Colombia Accompanier Report: Visit to Finca San Juan Tocauga, San Juan Ciénega, Municipality of Luruaco, Atlántico Department April 6-8, 2016

El Tamarindo:  The US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement Creates Violence and Dispossession
By Gary Cozette

El Tamarindo was a community of 123 families from 5 different Colombian provinces who had settled on 520 hectares of unused land on the periphery of Colombia’s third largest city, Barranquilla.  Most had fled their small plots of land hundreds of miles away after family members and neighbors were murdered by paramilitaries, military, or guerrillas. El Tamarindo’s displaced families incorporated to secure legal standing before the state. 

House under construction at FincaThis hardy group of small-scale farmers has converted their formerly unproductive land into a successful farm that produces a bounty of fruits, vegetables, and livestock.  To take advantage of its proximity to the Barranquilla-Cartagena highway, the farmers set up roadside market stands; and their produce was quickly bought up by travelers.  Theirs is an absolutely awesome resettlement success!

Proximity to Barranquilla, however, turns out to be a liability.  The city is home to Colombia’s most important port, and to a nearby tax-exempt, free trade zone (Zona Franca).  In advance of approval of the controversial 2011 US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, the Colombian government significantly expanded the boundaries of the Zona Franca. 

This expansion prompted a huge land speculation frenzy on adjacent tracts of land, one of which was El Tamarindo.  “Past owners” emerged from the woodwork to claim the land, even though, according to a Tamarindo leader, no one had used or paid taxes on the land for over 50 years.  Now that the land had value, Barranquilla’s most powerful economic and political families wanted it. 

And so a campaign of intimidation and death threats began against El Tamarindo families. In 2012 and 2013, paramilitary commanders, working with corrupt local officials and police, bulldozed three-quarters of El Tamarindo’s modest homes and carefully tended fields and orchards.  In April 2013, paramilitaries murdered a local leader.  In November 2013, a local court slowed down the campaign by preventing eviction of the families until suitable alternative land could be found for them.

The people of El Tamarindo realized that sooner or later they would lose their land. While their incorporated organization had petitioned the national government to relocate them to mutually agreeable agricultural land elsewhere in the region, the government had done nothing meaningful on this request.

In January 2015, the leader of El Tamarindo, along with three top local leaders of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC), were named on a death list in a flyer widely circulated throughout the region. In June 2015, amid a new round of paramilitary threats, police threatened the community with immediate eviction. 

With assistance from the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace, El Tamarindo filed a lawsuit against Colombian investors who had formed a company to evict all displaced families from the El Tamarindo land. Colombia’s Supreme Court accepted the lawsuit for review, and issued an injunction in December 2015, prohibiting eviction until an alternative site had been located for all legally registered El Tamarindo families.  

Later in December, in violation of the court injunction, the farmers’ crops, trees, and homes were bulldozed—in full view of the onlooking farmers.  Local police forcibly removed all the families from El Tamarindo.

The investment company gave limited indemnification payments to those whose property had been bulldozed, and also located 12 hectares of land in San Juan Tocauga near the town of Luruaco.  10 families agreed to use their 10 million peso indemnity payment to buy 1 hectare each.  However, to secure title to the land and legal status for the community, the remaining two hectares must be sold.

The IPC continues to accompany the families now located at San Juan Tocauga, and the dozens of other families who have received nothing after their illegal evictions.   Amid a ruinous 3-year drought, the IPC has provided a couple of hundred plantain sapling plugs, which the farmers now plant and water by hand until rains come.   The new priority for the IPC accompaniment of families is to help secure a larger tract of land near San Juan Tocauga for the dozens of families who have received little or no compensation since their illegal eviction.