Wednesday, December 19, 2007

South America Log - No. 9

December 19, 2007

Dear Family and Friends:

The season of Advent is one of anticipation, as we look forward to celebrations together with family, and think about our hopes for the coming New Year. This year in Barrancabermeja we also wait in anticipation, or perhaps trepidation, for news from the community of Garzal. This pastoral farming community along the banks of the Magdalena River is named for the many herons and egrets (“garzas” in Spanish) that populate the riverbanks. There’s no electricity or running water in Garzal, but there’s a strong sense of community among the 136 families that live there; many of them have farmed this same land for 40 years.

The peaceful life of the families in Garzal is under threat. The community has been engaged in a decade-long bureaucratic process to register the titles to their land; they are legally entitled to the land under Colombian law due to their long residence. In recent years, members of the illegal paramilitaries have tried to take control of the land for drug trafficking or cattle-ranching. Most recently they have threatened to evict the community or make them sign over their land titles, by armed force if necessary. The community is particularly worried about the holiday season; they feel more alone over the Christmas and New Year's holiday when many government and human rights offices will be on vacation, allowing the illegal armed groups to move through their communities with few repercussions.

Michele and our teammate Rachel recently spent two days with the residents of Garzal as they met with Colombian government, United Nations and human rights organizations to develop a plan to fight for their land rights and to ask the government to fulfill their obligation to prevent displacement. As one leader of the community stated, “A farmer without land is like a fish without water.”

Displacement is not a new problem in Colombia or in the world. Displacement has been going on for decades in the area surrounding Barrancabermeja, and a recent report by the government Human Rights Defender's office indicates that displacement in the region has increased by 89% in the last year.

2000 years ago, after Jesus’ birth, instead of returning home, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee to Egypt with their newborn son:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt. (Matthew 2: 13-14)

Joseph, Mary and Jesus knew what it was like to live as displaced people, fleeing violence and leaving behind their family, friends, jobs and possessions in order to start a new life in a strange place that, hopefully, would offer safety. This experience of being displaced by violence is one shared by more than three million Colombians. Our hope is that the families of Garzal can avoid this fate and continue to farm the land they have peacefully lived on for generations.

This Christmas the two of us will experience a glimpse of the rural lifestyle that the families of Garzal are fighting for. In a few days, we will load up our backpacks and travel three hours by boat to Garzal to spend a week with the community. Unfortunately, we won't be able to call or respond to e-mails in the days around Christmas, although we will be in daily cell phone contact with our teammates. However, we are always glad when we get the opportunity to work together, and by the warm reception we've received in the past in Garzal, we are confident that spending Christmas with the families there will be a rich experience.

This Advent season please keep the people of Garzal in your prayers as they attempt to hold on to their homes and livelihood. And, may we all find small ways to build peace in our homes, communities and the world in the coming year.

Love and Peace,

Nils and Michele

P.S. We’ve put some more photos up on our blog – dancing salsa with our teammates, as well as pictures from our vacation to San Gil in November. Check them out at

No comments: