By Melanie Martin, parishioner
I experienced the full gamut of emotions during 10 days in Colombia as part of a Witness for Peace Southeast delegation. The purpose of the trip was to see and hear firsthand the effects of the “War on Drugs” and the Free Trade Agreement. We met with public officials, human rights activists and local citizens. On our final day, we met with Amanda Porter, the attaché at the U.S. Embassy, to report what we saw and ask questions.
Colombia is beautiful—a mountainous country lush with greenery. We met with the indigenous Nasa tribe. They grow coca legally for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. They also grind it into flour to make delicious cookies and fritters. There is no stimulant effect—it is the mixing of the paste from the coca leaf with toxic chemicals that turns this harmless and useful plant into the cocaine that shatters lives.
In the small town of El Tambo, we met with farmers, their mayor and other officials. Despite threats, many farmers traveled 8 to 12 hours on foot to meet. They demand basic human rights: health centers, teachers for schools and roads to get their products to market.
The U.S. has funded fumigation of fields to prevent them from growing coca. The fumigation has created a toxic environment for all human, animal and plant life. Food crops die, water becomes contaminated and the people have higher rates of illness.
In Buenaventura, we met with dock workers who were striking to increase their wage of $1.50/ hour. As peaceful observers, we believe our presence helped these talks happen. Buenaventura has a large population of Afro-Colombians, many of whom were forced off their land under the threat of death. Their land is either used by narco-traffickers to grow coca or taken by the government. Many have been killed or “disappear.” Mass graves have been found.
Our last day in Bogota, we met with former General Motors workers who were injured on the job and subsequently fired. They have set up tents across from the front door of the U.S. Embassy.
I saw and heard many sad stories, but I am most impressed by those who continue to struggle, work and fight for their dignity—people with such courage who even under threat of death continue to change Colombia for the better.
By Gail Phares, parishioner and ministry leader of Witness for Peace Southeast
We spent ten days in Colombia assessing the impact of the $6 billion in US funding for the drug war called “Plan Colombia.” The result: Thousands of small farmers have been forced off of their land due to aerial fumigation of their crops. 5 million people have been displaced, many going to cities who are then exploited in unjust working conditions. Yet, the amount of cocaine coming into the US has not decreased.
We returned to the US deeply moved and inspired by the people we met but saddened because all the suffering we heard about and saw. Poverty and unemployment are increasing in Colombia.
On the positive side, we were inspired by the indigenous people, farmers, factory workers and others who are examples of nonviolence and commitment.
Trying to eliminate cocaine at its source has not worked well. Perhaps increased funding for drug treatment here in the United States would be better to reduce the market for drugs.
For background history and recommendations from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Colombian refugees.
For more information on being part of an international delegation with Witness for Peace Southeast:
Phone: (919) 856-9468