2001, gentlemen of the AUC arrived in La Bonga leafleting, saying that we had to vacate the community within 48 hours, and otherwise we would have been kicked out”, says Primitivo Pérez de La Bonga.
“So we moved and relocated in San Basilio de Palenque, where we built our homes with the support of some NGOs, as we had no help from the government. Most of us are still working his plot in La Bonga, covering twelve kilometers daily. One day there were some officials from INCODER (Colombian Rural Development Institute) to offer us land further away from here. We told them to invest their resources so we can work the land we already have, but they left. Then some entrepreneurs came and offered to sell our plots, only one accepted. In April 2012 we obtained the collective title to our land, so nobody could sell.”
Luis Alfredo Torres from El Salado, Montes de Maria community, experienced an even more tragic episode, when the AUC committed some of his most bloody actions: in February 2000, a raid of 450 paramilitaries, backed by helicopters, left 66 victims and caused the displacement of over 600 families. The slaughter lasted four days and, according to survivors, consisted of dismemberment and torture with chain saws, screwdrivers and rocks. Witnesses have also said that during the slaughter, paramilitaries drank liquor, raped women and played soccer with decapitated heads, while listening to loud music.
“At this time in all the region of Montes de Maria is experiencing displacements, which are evictions in disguise: fear and pressures force people to sell their land cheaply to large companies,” says Luis Alfredo Torres of El Salado.
A pressure element was represented by the debt that farmers in Montes de María had with banks. These were caused by the crisis in the sale of rice, occurred at the beginning of the last decade, the cultivation of which had been driven by the government during the failed land reform of the 1960s. When the Colombian market was opened to U.S. and Chinese rice, the business failed and the farmers who produced only rice, began to borrow.
After the demobilization of the paramilitaries in 2004 and the death in 2007 of Gustavo Rueda Diaz, known as Martin Caballero, head of Front 37 attached to the Caribbean Bloc of the FARC, violence decreased in the Montes de María. However, it didn´t stop the massive purchase of land to massively debtors peasants.
In October 2010, the Alternative Democratic Pole Congressman Ivan Cepeda requested information from the Ministry of Agriculture on the bulk purchase of 37,273 hectares of land in Montes de Maria, denouncing how these allegedly legal forms of acquisition apparently occur in an area where over 120,000 people were displaced. “It’s not about the chainsaw, or weapons to gain land, but it is apparently legal forms of bulk purchases,” Cepeda stated.
As the La Silla Vacía newspaper states, the result of the investigation of the Superintendency of Notaries and Registration was that the 133 titles selected for analysis are in the hands of a few companies – interested in agribusiness, reforestation and exploration oil – all three trusts administered.
However, in an interview with newspaper El Tiempo, businessman Alvaro Ignacio Echeverría said: “Of these acres, around one thousand belonged to sharecroppers and nobody pressed them. Everything is legal.” However, the report of the Superintendency of Notaries and Registries also alleged irregularities that allowed the concentration of land, such as falsifying documents or the purchase of a Family Agricultural Unit (FAU). This because Montes de Maria is a Peasant Reserve Zone (CRZ, currently in Colombia there are seven) figure created by Law 160 of 1994 which establishes the existence of geographically defined areas where farmers would not have lots of extension greater than a UAF and where, according to the government, a sustainable development plan should be concluded.