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Anderson writes: "To the fighters of the Che Guevera Front, a temporary end to the hostilities does not necessarily promise peace or a bright future for the Choco region."

A female ELN fighter practices a morning drill in Noanamá, Chocó. (photo: Maximo Anderson/Mongabay)
A female ELN fighter practices a morning drill in Noanamá, Chocó. (photo: Maximo Anderson/Mongabay)

Chocó at Epicenter of Colombia's Social, Environmental Conflicts

By Maximo Anderson, Mongabay

11 January 18

This dispatch is from a National Liberation Army (ELN) fighting front deep within western Colombia’s rainforest.

ne wet November morning deep within Colombia’s western rainforest of Chocó, rebel fighters of the National Liberation Army (ELN) scattered across a muddy football pitch in groups of eight to practice their daily drills. The rebels drilled with sticks instead of guns to avoid getting them jammed with mud, and they wore slacks instead of uniforms.

From a distance, it looked like a game of baseball, but the reality is that the fighters were training because war could be just around the corner – again.

A leading member of the Che Guevara fighting front who goes by the alias “Yerson” sat close by as his comrades finished the morning drill and blamed Colombia’s elite for the ongoing conflict. He wore military fatigues and a beret decorated with a red image of Che Guevara.

“People see us guerrillas as antiquated,” he said. “But capitalism is older and we’ll keep fighting injustice if we have to.”

Yerson was speaking about the insurgency his organization has waged against the Colombian state for five decades, and to the recent, unprecedented, ceasefire that was brokered with the government in October.

(The ceasefire officially ended January 9, but it is still uncertain whether there will be a return to war or a continued show of restraint from the rebels and the armed forces).

In 1964, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, a group of radicalized students and peasants declared war against the government in the mountains of central Colombia. Their goal was to break the stranglehold of the conservative and liberal elite who controlled the political system, redistribute wealth to the poor, and establish a Marxist state. The ELN today fights for much the same reasons, but it has given up its goal of taking over the state.

The ELN’s Che Guevara Front had moved to the village of Noanamá, situated in the San Juan basin of Chocó State, during the relative calm of the ceasefire. The San Juan Basin is named after the main river that runs through the region. Chocó’s geographical placement, nestled between the Andean mountains to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west, makes it one of the wettest and most biodiverse places on earth.

To the fighters of the Che Guevera Front, a temporary end to the hostilities does not necessarily promise peace or a bright future for the Chocó region. Repeated “provocations” by the authorities – such as helicopter over flights – have created an atmosphere of tension and put a strain on peace talks underway in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito.

Chocó State is emblematic of the many problems that still plague Colombia.

Rich in natural resources such as timber, gold and platinum, as well as a vast but increasingly threatened primeval rainforest, Chocó has been the site of a turf war between the ELN and paramilitary groups vying over territory that was left up for grabs when the FARC demobilized. (The paramilitaries are the remnants of covert state-backed militias that were initially created to annihilate the country’s rebels – though the government claims they no longer exist after they were officially disbanded in the mid-2000s).

As a result, the predominantly Afro-Colombian and indigenous population have been caught in the crossfire.

Making matters worse, Colombian authorities have been destroying coca crops – the base ingredient that goes into cocaine – and small gold mining dredges, as part of a push to get rid of illegal industries, which was agreed to in the peace accords.

But this has heightened tensions among locals, who protest that they have been left with nothing. With failing crops, and an uncertain future ahead, residents in the region are distraught

Crop eradication and failing crops

Noanamá is home to 800 or so Afro-Colombian peasants, and surrounded by luscious green jungle. Despite its resplendent landscape, it is impossible to miss the pollution: the town and river are littered with trash, and locals have all but stopped fishing as a result.

Locals used to fish, hunt and log in this region using traditional methods, but the expansion of coca and gold rush had irrevocably changed their lives – transforming their culture, diet, and polluting the environment. Now they grow coca crops for income and a pancoger – a small food crop – for sustenance.

The young leader of the Noanamá community, who goes by the nickname, Indio, explained on a recent interminably hot afternoon how each family grows, on average, roughly two acres of coca.

“Apart from gold mining, that is our only income,” he said. But, he explained, the market price of coca has dropped dramatically in the last year, in part due to a coca boom, that has made it harder to buy basic goods, which have to be imported at a high cost by river transport.

Indio added that on top of that, their pancoger – of rice and maize, for the most part – have been failing from heavy floods, which he personally attributes to the toxic herbicide used to destroy coca crops, and to climate change.

Locals traditionally sowed crops beginning in November, but the wet season now stretches to January.

A senior member of the community known as “Mama Emma,” who has been watching over the weather station in Noanamá since 1973, had a similar assessment. She claimed that the weather had changed in recent years and seasons were more extreme. She added, ruefully: “The government comes once a year to take the weather readings and that’s about it. They haven’t even bothered to repaint the weather station in years.”

Indio said that the police had come to Noanamá in recent months during the ceasefire to destroy crops. Other residents claimed that authorities had also been intimidating farmers, asking if they had “supported the rebels,” either the FARC or ELN, in the past.

They suspected them of doing this in order to blacklist them and then destroy their crops. This could mean anything from paying a compulsory so-called revolutionary tax on their profits to selling fighters bread at a bakery.

Locals were angry at authorities; pointing out that the only government presence in the region during this watershed period had been negative – spending money on over flights and eradication but leaving residents with no basic goods such as health care and recourse to live on. Chocó has the worse health care in Colombia, and 40 per cent of Chocoans live in absolute poverty. There is only one hospital in the capital of Quibdó.

Separately,  Yerson claimed the authorities of using coca eradication as a ruse to violate the ceasefire by flying helicopters over their territory and provoke them into combat.

The ELN is officially the last armed insurgency left on the continent after the larger and more powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), signed an historic peace treaty with the government in November 2016. The treaty ended a 53-year-old civil war that killed over 200,000 people and displaced over seven million more.

It did put an end to the war with the FARC, but many of the elements that allowed the conflict to flourish, such as the booming cocaine market, remain alive, and very much a thorn in the side of the government, which is eager to present Colombia as a transformed nation to the international community.

Unlike the FARC, which derived much of its cash flow from cocaine trafficking, the ELN has avoided becoming heavily involved in the trade. Most of its revenue comes from extortion and ransoms from kidnapping, and it has extracted untold millions from the state-owned Caño-Limon oil pipeline since the 1980s through extortion of oil companies and threats of sabotage.

The ELN’s Western Bloc that operates in Chocó, however, does tax coca growers.

While the ELN claims to have an environmental agenda, its Chocó branch admits that it has had adapt to local realities, which in practice means taxing locals for environmentally damaging activities, such as logging and mining, and enforcing bans on extraction in the headwaters of rivers.

The Colombian government has an ambitious plan to eradicate coca and other illegal industries such as unlicensed gold mining. It has vowed to destroy 250,000 acres of coca crop, half of that through forced eradication and the rest through a voluntarily crop substitution scheme. Last year, the total amount eradicated was a mere 45,000 acres.

But coca production is higher than it has been in 20 years, which has also contributed to widescale deforestation. Since the FARC demobilized, deforestation has jumped 44 percent and a total of 690 square miles of forest has been lost, according to Amazon Watch. One of the unlikely positives of the civil war is that it kept huge swathes of Colombia’s forest intact.

Because of such trends, Noanama’s residents are doubtful the government will deliver on its crop substitution scheme, as similar trials have failed in the past.


Locals also denounced authorities for destroying gold dredges. They believe there is a double standard, claiming that small gold dredges on the San Juan river that fall within ELN territory have been destroyed. They say that larger industrial-scale dredges in territory held by Colombia’s largest neo-paramilitary group, the ACG, have been left untouched.

As if confirming locals’ suspicious, on one recent afternoon 30 miles or so upriver on the San Juan, giant gold dredges could be seen on the river, hurling sand on its banks, and creating small mountains along the riverbank.

A long tin boat pulled out of the mining village with five heavily armed men in fatigues less than 10 minutes away from the main police garrison in the region. They were paramilitary AGC fighters, who like the ELN, wear armbands over their jackets with the initials of their organization.

Historically, gold has brought more harm than fortune to Chocó. Africans were first brought over to the region to mine as slaves under Spanish colonial rule.

Centuries on, it is the poorest part of the country, but one of the most destroyed by mining. Almost half of all the forest cover lost across the country due to mining activities in Chocó and it has the worst mercury pollution in Colombia. A blood and urine test for mercury carried out by the Ministry of Health revealed that residents of the San Juan basin had critical levels in their systems, far above the national average.

But the lucrative trade continues to make it a hotspot for armed groups. It is estimated that 82 percent of Colombia’s gold exports are sourced from armed criminal groups.

Caught in the crossfire

Many homes had been abandoned in Noanamá, and the ELN fighters had used them as temporary biovacs. The town of Noanamá does not feel like a war zone, but just over six months ago the San Juan basin was the site of some of the heaviest fighting in recent times.

As fighting broke out in June between the ELN and ACG, thousands were displaced; village leaders were killed, girls as young as 12 were raped, and 20 percent of the population living in the San Juan basin had to flee their homes, according to a Human Rights Watch investigation.

Conditions were so bad over the last year following the fighting that broke out that Chocoans took to the streets of the provincial capital Quibdó in their thousands demanding security and reform. On Colombia’s Independence Day this year, demonstrators in Quibdó took down the national flag and replaced it with Choco’s regional flag, protesting that living conditions there had barely improved since the Spanish conquest.

According to the only medical professional in the village – a Catholic nun who has been based in Chocó since 1957 – the most common illnesses are malaria, malnutrition and stomach worms, related to contaminated water.

The British Red Cross does have a humanitarian mission in the region and supply medicines to the locals, but when supplies run out the Chocoans rely on traditional plant-based medicines administered by the Colombian nun. People also travel from neighboring villages to be attended by the nun, who regularly sees up to twenty patients a day.

Asked why she used traditional medicine, the nun replied matter-of-factly: “Because we’ve had to, out of need.”

After weeks in the relative calm of Noanamá, fighters from the Che Guevera Front finally packed up their equipment and dismantled their bivouacs, getting ready to leave town. They didn’t disclose their destination – whether it was to another town or back into the jungle.

Originally published on Mongabay. your social media marketing partner

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