From my side of the dam

your relation to the dam is relative, let's meet on the bridge

Open Letter to Mr. Stephen Harper

Dear Stephen Harper,

My name is Hannah Redekop, a 24-year-old Canadian citizen, living and working in Colombia with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), as an international observer for human rights, striving for justice and peace in a country torn by a 50-year civil war.

I want to tell you about Las Pavas, a farming community in rural Colombia.  I want to tell you about their displacement over the past 10 years and the human rights abuses that continue to happen to this day at the mercy of Aportes San Isidro, a palm oil company.  I want to tell you this because Canada has recently become Free Trade partners with Colombia, and while Canada imports millions of palm oil products (palm oil is found in a large percentage of every day products) we are perpetuating these abuses against humanity.

I want to tell you about Don Efraín and his son Tito, two hard-working farmers who are struggling to survive on their land because the palm company’s security agency has stolen their fences, knocked down their house, threatened their lives and even shot at them while they carry out daily tasks on the farm and attempt to survive, living under a couple of sticks with a garbage bag roof and a pot hung over coals, with supper that consists of a boiled yucca or banana.

I want to tell you about Rubiela, a 37-year-old mother of five, who lives daily under threats from the company against her and her family’s lives as well as threats of rape towards her three girls, aged fourteen, thirteen, and nine.  Rubiela sends her husband off to work the farm with a boiled banana and a fried egg, nothing of real substance for a man who works 14-hour days under equatorial sun.  Despite his hard work, Wladymir’s fields of yucca crops have been poisoned and uprooted; his unripe bananas chopped down and left to rot.  Rubiela would go help him in the fields but fears leaving the house unattended in the shadow of the palm company’s pattern of destruction.

I want to tell you that I was there when the community, preparing to put a thatch roof on the new ranch house, arrived to find the piles of palm branches burned in gasoline.  I was there when they cut down new branches and as they drove the load onto their land the security men came out each armed with pistols and they shot out the tire of the tractor with a shotgun.

I want to tell you about how the police showed up an hour later but ruled in favour of the palm company, despite evidence and proof that the company is acting illegally.

I want to tell you all this but I think I would be wasting my time.

Because before you care about Colombians, you have to care about Canada.  But apparently Canada isn’t all that important to you either, Mr. Harper.

If you cared about Canada, we wouldn’t be worried about the environmental damage of the tar sands or the fact that you have shut down many institutions that cared for and protected our fresh water bodies.

If you cared about Canada you wouldn’t have preferred to welcome pandas to the Toronto Zoo instead of welcoming the Nishiyuu youth who had walked 1600 km to Ottawa to bring attention to the indigenous issues you refuse to recognize.

If you cared about Canada, you wouldn’t be muzzling scientists, librarians, or artists, or censoring alternative media and trying to control the CBC.

What is it you want, not-so-honourable Mr. Stephen Harper?

If it’s money, just take it and leave.  There’s already a scandal out that $3.1 billion is missing from your “Harper Government” regime.  We’re Canadians, we’ll forgive you if you take a little bit more.  But just go.

Canada needs a leader who cares about her people and also about the people who are affected by Canada’s actions.  Colombia needs international leaders who care about the impunity granted to large business owners at the expense of subsistence farmers.  I need a leader who cares.  So please leave.

Kindly,

Hannah Redekop, Rubiela, Don Efrain, Tito, and the other Las Pavas community members.

Tito's rancho destroyed by the palm company

Tito’s rancho destroyed by the palm company

Tito on his farm

Tito on his farm

Don Efrain on his land

Don Efrain on his land

Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Mangos

Mother Earth has a lot to teach us.  It rather baffles me – and I am guilty as any other – how we have seemed to taken ownership of the land we walk on, drink from, breathe in, and consume of.  There’s a terrible disconnect between humans and their provider; strange as it is since it’s quite obvious that we cease to exist without her, but yet we continue to consume with flippancy.  How did that happen?

Anyway, on my way to the norteastern region of the province of Antioquia, bumping along through the bush in the back of a truck, the Pachamama taught me something.  As we ventured on into the Colombian countryside, we passed many a mango tree, their branches so heavy-laden with golden treasure that they could not hold the weight of it all and mangos were strewn along the side of the road, some flattened by vehicles gone by, others conquered by hoards of ants, still others pecked at by birds.

And still there were enough for us.  We barely let the truck stop before five of us, plastic bags in hand, waded through the abundance of fruit to collect until we could not carry one more.

Back on the road we passed more and more trees, stopping again at one shading the front yard of a village school.  Tiptoeing to avoid stepping in mango puddles, I found the juiciest, sweetest mangos yet, and since my bag was full, there was nothing to do but eat until I could eat no more.  But of course, the teacher came out with a bag of mangos for us, collected earlier that morning but unable to be consumed for the sheer quantity of fruit available.

Now bestowed with more mangos than we know what to do with, we continue our trip further into the bush and onto a canoe to finally arrive at the riverside hometown of one of our partners and our destination for a three day retreat.

The mangos become a doorstop to the main house, a regal pile, and everyone who comes in and out of the house stooped to enjoy a mango, or two.  Over the course of the three days, the front yard became a garden of mango peels and pits, mixed with laughter, conversation, and sticky fingers.

And I began to value the situation.  Coming from a place where a mango costs a pretty penny, it’s really something to see such abundance, to the point where our truck tires had mango mud stuck in the tread, and to see it freely shared.  I was warned that this doesn’t happen every day, and that I’m rather lucky to have arrived in the peak of mango season which ends within a month or two.

Then it hit me.  Why would nature allow for so many mangos to grow, all at the same time, once a year?  Why would Mother Earth create it so that there is such abundance, so much so that it rots along the side of the road?  Especially when people are starving.  And most importantly, why don’t they ship well, so that we Northerners can enjoy fresh mangos all year round and forget about food being “seasonal”?

It’s not a fluke.  It’s not just because that’s the way it is.  Mangos – like so many other fresh foods – exist, and only for a short period of time, because they’re meant to be shared.  Our life-giver designed it that way, but in our disconnectedness we can’t even make out the simplest of messages: share.

Thanks mangos.

English: Green mangos growing on a tree near T...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Get out of your car

Coming home from Las Pavas on the chalupa

Coming home from Las Pavas on the chalupa

I have found that cars shut out life.  You know, those machines on four wheels that seal off the world while you suffocate in artificial air and nearly forget about the places that are whizzing by unbeknownst, only focused on your destination and more often then not, how quickly you can get there?  Yeah those.

In my early retirement, I get the utmost privilege to spend time with campesinos, Colombian men, women, and children living and working on the often highly-contested farmland of this stunningly diverse land mass.  This means extensive travel into the rural areas of the Magdalena Medio, a lush and thriving valley scored down the centre by one of Colombia’s largest rivers, the Río Magdalena that flows north into the Carribbean Sea.  Roads do not always extend to the far reaches of the monte, the bush, so we are frequently traveling by boat, motorcycle, or horseback.  And it has been clear that life is better that way.

On the back of a motorcycle I can see the paint drip off the kaleidoscope of colours ornately canvassed on the feathered tips of the flitting creatures that crisscross our trail towards the farm.  The air is pungent with fruit from the gods: the sweet syrup that oozes from a too-ripe mango or the delectable waft of a mafufo, which I can only attempt to describe as banana cream pie trapped in a peel, freshly plucked from the bunch, making me believe I have made it to another world.  But as we turn a corner, the wild grasses edge closer whipping my bare knees and the gravel beneath me blurs at too many kilometers per hour, reminding me that I’m all too human.

Traveling by canoe does not provide as much adrenaline but offers a unique tranquility.  Ahead of the bow a glassy reflection duplicates the serenity of the early morning river bank, untouched until the ripples turn the trees into wobbly, other-worldly beings that wrap their arms around our vessel and give much appreciated shade as the sun beats relentlessly.  Ten herons and storks of differing families stand stoic as we strangers invade their territory and I watch as their muscles tense in preparation while the foliage behind them shivers and takes flight.

Horseback allows for a sense of community, because at our pace we have time to greet every family we pass by, swinging on their front porch in a handcrafted hammock or preparing the fields for the next crop of rice.  Every farm has a name, La Laguna (The Lake), Buenos Aires (Good Winds), or La Fortuna (Fortune), the wooden signs bearing proud along the path, artfully crafted by the farmers themselves who came to enrich our journey with gifts of coconut, mango, papaya, and cacao.  The banana trees stooped to provide canopy while our beasts meandered and we chatted about life.

There’s a moral to this vignette.  Get out of your car.  Life is better.

Why can’t we all be good?

I have a problem; I tend to only see the good in people. I believe that people want to and strive to be good. Now you might not see that as a problem and no, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that I put a lot of trust and faith in a person to act for the good of others (especially when they are in uniform, but that might be a larger societal issue). Thus, when a person does not use the power given to them to act justly, I get confused. And frustrated. And irritated. And angry.

This week I had to deal with the police. So, quick summary, Colombian police are corrupt. Done. Okay. Well, wait. No. Not okay. Trigger Hannah’s ‘people are inherently good’ problem. Exception #1: Not when it comes to money. Or stupidity, but let’s stick with money.

I know little about law enforcement, and even less about the Colombian National Police, but my basic understanding is that when a crime is committed the offender is to reconcile their offense, and in today’s world that usually involves a punishment such as prison. Simple right? Great.

On Wednesday I witnessed a crime. Members of the community of Las Pavas were bringing palm branches to their farm so that they could build a communal ranch to protect themselves from the elements while they work. Noteworthy is the fact that they were bringing newly cut palm branches because upon arriving to where they had previously cut palm they found the piles in ashes, evidence of another crime. Also of importance is that the tractor loaded with palm had to enter by a secondary route since the palm oil company, Aportes San Isidro, is currently controlling traffic along the public road which services the main entrance to the farm, another illegal act.

So when the community entered the vicinity of the farm, about five armed security guards approached the tractor on horseback and by foot, shooting out the tire with a shotgun.

An hour later the police arrive. Three officers come to take a look at the tractor. I asked them for their names, and one introduced himself as Jairo Hernandez while I caught the last part of his name – rrera – on his uniform before he pulled his shoulder strap to cover it up. When I asked to see his name badge he refused to show me. When they wondered why I needed their names I told them that I wanted to keep them accountable so that the person who committed the crime would also be held accountable. I mentioned that although I have a limited understanding of the law I assume that if we can agree that there has been a crime committed, which we did agree upon, the police do not rest until that person is caught. And while these officers stood studying the bullet hole in the tractor tire, the man we all saw shoot out the tire was wandering around his house 100m away. Well, they informed me that they have no authority to act and are waiting to hear orders from their superior. Awesome.

After a couple hours, and at least 20 officers perched on the gate smoking cigarettes and sharing youtube videos on their phones, a decision has been made that the tractor will not be used to transport building materials to the farm until the inspector can come the following day to sort out the problem. So the community is left with their hands tied while the company continues to control the main road and carry on with their palm harvest. I noted to the officers that despite a crime having been committed today by the palm company, it is apparent that all that has been done is punish the victims by further restricting their movement. They had no comment.

On Thursday morning the inspector arrived, and after carrying out his impartial duties of speaking with both parties he declared that the man had shot the tire of the tractor out of self-defense for fear of his co-worker being run over, and that the tractor may be used only up until the fence until further decisions could be made about the land dispute. The inspector did not view any of the pictures and videos, which clearly show that all men are armed and one jumped in front of the tractor running along with it until the other fired his shotgun into the tire.

The sergeant of the region had also arrived on Thursday and after bragging about his extensive involvement with the situation in Las Pavas and how well he is dealing with it he decided to try to woo me with pictures of his dog and stories of his own farm where he fishes and where I am always welcome to come visit. When I refused to make nice and pressured him on the officer from the previous day who refused me his name, an officer who is apparently under his jurisdiction, he offered no response.

By Thursday afternoon the inspector had left and the officers were still perched on the fence killing time. All security guards were free to carry on with their daily tasks of controlling the main road and threatening the community members with rape and death.

In all of our conversations with the legal authority when we questioned their integrity or drew light on the impunity that they afford the palm company, they cowered away with no answer. The injustice here is so obvious and their reaction to our questions shows that they are well aware. But they refuse to make it right. Sometimes, for reasons of money, pride, or a need to protect and feed your family, the good doesn’t win out.

Meanwhile, I’m going to have to be more skeptical about the intentions of people; I cannot blindly trust that people will see the black and white injustices that I see. But at the same time I refuse to believe that we do not have a conscience. People are good. And even if we make mistakes, there is a way to be good again.

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Shots Fired in Las Pavas

I just got home from Las Pavas and our team has already put out a release: Shots Fired in Las Pavas. Please read and consider adding your voice to those of ours striving for justice amidst corruption and impunity.  There is also a delegation headed to Las Pavas at the end of May for those of you interested in hands-on non-violent resistance.

“But you are not alone in this
And you are not alone in this
As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand
Hold your hand”

– Mumford and Sons

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Retirement at 24

I remember in elementary school when our teachers would say – whether they were trying to encourage excitement about going to highschool or ebb away our fears I do not know – “just you wait, everything’s better in highschool because you get to choose the courses you take!”  Finally, I won’t have to sit through another art class trying desperately to turn my stick figure into 3D, or suffer through another sewing lesson in Home Economics.  The bells of freedom of choice and the right to chew gum in class rang loudly as I anticipated this novelty that was sure to make going to school essentially painless.

Highschool came and went and it didn’t take long to realize that those promises were quite empty as my newfound freedom did not find me skipping to class whistling a tune for love of what I was supposedly choosing to study.  Barely before my elementary teachers’ words left the echos of my eardrums, the highschool administrators were already repeating the same mantra, only this time for post-secondary education.  We were accosted daily by one university or another, welcomed by a toothy-grinned guidance counselor assuring us that university will be the best thing that has ever happened to us, only because this time, for real, you get to study  what you really want to, and in depth.  Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but it ain’t all that.  University – for me – included a lot of hair loss (natural and otherwise..), weight gain, loneliness, stress, confusion, and on top of that, obligatory courses that I didn’t want to take.  So. Strike two.

Then, the other day I heard someone comment on retirement, where one becomes so busy because one can finally do what they really want to do, and not what they’re paid to do.  That’s promising.

So, moral of the story: we’re destined to always be unhappy with what we’re doing, only to hope that the next stage in life will bring real meaning to us?

That doesn’t seem like a nice place to be.  At least you’re hopeful, I guess.  I for one, after living through the tragic let downs of school, do not plan on waiting around for retirement to get on with living a life doing what I really want to do (even if they don’t pay me!).  What about you?

Blessed are the peacemakers…

Allow me to introduce you to some people:

My host in Bogota and a fellow CPT reservist, Alix Lozano, took me under her wing as if I were her daughter, helping me navigate the city of 8 million and the Colombian context in general.  Bless her.

Another CPTer, Jenny Rodriguez, kindly spent her precious time with me (she works and studies full time) to shepherd me from office to office, meeting with CPT partners and giving me an introduction to life on team in Colombia.  Bless her.

On April 9th I marched with over 1 million people for peace.  I marched with grandmothers and granddaughters, blacks, whites, and mestizos, heterosexuals and homosexuals, farmers and businessmen, Colombians and foreigners.  CPT accompanied over 400 people on a 24 hour bus ride from the province of Antioquia to Bogota in order to march for peace.  There was an energy for change.  Bless them.

Two campesino leaders from Las Pavas stayed at the CPT house the past two nights, meeting with a round table of organizations accompanying them in their fight for their land and sharing with me their stories of struggle.  We also shared breakfast, laughs, and hugs. Bless them.

One of my afternoons was spent at a meeting with the OFP (Popular Women’s Organization), where I met many women leaders, some who have had their lives threatened and have had to send their sons abroad for safety.  These women have no fear and refuse to give up.  Bless them.

Caldwell, Stuart, and Pierre, my cohorts in this wild thing we call advocacy and accompaniment for peace and social justice.  They work tirelessly to build relationships and raise awareness of the injustices that occur daily to the people of Colombia.  Bless them.

These are a few of the peacemakers I have met in the past couple of days.  May they be blessed as they strive to find creative ways to confront the atrocities they face and may they find strength in the Creator who has called them to this work.  May they be blessed.