Although scarce due to monocultures, two women's organisations have gained access to land on which they are developing sustainable agro-ecological projects. However, their rights are compromised: they lack legal security over the land, machismo belittles their work, and they receive attacks and threats. But the women, together, continue to fight.
"There is no more land down here. Where they put palm trees, you can't work", laments Victoria Silgado. The same story is heard over and over again in María La Baja, one of the 15 municipalities that make up the Montes de María region, in the central part of the departments of Bolívar and Sucre in the Colombian Caribbean.
Those who live there explain that oil palm and pineapple monocultures have taken root in the region. Entrepreneurs with economic capacity have come to María La Baja to buy or lease land to convert it into monocultures, making land scarce or unaffordable for peasant communities seeking to develop their own productive projects.
This is in addition to the history of forced displacement resulting from the armed conflict that has marked the entire region of Montes de María. At the beginning of the new century, the fighting between paramilitary groups and the ELN guerrillas and the 35th and 37th fronts of the extinct FARC escalated in the region. This violence led thousands of families to search for a new piece of land to live on. According to a report by the Land Restitution Unit, between 1990 and 2008 there were 22,383 cases of forced displacement.
In this difficult scenario, women organised themselves to collectively address land scarcity by creating alternative agricultural projects to secure food for their families and improve their quality of life.
Two examples are the Asociación de Mujeres Víctimas Afroagropecuarias Campesinas Productoras De Playón (Asomovicampo) in Palo Altico, a rural area of the municipality of María La Baja, and the Asociación Femenina Agropecuaria de San Cayetano (AFASAN), which owns land in the municipality of San Juan Nepomuceno.
A COMMUNITY APPROACH TO TACKLING MACHISM
In 2006, many of the displaced women from different communities in Montes de María organised themselves and Asomovicampo was born. Today, brings together 18 peasant women victims of the armed conflict, all of them hard-working and "echadas pa' lante", as they say. The organisation works for women's rights and demands a life free of violence, especially the struggle for the right to land and territory.
While the older women who are part of the association work on a plot of land near the town centre, the others work on a 20-hectare plot of land that they rent on the outskirts of the San José de Playón reservoir. There they grow rice, yams, melon, maize and dozens of other products which, in addition to marketing, they use for their own consumption.
With a view to community production, in which no pesticides or agrochemicals are used, the women of the association are determined not to set physical boundaries between the plots: there are no barbed wires or fences dividing the land, each one knows in which area the other is sowing. Their commitment is cooperative and they work together whenever they can.
As small producers, they sell their harvest to intermediaries in the region who collect the crops from the peasant families and sell them to the central markets. Independence and decision-making over the destination of the money is another of the organisation's achievements.
The women of Montes de María carry the 'stigma' of not knowing how to work the land.
"They say that we burn the land", says Argelia Silgado Padilla, legal representative of Asomovicampo. Argelia was born in the neighbouring community of Santa Fe de Icotea and lived there until her forced displacement in 2000. Today she remembers the years when, together with her sisters and her father, she took on farm work to support the household. "Ever since I was born and can remember, I have been working the land".
Despite the fact that women are at the forefront of collective processes to reclaim vacant lands, land ownership in the region has been in the hands of men. Studies by the Administrative Department of Statistics show that by 2019, only 24.7% of Agricultural Production Units (APUs) were run exclusively by women producers, and 60.1% of these APUs are less than three hectares in size. In many cases, the amount of land that women have access to is insufficient in size to sustain their families.
It is not just a matter of giving them land, the association argues, but of giving them land of sufficient quality and size to obtain greater productivity.
The women of Asomovicampo have been working the mountain plot for 17 years now, but it does not belong to them. "I would like the land to be our own", says another of its members, Arelys Silgado. They all agree, as they fear that, since they do not own the land, the owner could sell it or lease it to someone else. They also regret that, as they do not own the land, they are excluded from agricultural projects promoted by the state and from bank loans.
In the framework of the agrarian policies promoted by the current national government, and with the support of the owner of the lot, they have requested that the National Land Agency acquire it, but the state entity has not yet prioritised the purchase of rural land in the area.
"Harvesting is life. And that is what we are, women who work the land", repeat the women of the association, from their productive patios to the rented land, while they wait for the State to listen to them.
WHEN LAND OWNERSHIP IS NOT ENOUGH
Even in cases where women own the land, they are also under threat: third parties want to override their rights in order to dispossess them of their plots and hinder their farming activities.
In the early 2000s, women from San Cayetano started working in a cooperative to export yams. The project did not prosper, but they were already together and wanted to work the land, so they sought help.
Thanks to the Corporación Desarrollo Solidario (CDS), they organised themselves as an association, and 36 women victims of the armed conflict formed AFASAN.
After a long search, they leased a farm in 2006, and two years later, the CDS, with the support of international cooperation, donated the eight-hectare property to the women of AFASAN. This agreement was registered in public deed n° 1066 of 28 May 2009.
With the institutional commitment to maintain a model of "silvopastoral production integrating agro-ecological and environmental conservation principles", the women maintained an agricultural production area composed of fruit plants, vegetables and pancakes, and a livestock area of about five hectares with jagüeyes and internal subdivisions for animal management.
But in San Cayetano did not like the fact that these women were owners.
"Since we said we were owners, many people have been uncomfortable, especially the men. In their own words, 'women are not capable of maintaining a plot of land', and they have made life impossible for us," says Duvis Ballesteros, a member of the association.
"For me, the land and the territory are like the cradle of life, where you are born, where you grow up. That's where my memories are, exactly who I am", explains Yeilis Escorcia, the organisation's legal representative.
For years, ASAFAN has been suffering attacks by people who have violated its property, its projects and its personal integrity. During the confinement imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of people invaded the property, damaging fences, livestock pens, the infrastructure of the agro-ecological projects, the vegetable crops and the apiary, and contaminating the pond.
"We didn't find support from the authorities, they didn't listen to us as they should", Yeilis says. Until Mayelis Chamorro Ruiz, the 3rd Judicial Environmental and Agrarian Prosecutor of Cartagena, began to intervene in the process, managing to involve other State institutions.
The Police Mobile Anti-Riot Squad carried out the final eviction, and the Court of San Juan Nepomuceno ruled against the invaders, who during the dispute over the land claimed to be "long-time" owners of the land.
But tranquillity did not come. The women received countless threats, and the damage to their land and their integrity went unpunished.
NEITHER RENTING NOR OWNING, WOMEN IN MONTES DE MARIA CAN FULLY ENJOY THE LAND, NOR CAN THEY DO SO WITH LEGAL AND SECURITY GUARANTEES.
But the harsh circumstances led these women to realise that together they can achieve great transformations and fill the gaps in the state's ability to guarantee their rights to land and territory. Along the way, new obstacles will surely appear, but their dream of living in dignity in the countryside will not let them stop.
This article is an abbreviated version of the original report produced by Verdad Abierta in the framework of the Coalición de Mujeres del Caribe por la Tierra y el Territorio and the Stand For Her Land-Colombia campaign which can be read in full here: https://mujeres-caribe-territorio.verdadabierta.com/ni-arrendando-ni-siendo-propietarias-mujeres-en-montes-de-maria-pueden-disfrutar-de-la-tierra/
The photographs are by Carlos Mayorga Alejo.