There are many who have given up on Colombia. They have washed their hands of her. When people ask, “Why Colombia?” it is in light of a global panorama of the nation depicting only violence and destruction. Give Us Names sees something different. We have taken a step closer and have seen the other side. After spending time in Colombia, living and working with the people, growing to understand the pains and passions of a nation, we have fallen for Colombia. When we think of her, we see faces. We see homes. We see human dreams and struggles, much like our own. We see stories left untold and we believe that in telling these stories, people will come to know the Colombia that we love.
Understanding someone means knowing their story, where they have come from and who they have become. If we are to know Colombia, we must first understand the primary events and figures that have shaped her. The story of Colombia is relatable, regardless of nationality or personal history, because it is universal. It is a story of beauty and desolation, power and powerlessness, darkness and light. A study in contrasts, Colombia is a nation striving to balance more potential than she knows what to do with. This has, sadly, fostered within Colombia a penchant for self-mutilation.
The history of Colombia’s struggles can be traced back many, many years. For our purposes, we begin in 1948, with an assassination. The murder of presidential candidate Jorge Gaitan set off an implosion of brutal Colombian conflict lasting ten years, known as La Violencia. Providing a date for the end of this conflict is misleading in that the end of a war typically means a time of peace will follow. Colombia, would not be so lucky.
Riding on the coattails of this brutal period, a group of Marxist guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, banded together, propping themselves up as the “Robin Hood” figures of their nation, fighting for the poor and oppressed. This meant war on the wealthy elite of Colombia. These wealthy landowners were not ready to lay down and accept the destruction of their lives and work. So they picked up their hatchets as well, pushing back with the same brute military force in the form of privatized paramilitaries. Colombia became increasingly polarized, as all were forced to take sides or risk the loss of everything.
This sort of wide-spread militant activity is expensive to maintain and both sides of the conflict began looking for alternative methods of funding their forces. Cue the Colombian cocaine boom. It was during the ‘70’s and ’80’s that the Colombia drug cartels suddenly rose to power. Countries throughout the world began consuming cocaine in staggering amounts, the United States being one of the primary consumers. As a result, cultivation of illegal coca crops and the manufacturing of cocaine boomed in Colombia. The militant activity of these cartels only added to the severity of Colombia’s violent conflict, dragging the nation into an even greater state of self-destruction.
As the 1990’s rolled in, the drug cartels fell apart but the drugs remained. The FARC and right-wing paramilitaries saw this as their new source of funding, capitalizing on the disappearance of the drug lords. Not only did these groups now control the production of cocaine in Colombia, they were often paid by various multinationals to kill and displace communities occupying fertile land. This two-fold payday triggered such an extreme surge in the power of these militant groups, that the United States became increasingly anxious. The U.S. government began to search for ways they might check the power of these groups to protect American interests and entanglements in Colombia as well as neighboring nations.
This is where aerial fumigations entered the picture. In 2000, the United States government introduced a military-aid package called Plan Colombia. The purpose of this aid was to combat the increasing number of narcotics being trafficked into the United States. Plan Colombia would strike at the heart of the drug problem by getting rid of the source, coca being grown in Colombia. Pilots, funded by the U.S., would fly over coca fields and spray a dangerous Glyphosate-based herbicide on the source, killing the plants used to produce cocaine. In theory, this would contribute to the end of the Colombian cocaine trade.
In practice, it has contributed to displacing thousands of innocent farmers from their land. This is because the planes spraying these chemicals are only capable of spraying a large area of farmland, not just one farm. In areas where coca is produced, these illegal farms are most often interspersed among farmers who are growing their own, legal crops. Because winds are hard to predict and planes fly much higher than they should when spraying a field, accuracy winds up being an imprecise science, and neighboring farms are often sprayed. This is just seen as collateral damage. The unfortunate reality that results is that any crop is killed, any farmer loses his livelihood, whether he was growing coca or something perfectly legal. Even worse, coca plants, if harvested quickly when sprayed, can still be gathered and manufactured into cocaine. The illegal growers can still make a profit, while innocent farmers lose everything.
If this plan were the solution, we would not be writing this blog. As of today, U.S. taxpayers have spent $8 billion dollars on a policy that, we believe, has only contributed to greater destruction within a nation. Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced people (IDP’s) in the world. As we have come to know Colombia and her people, it became apparent that we cannot ignore the fact that our nation, the United States, is contributing to this violation of human rights through our participation in aerial fumigations.
The Colombian people understand the meaning of resilience. These are people who have passed through countless injustices and still dare to hope. Try to imagine how your life might appear after living through the story we have just shared. Would you dare to farm? Would you dare marry and bring children into this world? Would you still hope?
Living in Colombia, a nation widely disregarded as a hopeless mess, there remain individuals working for the restoration of their land, their families and their nation. Colombia is home and they know its potential. Who are we to steal these dreams, fumigating their carefully cultivated hopes? This is why we must tell the stories of Colombia. It is this spirit of resiliency that we know and love. We hope that in hearing the struggles of the place we love, you will join with us in fighting for its victories.
We seek to tell stories to restore home. Our stories have become inexplicably intertwined with the stories of those in Colombia who, for various reasons, are unable to tell their own. We believe that in telling these stories, shedding light on the injustices enacted in the lives of these individuals, we can join together to help provide restoration. Over the course of the summer, we will be telling our story and their story, since they are truly inseparable. We hope you jump in and join with us in telling this grand narrative. Be an adventurer, dreamer, explorer, and imagineer. Celebrate life, fight with us for restoration. Be a storyteller.