In war and peace, we black people always lose

A story told by Don Tito

Most people who came to Tumaco came to grow coca. Those who arrived after 2000 cleared the forest to plant that bush. Bundles of people came from Putumayo and also from Samaniego and Caquetá. It’s so funny! Before, it was the other way around: people from Tumaco moved to Putumayo to make a living from coca. They worked as raspachines. 36 That’s how people from Putumayo and Tumaco became friends and even relatives.

Settlers came to Tumaco for many reasons. Some were displaced by the Plan Colombia fumigations. Others arrived with the guerrillas: the FARC groups from different places in Putumayo came here and brought their people with them. And how did it work? People came, displaced by violence or following the guerrillas, and then would tell their family members or friends who were also starving in Putumayo because of the fumigations or the war. ‘Come, there’s enough land here … There’s land for coca, to cultivate, land for this and for that.’ Then the relative or friend would come with his son, sometimes with the oldest one, and even with his woman. Later, they would send for the niece, uncle, cousin. That’s how these lands, even those of the Community Councils, were populated. People came packed into trucks and crossed the river on a ferry.

Many of those who came to plant coca went missing. We don’t know if they disappeared or were killed. I honestly don’t believe they are still alive. Too many people are missing in Tumaco. Those people came here looking for opportunities, but they had no IDs and because of the difficult situation in the area, some suspected they were members of the guerrilla groups and others suspected they were paramilitaries. Coca generates fights and makes folks jealous. For many people, the river became their grave. For me, 2002 was the worst period. Rafts full of bodies came floating down the river frequently.

Coca is not only for peasants. Coca is a chain that ties everything together.

For example, I’m not a coca grower. I never grew coca, and not because I didn’t feel like it, but because of the problems it brought. Where there was coca, there were always armed groups. But, for example, my wife had a shop, and she sold things on credit to the coqueros.  Others sell gasoline to those who process the leaves or transport the coca. It’s a long, long chain!

Although I never grew coca, I know how the business works. Some people planted it next to my palm crop. There was a guy who had around five hectares; he was a small coquero. He worked hard to get the land to produce, but it seemed that the profit was never enough because, when he finally sold the coca, he already owed money to everybody, and he couldn’t pay. He harvested every three months. But between harvest and harvest, he had to work an awful lot. He had to add many chemicals to the soil, fertilise the crop and then fumigate it, and he had to do this almost every day. On top of everything, the guy went to sleep at ten or eleven because he had to go with a flashlight at dusk to check that the ants weren’t eating his crop. He was working all the time. So, if I were to put a price on all the hours he worked, I don’t think he was making a lot of money from coca. Coca isn’t such good business for small growers. The profit goes to those who buy it or grow more than ten hectares, those who make the base paste and crystallise it, to the large laboratories, the industrialists. The money ends up going to those who don’t even live here.

coca bushes
Coca bush. Photo by Diego Lagos/Universidad Nacional

Some say there was a coca bonanza, in the same area where I had my palm crop. Growers say those times were good because they could buy three crates of beer, which they piled up in their homes. Their dining rooms were full of bottles. But the next day they ran out of money, and once again, they had to go and pick coca leaves. This has been a big issue: small coqueros spend all their money on booze. They don’t invest it or save it. Coca has only improved the lives of a few people, at least in the area where I live. I visited some villages on the border where people who grew the bush don’t even have a house and are just surviving. I’d love to ask them what they did with the coca money, if they ever had it, although I don’t believe they ever had it.

For us, black people, coca has brought more sorrows than joys. It broke down our culture.

The hamlets in the Community Councils were filled with bars where all one could hear were forbidden corridos. Coca and its armed groups and settlers displaced many native communities. At one point, so many people moved from Tumaco to San Lorenzo, an Ecuadorian municipality close to the border, that they formed whole neighbourhoods over there. Settlers say they bought the land from the natives, but the land here cannot be sold! Our territories are collective property. Black people from these areas were very welcoming. There was always an extra dish for unexpected guests. But this custom is being lost, and one day it’ll disappear completely. Coca has caused enormous damage to our black culture!

Coca also brought fumigations to our territory. In 2003, the government began spraying in Tumaco. Everyone knew: whenever they shouted ‘the planes!’, we started running like hell. One could always see a guy in the plane aiming a machine gun at the people. Once, a boy aimed his rifle at the plane to make a joke. It came down after him, almost to the ground. The boy ran fast and, luckily, he lost them. Those people sprayed everything, even the mangroves. Apparently, they were paid to dump tons of glyphosate. Later, the palm crops got a disease called bud rot. That was devastating; it killed thousands of hectares of palm. We were sure the fumigations made the palms sick because both things happened around the same time: first the spraying and then the bud rot disease.

They almost got tired of fumigating here; nothing could get rid of the coca crops. The peasants learned tricks to save their bushes. They used panela41 and some other stuff. They washed the plants that had just been fumigated. Others cut them near the base, before the poison went from the leaves, down the branches, and into the roots. They curbed the damage in this way. They would lose that harvest, but in three months they were harvesting again.

Coca is just one of the problems that torments us here in Tumaco. The dispute over the land is broader. It has been going on for years, for decades.

And, to be fair, it didn’t start with the Putumayo settlers. Before the coca crops, other people from different parts of the country – pastusos, rolos, caleños, and paisas –42 took over our land to grow palm trees.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, businessmen from other parts of Colombia, even foreigners, came to Tumaco to set up plantations and palm oil refineries. Some of them were funded by the mafia. It was then that the exploitation began. Our concern was that we were going to be left with no land. In 1979, local people created some associations and they told the palm misters:

‘This cannot continue like this! Stop accumulating land, don’t be greedy!’

The rules of the game changed in 1993 with Law 70. This law recognised our territorial rights and created the Community Councils, the way we black communities organise to exercise authority and autonomy over our territories. Thanks to this law, black people began to come together and organise, to investigate what tasks we needed to complete to get legal rights over our lands. Most of these titles were granted in the 2000s. For us, the land is communal, and Law 70 states clearly that it’s inalienable, unattachable and imprescriptible. No one can take the land from us.

Tumaco farmer walks up a muddy path
Muddy footpaths are part of everyday life in rural Tumaco. Photo by Diego Lagos (@dalagossph)/ Universidad Nacional Photo by Diego Lagos/Universidad Nacional

The struggle for our lands has cost us dearly. Many legal representatives of the Community Councils have been assassinated. One never knows who it was: the palm growers, the armed groups, or both. Collective titling didn’t bring these conflicts to an end. Some palm companies still say that areas within the council’s lands belong to them, and they continue invading our territories. The same happens with settlers and coqueros. They insist on having individual property titles in the council’s areas. As soon as the issue is mentioned, an endless discussion begins. Our land cannot be sold! Instead of solving the situation, all the authorities do is let us negotiate by ourselves. Frankly, I wonder if the state wants us to continue fighting over the land. We have tried to coexist peacefully, but for us the council’s territory is not up for discussion.

The struggle to defend our lands has kept us in conflict with palm growers, settlers, coqueros, and as if this weren’t enough, with the FARC guerrillas.

Making them understand Law 70 was very complicated. It depended on the character of the commander. But since the FARC rotated or changed commanders frequently, just like what happens with the army, what the community explained to one commander was immediately lost, and they had to start from scratch with the new one. And, it’s one thing to argue with the palm company people or with the settlers, but quite another thing to tell it straight to someone who’s armed. When people didn’t obey the FARC’s instructions, complete an activity or whatever they said needed to be done, they were given three days to comply, or they had to leave, or they were killed. It’s pretty traumatic for people who have lived through these situations. People in Bogotá, for example, have other kinds of problems. Maybe it’s mobility, catching a bus, common crime or theft. For us, the main issue is securing peace in the territory, peace with the armed groups, with the FARC, the dissidents, with everyone. I insist that it’s traumatic to live with an armed group, under their command – and in a country where legality supposedly prevails.

So we tried to explain the role of the councils and Law 70 to the FARC. Some commanders allowed us to remain in the territory. Others threatened us when they arrived. I remember once in a meeting, the commander had already spoken a lot, and I asked him, ‘Comandante, may I speak?’ He replied, ‘What do you want? Shut up!’ And he kept on talking. He talked about their military strategy. He said they killed, that they did everything. And then he pointed at me and yelled, ‘What were you going to say?’ Then, our secretary, the council’s secretary, a really calm boy – I don’t know where he got the nerve from – took out a Law 70 brochure and handed it to the commander saying, ‘Comandante, when you have time, read it!’ The meeting was over, and we went home. In the next meeting, the man had a completely different attitude. He said: ‘Who is going to explain this shit about Law 70 to me?’ I even took it as a good joke. A knowledgeable young man told him, ‘You see, Law 70 is about this and that. That’s why we are telling you that these are collective territories.’ And well, at least he listened to us.

To live through war is to feel death breathing down one’s neck, especially for those of us defending the welfare of our communities and the land that we black people would like everybody to respect.

Here in Tumaco, black people were not born with these clarities. So much work is needed for people to understand that we have to fight for what belongs to us, for our rights. Fortunately, there’s been progress: Law 70, leaders emerging in the councils and in the hamlets.

Before, it was different. Black people believed that they had to be poor. When I was a boy, I saw people living in the mud, almost grateful for their misfortune. I like to believe that I helped raise consciousness among the black population of Tumaco. They started to understand that we could demand things from local authorities. I think that I inherited the desire to be free from my maternal grandparents. I never met them, but I learned that they came here searching for the sea or wanting to return to Africa. They escaped from the mines in Barbacoas, another municipality on the Pacific coast. I was told that they reached the sea and went up the river on a canoe – there were no roads back then. My grandparents examined the land to see if it was suitable for sowing, and eventually found somewhere to settle.

I owe my education to my father. He took me to the priest’s school and then brought me to the urban area of Tumaco to finish high school. I had the best of relationships with the priests, even though I was a rebel – I’ve always been a rebel – and I didn’t accept them imposing things on me. I liked to defend people who could not protect themselves, and I would fight for them. I went on strike over the food they gave us at the boarding school and, thanks to the protest, they didn’t give us rotten fish ever again.

In 1975, they appointed me as a teacher at a small school in Tumaco. Beto Escrucería, Tumaco’s great political chief, appointed me. Tumaco changed completely when the Escrucerías came to power. They are white, they have Spanish ancestry, but they also grew up here, in the territory, together with the black people. Beto was a committed politician, but with him and his people, politics were closed. They were the lords and masters of Tumaco. The municipality was like their hacienda, and they managed it as such. They helped their friends, everyone who was a Betista, but no one else. Beto was my father’s preferred politician, but not mine.

In fact, I was almost his opponent. Anyway, he gave me the position at the school, and I spoke to him several times. I don’t know if he realised the problems I was causing him. Once, when I was a juror at a voting table for mayoral elections, I didn’t allow a Betista to vote because the photograph on his ID was not clear enough. It all became a huge thing, the police even came. I stood up and told everyone, ‘Sorry, but he won’t vote here, not at this table. As long as I’m here, he won’t vote.’ Nobody uttered a word, and the guy didn’t vote. I was never a juror again.

Back in the ‘70s, we learned about what was going on in communist China. We studied booklets by Mao and Fidel – I have no idea where those booklets came from. We championed that cause.

People from a party called MOIR, the Revolutionary Independent Workers Movement, came to visit. There was a lawyer named López, who had been to China and Russia. He was from the University of Nariño and came here to give us classes and lectures. Later on, they killed him.

In Tumaco, we started talking about social change. We compared Beto to Somoza – that dictator from Nicaragua. During political campaigns, they’d cover the walls of some houses with Beto’s propaganda. At night we would tear down all his posters, even if we had to stay up until dawn. I never liked Beto’s governing style, even though he appointed me as a teacher.

The fishermen’s’ children attended the school where I worked. At that time, Tumaco fishermen were considered evil, challenging to deal with. I remember I had a meeting with a father, a wicked guy, who was a fisherman. I asked him why he had sent his son to school, and he replied, ‘so that he can learn, so that he doesn’t grow up to be like me.’ I said he was not helping him much and that if he wanted to help him, he should do this and that, and I gave him some tips. The man looked at me and asked: ‘And what’s your name?’ I said, ‘I’m so-and-so.’ Then he said: ‘This is the first time somebody tells me that, the very first time,’ and he shook my hand. He said, ‘Let’s be friends.’ The man considered me his friend until the day he died.

I believe I fostered changes in the consciousness of the young people in that school. They still remember me. Sometimes I walk through the neighbourhood, and I meet the boys who studied with me. Some of them are already technicians and they call me ‘teacher’, and they even bow to me.

I was a teacher until the ‘80s. Then I went back to my hamlet and saw that things weren’t working. Many things were lacking. People were not living well. The first thing I did was to insist that we all needed to improve our houses. I started to build my house and then other people copied my idea. They became aware that houses are part of our environment and that we had to protect ourselves from the weather and the rain. You see, before, the houses were made of cardboard. In 1986, I did a census of the hamlet, which was already a large village, and everyone had houses with cardboard roofs. In other places, the roofs were made of straw, a local material. It was good because it absorbed heat, but rats destroyed those roofs in 15 days. I told everyone that houses should be comfortable and last for a lifetime.

Rainy day in rural Tumaco
A rainy day in a rural hamlet of Tumaco. Photo by Diego Lagos (@dalagossph)/Universidad Nacional

After nagging people about their houses, I got into another struggle. The hamlet didn’t have water or electricity. We bought a power plant – me and a paisa friend – for our houses, but people were suspicious and jealous. So I said to my friend, ‘let’s do something so everyone can have electricity. Elections are coming, and you know who the candidate is? Beto Escrucería’. We brought together more than 180 families. We shared our idea with them. We said that we wanted a power plant for the hamlet and that we could ask Beto for it while we were in election season. As soon as Beto was aware of the possible revolt, he told us not to continue with it, that an oil palm company would give us the plant. That promise, unlike most politicians’ promises, was kept. The community obtained the plant. It arrived from Bogotá before the elections. Then, we needed the power lines. I spoke to someone and asked him to donate the cables and transformers. The community made the poles. We cut the trees for them with a chainsaw and an axe. A technical guy from a company helped us with the installation. And so, lights came to my hamlet for the first time, with poles made from guayacán trees.

Fighting for black people’s rights has never been easy. That’s why I was excited about the Havana Peace Agreement. With peace, access to electricity, water, health and education would improve.

Maybe we wouldn’t get them for free, but at least projects could be requested and implemented, and the community would benefit from them. That’s what makes the difference. But no, peace has been a scam. The council and its members joined the illicit crop substitution programme believing things were going to change. And things have indeed changed: the FARC guerrillas are gone, but now there are dissidents, those who did not lay down their arms or who rearmed. We are working towards the substitution of illicit crops, on voluntary coca eradication, in exchange for an alternative, a feasible productive project, in exchange for roads, for help with marketing. But armed people are back in the territory willing to defend coca. It’s so tricky!

Substitution has been jeopardised. I believe the programme was poorly designed from the beginning. Say one used to live from coca, and six or eight months ago, uprooted their crop, but the state only comes up with two million pesos out of the twelve million they promised. That was what they gave them as payment for eradicating their crops: money! But money comes and goes. That’s not sustainable! I think about it and say, ‘Why don’t we sit down first and plan the programme together? You, Mr. Peasant, what do you want to grow, and how will we commercialise it? Let’s not provide more cocoa to Luker44 for them to pay whatever they want for it.’ Suppose we produce a lot of cocoa, then they lower the price to 3,000 or 4,000 pesos per kilo. Someone must tie up this chain with a sustainable price! Let’s fix the price of cocoa at 10,000 pesos a kilo. If this were the price, everybody would hurry to plant cocoa, leaving coca behind, and the government wouldn’t have to pay them two million, that’s for sure! Because cocoa, when well taken care of, can be profitable if prices are good. But none of this has been done. Nothing has happened. They took away coca from the people, and now they no longer have the means to live.

Substitution has been a hot potato for the council leaders who took the programme on their shoulders and believed in the government. We have been singled out and stigmatised in our territories. The programme has failed, and we’ve had to face the people who sacrificed their livelihood, their coca, to comply with the government’s demands. That’s why they’re killing leaders, because when things go wrong – and with substitution, everything is going terribly wrong – it is us who are blamed.

Peace is dying in Tumaco. New groups arrive every day. There are so many that one no longer know who’s who. Building peace in these territories, with no guarantees from the government, isn’t possible.

The state lost the opportunity to do things differently. Or maybe the state never loses, and it’s in their interest that things fail. Meanwhile, for us, the failure of this process is at another price: we pay with our lives. It seems black communities always lose, both in war and in peace.

Common themes and insights

Making sense of the life stories with common themes around agency and voice, violence and peace, and borders and boundaries.

Implications for researchers and policymakers

Life stories raise questions, provocations and pointers for researchers and policymakers.