As we finished our last interview of the day in the town of Carmen de Bolivar, Miguel Garcia was precise in his estimate of how quickly we could get to the closest city. We wanted to reach it by sunset. Having travelled this route through some of the toughest years of the war in Colombia, he has made this calculation countless times.
Garcia has spent most of his 20 years as a journalist reporting on Colombia’s civil conflict. As we drove out of the still-restive Montes de María region, he discussed the layers of violence that different Colombians experienced during the war.
Just walking on the streets in Montes De María as a civilian was a risk, he explained: paramilitaries could press-gang you. Doing the same as a journalist or activist made you a target for kidnapping. Women were vulnerable to both of those threats, and to sexual violence too.
It took an iron will, then, for women to work as journalists or land rights defenders in Colombia. Their work made an essential contribution to the peace process, yet their experiences have been overlooked by the mainstream news media. So Garcia decided to concentrate on them.
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“As a journalist, if you want to understand the conflict in Colombia and its magnitude, you must cover the stories of local women leaders, like Nayibis,” he said, referring to the protagonist of his latest story.
Back to the land
Nayibis Mercado Sierra is a land and water rights defender, born into a peasant family in Montes de María. Sierra is among the millions of Colombians who were displaced and whose land was confiscated in the conflict.
“When the men asked me to get onto the bed and strip my clothes off, only then did I understand what they wanted. I could not tell anyone what happened in that room then.” Sierra’s voice trailed off as she recounted how pro-government paramilitary soldiers had sexually abused her during an attack on her village. Among the many uncounted sexual violence survivors from the Colombian civil war, she has not only been advocating for environmental and water rights in her community but sits on a restitution committee as part of the larger peace process.
“When you leave the land, you leave everything, and that is what happened with the farmers here. As part of the peace process, state institutions must support the peasantry to go back to the land,” she said.
The impact of land confiscations and government neglect stalk her community to this day. The wealth displayed in historic Cartagena, the closest urban centre, less than two hours’ drive away, gives way to open sewers and extreme poverty in what, ironically, is one of the most fertile parts of the country. Such stark contrasts are a common feature of Colombia, which has one of the most unequal economies in the world.
Between April 2021 and March 2022 I filmed Garcia as he shadowed two women – Sierra, the land rights defender, and journalist Marcela Zuluaga – in different parts of Colombia. Part of an advocacy campaign for International Media Support, our encounters resulted in a film that portrays the efforts of Colombian women defending their lands and their rights.
War and collapse
Colombia’s five decades of civil war saw the rule of law collapse, with all parties to the conflict, including the national security services, committing heinous crimes against civilians.
The constant incursions of government forces, paramilitary groups and the guerrilla FARC made civilians prey to violence of many kinds: political, social, economic and physical. As the different forces drove farmers and indigenous communities off their lands, and destroyed their ecosystems, women bore the burden as the primary caregivers.
The same women have also been defending their communities from environmental destruction. This International Women’s Day, as the United Nations commemorates women and girls “who are leading the charge” on building a sustainable world, the case of Colombian women defenders is an inspiration.
Protecting the land in Colombia comes with a heavy price. According to Global Witness, Colombia has the highest number of forced disappearances of land and environmental rights defenders in the world. Over the past decade, as climate-related crises have intensified, violence against those protecting their land and our planet have increased in tandem.
Bridging city and countryside
The lack of equal access to land lies at the heart of the conflict in Colombia, as well as the disparity in wealth between its cities and countryside. This inequality is brewing new conflicts.
Nearly six years after the 2016 peace agreement that aimed to end the war, the rural-urban gap has widened, with different priorities on either side: farmers in villages are struggling for land rights while low-paid workers in cities are protesting higher taxes.
But journalists like Zuluaga, working for independent media outlets, see a clear connection in these seemingly differing interests.
“The urban and rural struggles are linked at their very core, given the rise of women’s leadership in both cases, to challenge the existing patriarchal systems,” she explained, when Garcia and I met her in Bogotá.
In the heart of the Colombian capital, a concrete jungle that stands in stark contrast to the expansive rural terrain of the Caribbean region, Zuluaga was having a planning session with her team at El Turbión. The local independent media outlet has been reporting about women-led activism amid the latest anti-government protests in Colombia.
Originally from Caldas in the Andean region of Colombia, and now living in Bogotá, Zuluaga is intimately linked to both contexts. She has been trying to connect activism in different parts of Colombia through her stories. Like Garcia’s work, her reporting is broad and geographically diverse, covering issues from rights defenders on coffee plantations to the demands of union activists in cities. Working in a male-dominated environment, she has been drawn towards women leaders in social justice movements.
When we first met the El Turbión team, they were covering the Labour Day protests of 2021. By the end of our meeting, the music-filled protest had turned violent, with government forces opening fire on civilians. Clashes over the following days claimed 19 lives.
Attacks against the press
Nine months after that eventful day, Zuluaga accompanied Garcia to parts of the capital where police had attacked the demonstrators.
“Of course, I don’t feel safe at all as a woman covering protests, especially when outnumbered by so many men, and when the protests get violent suddenly,” she said with a resigned smile, pointing to the spot where the police had started attacking civilians and journalists. Amid this environment of intimidation, organisations like IMS have been developing training for women journalists who are reporting about the role of women in the Colombian peace process.
Journalism in Colombia is not for the faint-hearted. The country remains one of the most dangerous for journalists in the Western hemisphere. Veteran reporters like Garcia have seen expanding rights for news media, but during the 2021 protests government forces attacked hundreds of journalists who were covering the events. In particular, environment, natural resources and land issues remain extremely dangerous topics to cover, due to collusion between government officials, security forces and non-state armed groups. Delving deeper into these issues that are at the crux of implementing peace often leads to intimidation, harassment and worse for journalists and rights defenders.
“There are stories to be told precisely because we need to build a better country. This is my commitment as a citizen and a journalist,” Garcia said, as we stood in front in Bolivar Square, the seat of the Colombian government.
Garcia, Sierra and Zuluaga know that they face high levels of risk because of their work. But they believe that the costs of not telling the stories of dispossessed communities in Colombia are even higher.
Their accounts of Colombia’s tryst with peace will be showcased in our forthcoming film ‘Dispossessed’, to be released in May 2022. A trailer appears at the top of this article.
The video in this article was supported by Copenhagen-based International Media Support
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