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Colombia: no guns, no drugs, no atrocities, no rape, no murder. Just bananas…

Colombia: no guns, no drugs, no atrocities, no rape, no murder. Just bananas…

Colombia’s farmers can hope again after bloody decades of civil war – but they’re not relying on politicians to help them

Tim Adams
Sun 25 Feb 2018 08.30 GMT
(Reproduced from https://www.theguardian.com)

 

Barrio Obrero, Santa Marta, Colombia. Photograph: Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

Don José Manuel Suarez has seen some things. Father of seven and grandfather of 15, his 80 years have been spent farming a patch of land that has also been a battleground in the longest civil war in modern history. At an outdoor meeting of a co-operative of banana farmers in Ciénaga, near the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia, Don José Manuel sits in one shady corner of a clearing, patiently waiting his turn to speak. The other men and women are his old friends and neighbours. The question I’ve asked them is this: what have been the worst of times, and what the best?

In the hot morning sun, among the creaking plants hung with clenched hands of green bananas, the answers to the first part of that question have come thick and fast.

The farmers have seen regular hurricanes that have flattened their crop (some are just recovering from Maria); they have seen guerrilla fighters use their land and their homes as if they were their own, taking their chickens, sleeping in their beds, cooking with their pots; they have paid escalating protection money – vacuna – to paramilitaries to avoid being kicked out or worse.

These successive waves of disaster and humiliation and threat seem all to have been intended to make the smallholders sell up their patches of land to the big landowners producing palm oil and to move to Bogotá or Medellín and take their chances. Others have gone, but each one of the farmers gathered here has stayed. The one or two hectares that support each of their extended families have been passed from father to son or daughter – some for four or five generations.

Founding member of the Coobafrío banana co-operative, Don José Manuel Suarez, 80, in his house, built in part with the Fairtrade premium. Photograph: Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

As the farmers tell these stories, they occasionally defer to Don José Manuel Suarez and he corroborates them from the history he holds in his head. When it eventually comes to the old man’s turn to answer my question, he leans forward, carefully removes his wide-brimmed hat, and prefaces his comments with a quiet apology. “My wife of 53 years,” he says, “died 19 days ago, so forgive me, I am not myself.” And then he explains how, if he thought hard about my question, the worst day of all was probably when they came for his boots.

This would have been in 1995. For once he’d had a decent payday from his banana crop, his old boots were worn out, so he had bought a new pair up in Santa Marta. The first morning he tried them on, some guerrillas came through – he was rarely sure from which group – and one of them, a woman with an AK-47 across her back, asked him what size his feet were. When he said seven a smile spread across her face. “I’ll have those boots,” she said. Don José Manuel had no option but to hand them over. There have been plenty of traumas in his life – he is still, 22 years on, in debt to a moneylender on a small loan he had taken in 1996 to keep his family together after Hurricane Cesar-Douglas – but the loss of the boots summed up all the rest. Like the other farmers, he had lived nearly his whole life knowing that however hard he worked, whatever he did for his family, on any day anything and everything could be taken from him.

Sitting listening to Don José Manuel’s story in the sun, I’m tempted to think of his life as a sequel. The most famous story ever told about these banana groves came from the Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Márquez, whose fictional Macondo was based on his boyhood town of Aracataca, a few miles from where we sit. The autobiographical engine of Márquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was the transformation brought to this region by the arrival of the United Fruit Company and its banana boats bound for America and Europe at the turn of the 20th century. The company used slave labour working at night to force a railway through the jungle to get the bananas to port. In Aracataca they built colonial-style houses around cool courtyards shaded with fig trees, in one of which Márquez was born (and which you can now visit).

The 100 years of Márquez’s novel ended abruptly with a tragedy that still seems to scar the humid air here, and which made him a novelist. In Living to Tell the Tale, the memoir he wrote late in life, he recalled how the seed of all his fiction was planted in a trip he took aged 23 up through this valley, along the Río Frío, the cold river, with his mother, to sell the old house. On arriving at the half-abandoned station of Ciénaga, with its peeling paint, his mother pointed: “Look,” she said. “That’s where the world ended.” Márquez followed her pointing finger and saw an arid little square. It was there that in 1928 the Colombian army had killed an untold number of banana workers; it was Colombia’s Easter Rising, a bloody reference point for much of the conflict that followed.

The banana workers of Ciénaga had gone on strike against the unrelenting harshness of their working conditions. They had been called into the square by the United Fruit Company to negotiate an end to their dispute. Once they were packed in, a government soldier read a decree in which the striking workers were declared lawbreakers. They were given five minutes to leave the square and return to work. When they did not move, soldiers opened fire on the crowd, full of women and children, from rooftops. “The clattering machine guns spitting in white-hot bursts,” Márquez wrote, “the crowd trapped by panic as it was cut down, little by little, by the methodical, insatiable scissors of the shrapnel.”

If the world ended for the novelist’s family that day – the United Fruit Company handed the railway back to government and it began to fall into disrepair, the plantation houses of Aracataca were abandoned – it was only chapter one for those who stayed.

The massacre in the square set in motion a 90-year war, and the banana groves throughout northern Colombia were subsequently on the never-ending frontline.

Workers stack bananas for shipping at Santa Marta port. Photograph: Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

The war began between the big plantation owners and government, who refused unionised labour, and revolutionary groups who eventually took to the jungle to resist them. By the late 1960s that conflict was becoming a way of life. It was fuelled over the next three decades by the great wash of money and corruption from the cocaine trade and it took on a kind of hallucinatory violence. Official figures put the death toll at 220,000 though it is probably higher; 7 million people were “internally displaced”, mostly from rural communities. The long road toward peace culminated last year in a tentative accord between the Colombian government and the Farc, the most powerful and ruthless of several guerrilla groups, that once controlled a third of the country – an agreement that won President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel peace prize. The peace will be tested by parliamentary elections on 11 March and presidential elections in May.

Sitting in the sun of Ciénaga, the banana farmers express not much faith in the accord. They trust the intentions neither of the thousands of Farc rebels, many now housed in closely guarded “rehabilitation camps” around the country, awaiting acceptance and state help to reintegrate, nor the government which has rarely, if ever, seemed on their side. They put their faith instead in the things they can try to control and to build.

That faith starts to answer the second part of my question that morning: what have been the best of times? Without hesitation each of the farmers dates a slow upward shift in fortunes to a decision made a little over a decade ago, when they first made their instinctive comradeship a reality and banded together to become a certified Fairtrade co-operative, Coobafrío, selling mostly into British markets, their bananas bound for Santa Marta, then for Portsmouth. The certification, once achieved, guaranteed them for the first time a local minimum price for their crop – no longer were they at the mercy of shifting global markets and currency collapses; it also gave them a dollar-a-box premium to spend on priorities determined democratically.

The farmers, led by Don José Manuel, list the things that have changed for them in the decade since then: the fact that they can now withstand hurricanes, because the co-operative has built an insurance fund that supports the farmers affected; the fact that they can afford to invest in their soil management (they receive rigorous training – 31 days a year – in best practice from Fairtrade-sponsored specialists) – Banafrucoop, a nearby Fairtrade co-operative delivered the highest per hectare yield in the world last year. But above all they point to the fact that they have learned solidarity, where once they thought they were on their own.

Their collective ambition has evolved. At first the plan was to put half of the thousands of dollars Fairtrade premium they received into increasing productivity. It was only after yields started to improve that they voted to create a minimum standard of living for each member of the co-operative. Most of the farmers had wooden shacks, in which they lived and slept. It was collectively decided each of the 46 farmers in the group should have at least a kitchen and a toilet and a living room. Two years ago, they achieved that aim.

Kelly Castanera proudly shows me around her house near where we have been sitting; the kitchen with cooker and running water; the sitting room with its ornate rocking chair. That room has other benefits: it means that she can entertain. The 11 women farmers within the co-operative have formed their own collective to make sure they are heard, and they meet weekly in each other’s new living rooms to discuss priorities. Some of the premium is now being used to send the brightest students at the local school to university. The first two girls on this programme tell me bright-eyed about their plans to come back here and teach, creating a little virtuous circle of investment.

After lifetimes of insecurity it is hard to convey how much this evidence of security, of planning, means to the group. You might say the farmers have had their fill of unpredictable magical realism; they far prefer predictable reality.

In the previous days travelling among the banana workers of the provinces of Magdalena and Urabá Antioquia, on roads that until a year or two ago were notorious for what locals call “miraculous fishing” – the disappearance and kidnapping of travellers – I’d seen other examples of how in this post-conflict world, small acts of certainty make all the difference. In recent years, there has in some quarters been a degree of scepticism about the value of interventions such as Fairtrade; supermarkets – even long-term supporters like Sainsbury’s – have looked at their squeezed margins and floated the idea of their own diluted “fairly traded” brand (an initiative widely condemned by producers last year). If anyone ever wants to tell you that the benefits of Fairtrade are intangible, though, or hard to measure, suggest to them that they visit the shanty community of banana workers at Barrio Obrero not far from where the Ciénaga massacre occurred.

A family in their home at the Banafrucoop near Santa Marta. Photograph: Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

An open sewer runs through the settlement. On one side of it, sitting in a hammock with his baby daughter, I talk to Alexander, who lives with four other families in a four-room house made of old planks with dirt floors. His work at unaccredited banana farms comes and goes. He looks out at the other side of the sewer where there is a development of whitewashed brick-built homes that would not look out of place in London. They also house banana workers, but this time from a Fairtrade farm, one that has chosen to spend its premium on building homes for its employees and backing a lending scheme to help them eventually own them.

Or suggest they visit one of the schools built with Fairtrade in Urabá. For the banana workers’ kids at Funtragusta collective in El Tigre, school was for years a roving thing, taking place under various trees, depending on the whereabouts of guerrillas and paramilitaries; now children sit in a sunlit classroom listening to a teacher at a whiteboard.

At that school I met Zunilda Moreno and Lisbeth Audrey, who have more reason than most to understand the meaning of this change. We sit on infant school chairs and they tell me about the before and after of their lives. Moreno was 15 in 1994 when the guerrillas came down from the mountains to the large banana farm on which her father worked. She hid under the bed with her siblings all night. In the morning when the banana workers started arriving the guerrillas selected men off the bus, tied some up, killed others. When they came for her father Moreno could not stop herself running outside to try to protect him. She was attacked and raped in front of her father, a memory that 24 years on reduces her to sudden, heaving sobs. She became pregnant, subsequently giving birth to a son. She also now has two other children. Determinedly collecting herself, she reflects on how she has built hope out of that despair. She has studied hard and, having benefited from a limited amount of therapy is being sponsored by her Fairtrade co-operative to do a degree in child psychology.

Lisbeth Audrey’s mother worked at a banana farm canteen. Word went around that she had been overly friendly to one guerrilla . As a result a mob “cut out her tongue and cut her body into pieces and left the pieces in the corner of the room”. Audrey, now 41, recounts this horror as matter of factly as she can. She talks of how she is being sponsored to train as a social worker, to help others through what they have witnessed. “Not everyone here has my story,” she says, “but everyone has a story.”

In some ways, like any country emerging from a long conflict, the whole of Colombia can seem in need of social work, though it remains in short supply. One result of a war as long and brutal as this one is that it breeds a generation of politicians who are as at home discussing new hospitals as old bombing campaigns. The mayor of Apartadó, Eliécer Arteaga Vargas, sits in his office and recounts some of his youthful involvement in the EPL guerrilla group and the struggle for political change. Despite last year’s accord “the culture is still more about violence than peace”, he suggests. In January, his town hall was burned to the ground in riots; he suspects the arson was funded by drug cartels intent on “destabilising the youth”.

Zunilda Moreno, a psychology student, speaks at El Tigre school. Photograph: Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

Across town in a curious office-cum-parliament building above a row of shops the former comandante of the EPL guerrillas, Teodoro Manuel Díaz Lobo, a charismatic man in a pork-pie hat, is now secretary-general of the Apartadó region. Ask him about regrets and he talks in terms of long ago actions ordered against police stations and government forces; this history is weighed against his own efforts to negotiate peace in the 1990s – at risk to his own life from comrades who had no wish to lay down their arms. When he talks about the prospect of a lasting peace he does so in terms of a return from old nightmares to “real life”.

For many that reality still seems an unlikely prospect. The worst of the cocaine war killing may have migrated to Mexico, but the infrastructure of what the politicians here call “micro-trafficking” remains a huge temptation for young men bred on violence and with no prospect of employment. The weapons the banana collectives have in that war don’t always seem adequate, but they also seem worth clinging to. The farmers talk in terms of using their Fairtrade premium to pay for education scholarships, and create stable employment for young men; or to build football pitches or sponsor dance troupes and music groups to keep children off the streets.

The optimism of that commitment holds a tentative place here, one that you want to believe in. After the co-operative meeting in the sun, I head back with Don José Manuel Suarez to his house and, sitting on his verandah ask him if he ever stops to imagine the fruit bowls in Britain where all those bananas he has grown and cut and packaged over the years end up. He smiles. When people used to say “the European market”, he says, it didn’t have any meaning for him. Now, though, in the brick-built house that stands on the site of the wooden shack he and his wife and children once lived in, in the place where 20 years ago he lost the boots he stood up in, he now has a television set. So he now knows just what Europe looks like.

Does he ever get sick of the sight of bananas, I wonder, before I leave?

Not at all, he says. He eats green bananas every day, one with breakfast, one with lunch. It is, he suggests, the thing that really keeps him going.

Fairtrade Fortnight runs from 26 Feb-11 March; fairtrade.org.uk