CNY Activists Join Cajibio’s Struggle to Protect Their Land
by Laura MacDonald

While multinationals like Smurfit are seeding monoculture plantations, the women of Cajibio’s small farmers’ movement gather regularly to share intensive, organic farming methods, troubleshoot problems, and support one another. Photo: Laura MacDonald

If you didn’t know any better, bouncing down a rutted Cajibio road in an oft-repaired jeep, you might think you saw a lush Colombian forest in the distance. The hills are green with trees, a stark contrast to the clear-cut ranch and croplands that also form the patchwork of land in our sister community. The sad truth is that the green hill in the distance is only a crude illusion of a forest. Rather than being part of a dynamic ecosystem, the trees are exotic species which suck the water table dry and damage the soil. These tree plantations are among the many holdings of multinational paper giant Smurfit Kappa Group in Colombia, and here they are not called forests at all, but el desierto verde, the green desert.

Smurfit has been disregarding an agreement to stop acquiring land in the Cajibio community, and land available for the local campesinos to purchase has become increasingly expensive and scarce. The Movimiento Campesino de Cajibio (MCC), our partner organization in Cajibio, has made organizing around this issue one of its top priorities.

Last March, on the night of an MCC forum on Smurfit, a group of people entered a company plantation and destroyed thousands of trees.  It is unclear who was responsible, but the MCC is absolutely opposed to property damage on Smurfit’s land. Shortly after the incursion, a leader of the community and a good friend of ours began to receive death threats and was forced to flee. Eventually he returned, believing that the situation had calmed.

Smurfit’s impact on the community was apparent throughout our visit. One night, as we passed through an area dominated by mature pine plantations, one of the community leaders told us of the threats, the incursions. “Things are more peaceful now,” she said, “but we know it is only temporary. They keep buying land and the pressure is mounting. I think things are going to get very intense, maybe very soon.”

That same night, there was another incursion onto Smurfit-owned land which destroyed an additional 4,800 trees. According to sources within the corporation, high-level Smurfit officials had decided that it was time to deal with the unrest in the region. Even worse, there were rumors of Smurfit plantation guards being fired and replaced by paramilitaries and of our friend’s name being mentioned in the context of the incursions.

Our delegation decided that one thing we could offer to MCC, aside from our solidarity and support, was to invite the MCC along on a previously-scheduled meeting with Smurfit representatives in Bogota. MCC representatives would join us, along with Witness for Peace, the Colombian law collective MINGA, and other groups.

In the meeting, our friend stated very clearly that the MCC was not responsible for the incursions. He was assured, not altogether reassuringly, that “there is no document which accuses [him]” and that he was not on the list of people whom the company suspect are responsible.

The discussion moved to the broader relationship between Smurfit and Cajibio. Smurfit’s representatives claimed that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the plantations really weren’t causing environmental damage, and that the MCC should essentially stop being campesinos and accept the wage-economy. The vice-president of the MCC, the only campesino present at the meeting, spoke powerfully of the history of the struggle for land in Cajibio. Land is the most important thing for campesinos, and to suggest they give it up is like suggesting they cease to exist.

A gulf much larger than the table lay between us. On the one side, a way of looking at the world as resources to be exploited and people as either hindrances or potential workers. On the other, people who have known struggle all their lives, who see land and community as the keys to a better world.

In spite of the fact that the participants had such divergent perspectives, the meeting served several important purposes. First and foremost, the meeting demonstrated to Smurfit that the Movimiento, and our friend in particular, is not alone. We hope that this will provide some measure of safety to our sister community members as they continue to struggle peacefully against the ever-spreading green deserts of Smurfit Kappa. Second, the meeting provided an opportunity for members of the community to access high-level Smurfit officials who normally would have refused to meet with them, but who had agreed to meet with us.

This is one example of the increasing solidarity that is developing between our communities. I continue to be grateful for all that our sister community has given us, and am glad to have had at least a small chance to give something back. What we told Smurfit at the meeting is true: We will not be going away. We will be watching, and we will do whatever we can to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Cajibio. 

Laura has been involved in the CNY-Cajibio Sister Partnership from its inception. She is currently studying nursing at Binghamton University.