Genesis - The Beginning of the End

El Chocó is a vast tropical, forested territory interspersed with patches of agriculture, the scars of goldmining, cattle ranching, and deforestation. It is a flat land, hemmed-in between the western cordillera of the Andes mountains on one side, and the Pacific Ocean, Panama, and a slice of the Caribbean coast the other. The majority of its inhabitants are afro-Colombian and indigenous - Embera, and Waunana - communities who practice principally subsistence agriculture and fishing.
It used to be a peaceful place, because it was an isolated place, far from others' battles. But Genesis put a stop to that. The war had finally come to el Chocó.
Absolute silence reigns as, for the first time in three years, families displaced by the Operation Genesis enter the Cacarica River & return to their lands to found the Peace Communities of "Nueva Vida" & "Esperanza en Dios" - New Life & Faith in God.                                                                                    Cacarica, el Chocó 2000
"Citizens with your help we continue defeating the narco-terrorists of the FARC-ELN enemies of the nation and progress in Colombia."

Riosucio, el Chocó 1997

Ostensibly, Operation Genesis was to drive FARC guerrillas from the region. However, the military offensive, led by the 17th Brigade of the Colombian Army who were assisted by paramilitaries of the ACCU, caused the exodus of around 15,000 poor afro-Colombian farmers and their families.
More than two thousand fled to Turbo from the Cacarica basin, and more than four thousand from Salaquí to Pavarandó, where their flight was halted by the Colombian Army. The communities of Jiguamiandó and Curbaradó fled to the Urabá highway & Mutatá, whilst some, the encaletados remained hidden in their territories. Others fled further afield to Medellín in the mountains, or by sea to Cartagena, and some far to the capital, Bogotá.
Map 1: Lower & middle Atrato River, Department of el Chocó - the division of territories between indigenous "resguardos" & collective territories of afro-Colombian communites. The indigenous communities' territories - principally Embera, but also Waunana in el Chocó - were legally recognised by the Colombian Constitution of 1991 (Article 63 & Law 21, paragraph 6) & those of the afro-Colombian communities by the Ley 70 of 1993.
Map 2: The Operation Genesis and routes of the exodus.
"Death - people's self-defences" - Graffiti left by right-wing paramilitaries of the ACCU (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá /Peasant self-defenses of ... )

Pavarando, Antioquia 1997

In the wake of the offensives economic projects came to the region. In the Curbaradó & Jiguamiandó river basins the forest was felled, a grid of roads ploughed and ditches dug, which drained the swamps and provoked yet another exodus - that of the fish, birds and other wildlife. African palm was planted on the drained land by businessmen/landowners
who apropriated the land they said was barren, baldia in Spanish, meaning without owners/uncultivated. Elsewhere in the Lower Atrato region timber extraction and mining continued and also increased in the absence of the voices and protests of the now displaced local communities and their leaders.
Timber on the quayside. Several community leaders forced to flee their lands said that direct threats against them by paramilitaries were because of their opposition to Maderas del Darién Pizano S.A., a company extracting timber from the region.

Quibdó, el Chocó 1997

However, the land did have owners. On the 13 of diciembre of 1996 the very first collective land titles issued under the Ley 70 of 1993 were handed over by INCORA - the then land-reform institute - to communities in the Domindogó, Taparal, Chintadó and Truandó river basins. All of of these communities were forced to flee several weeks later by Operation Genesis or subsequent military actions in the Lower Atrato region. In the twenty years since Genesis, almost one-third of the population of el Chocó has been forcibly displaced and thousands have perished.
The Ley 70 was the result of years of campaigning and work begun by the same communities, the Catholic Church and NGOs to achieve similar land rights to those of indigenous communities recognised by the Colombian Constitution of 1991 (Article 63 & Law 21, paragraph 6). It allowed these poor communities to resist and stymie attempts by wealthy landowners backed by guns to disposses them of their ancestral lands.
Police check on the quayside.

Riosucio, el Chocó 1997

Below: Paramilitary graffiti: "We wish you a happy Xmas - Peasants self-defences of Córdoba & Urabá". Schoolgirls. Paramilitary graffiti: "Guerrillas & informers out of el Chocó".

Quibdó, el Chocó 1997

The Best Corner of the Americas
In Medellín, in September of 1997, the then Governor of Antioquia, Álvaro Uribe Vélez (President of Colombia 2002-2010) presented the conference “Why Antioquia believes in and thinks of el Chocó” where he and other delegates outlined plans for interoceanic canals (combining river & rail), pipelines, ports & tourism projects, and extractive industries in the neighbouring department. Many referred enthusiastically to the Lower Atrato region

as the “Best Corner of the Americas”. Noticably absent from the conference were representatives of el Chocó's black and indigenous communities, many thousands of whom were now living as displaced refugees in the shantytowns high on the valley sides of Medellín.
Displaced families from el Chocó & eastern Antioquia living in Medellín stage a protest on the main Medellín-Bogotá highway to draw attention to State abandonment.

Antioquia 2000

Since the beginning of the war in el Chocó the conflict has changed and de-intensified somewhat. Many of the displaced communities have returned, but the armed groups have not left. The pressure upon the collective lands has abated but not disappeared. Indeed the paramilitaries, despite a process of disarmament & reinsertion back into society from
2003-6, are still in the area but under another guise – that of the Gaitanist Self-defences of Colombia. Land reclaimants are routinely killed and some communities, fearing for their lives, dare not return to take what is rightfully theirs.
Paramilitary graffiti on a house: "People's Self-defenses Death to Guerrilla collaborators."

Pavarandó, el Chocó 1997

And still, some businessmen, companies and large landowners continue to try to roll back some of collective land titles of the afro-Colombian communities. Some are already usurping them for timber extraction, mining and even agro-industrial agriculture, and paramilitary structures either protect or expand those interests.
El Chocó continues to be an economic frontier to push back and profit from, despite the collective titles which ensure access to the land for its traditional peoples. In Colombia, those who oppose such projects are regularly labelled communists, subversives and "Castro-Chavistas" (a perjorative also used regularly by right-wing politicians) who are against progress, and who deserve to die. Hundreds are murdered every year, and almost the entirety of the cases remain in impunity.
In the encampment for internally displaced persons, some 4,200 people who fled from the Salaquí and Riosucio river basins.

Pavarandó, el Chocó 1997

Pavarandó, el Chocó 1997
Communities of displaced families neighbouring the town's port.

Turbo, Antioquia 1997

The Return to Cacarica
In March of 2000, after three years of forced displacement in the town of Turbo on the Caribbean coast, the first groups of campesinos returned to the region of Cacarica to form two new "Peace Communities": Nueva Esperanza en Dios y Nueva Vida (New Hope in God & New Life). And within weeks they received the collective titles to the Cacarica river basin, consolidating their return to their ancestral lands.
One of the many women left widowed by Operation Genesis at a mass on the eve of the return to Cacarica.

Turbo, Antioquia 2000

Below:
(left) The displaced Cacarica community with banners reclaiming "Justice", "Solidarity" & "Truth" & (right) women widowed by Genesis marching through the town on the eve of the 3rd anniversary of the offensive, & the eve of their return to the territory.

Turbo, Antioquia 2000

The basic principle of the Peace Communities is total neutrality in the face of the armed conflict. The community members refuse to provide information, supplies, nor facilitate in any way the wishes of armed groups, whether they be legal State forces or illegal armed groups. The initiative had existed in Colombia for several years previously, with communities supported by the Catholic Church, foreign and Colombian NGOs, the latter accompanied by the IPB (International Peace Brigades).
The Peace Communities (now called Humanitarian Zones) are covered by protective measures of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which require that the Colombian State respects and protects the communities & investigates crimes against them, and punishes the perpetrators.
Crossing the Gulf of Urabá on the return to Cacarica.

Golfo de Urabá 2000

On the quayside waiting to return to Cacarica.

Turbo, Antioquia 2000

Below:

Crossing the Gulf of Urabá & the mouth of the River Atrato.
El Golfo de Urabá 2000

The homes of the inhabitants are in a centralised location, so as to offer them better security: isolated homes can be particularly vulnerable to incursions by armed actors at night. During the day farmers can work in the fields, on the rivers or in jungle, sometimes working together in groups for safety.
Since their return, the community has been repeatedly verbally threatened and accused of being guerrilla sympathisers and collaborators by the Colombian military & the new-paramilitary groups.

Cacarica, el Chocó 2000

The Humanitarian Zones - islands in a sea of conflict

The Communities of Autodeterminación, Vida y Dignidad –CAVIDA- the Humanitarian Zone Nueva Esperanza en Dios, Cacarica.

Cacarica, el Chocó 2003

Boys in the Humanitarian Zone (formerly called Peace Community) of Cacarica.

Cacarica, el Chocó 2003

Above:
Cacoa (chocolate) in the fields.

Cacarica, el Chocó 2003

Threshing rice.

Cacarica, el Chocó 2003

Quibdó
Military in the airport during a military operation following the Bojayá massacre.

Quibdó, el Chocó 2002

A woman from Puerto Conto displaced by bombardments after the Bojayá massacre combats stands on the quayside with her possessions having just arrived in a canoe with dozens of others seeking refuge.

Quibdó, el Chocó 2002

Villa España

Quibdó, el Chocó 2003

Villa España, a temporary settlement for displaced families which became a permanent one.

Quibdó, el Chocó 2003

Villa España, a settlement for displaced families on the city outskirts.

Quibdó, el Chocó 2003