Monday, March 14, 2016

Risk in Colombia

Mosquitoes and other dangerous characters

This year's trip added the Zika wrinkle.  In the weeks leading up to my departure, there were lots of articles and TV and radio broadcasts that suggested we were entering a major health crisis.  The biggest concern has been the possible link between Zika and microcephaly in infants.  What perplexed me was that all the medical experts I heard on the radio insisted that the link was hypothetical and that more study was needed to confirm any connection.  In spite of that caveat, my favorite NPR station reported all through January and February that "Zika was linked to microcephaly".  Then there were the travel advisories: use lots of mosquito repellent containing DEET, and sleep under a mosquito net or in a room with mosquito-proof windows or AC.  In my mind I kept picturing a house like the one pictured below.  Windows are irrelevant when your roof doesn't touch the top of the wall, and you need it that way for ventilation. Mosquitoes are going to get into your house.



Travel by pregnant women from the US or Canada to Central or South America was discouraged.  Most bizarrely and impossibly, women from these heavily conservative religious areas from those southern regions were encouraged not to get pregnant even though their churches discourage or forbid birth control and abortion. 



So, now that I've been down here in mosquito central for a couple weeks, I thought I should update you on some interesting Zika data I've found.  First, how many of you knew that this "new" virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and later spread to Asia?  Zika has been around almost 60 years. [1] Then I read that Brazilian Pediatric cardiologist Dr. Sandra Mattos realized that congenital heart disease data she had collected on newborn infants in northeast Brazil included head size, which is a primary symptom of microcephaly.  Looking back she found a significant rise in newborns with smaller head size at least as early as 2012, two years before Zika was introduced to the South American continent.  [2]  Also consider that Lavinia Schüler-Faccini, a geneticist who specializes in birth defects at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil has pointed out that Brazil's reporting of 147 cases of microcephaly for 2014 is unusually low.  She says that given the size of its population, Brazil should have expected to see 300-600 microcephaly cases a year.  It looks as though Brazil had been under-reporting cases of microcephaly until an unusually high rate started to appear in a small northeastern Brazilian province.  This regional surge suggests that although Zika is present, it probably is not a causal link. [3]  Brazil has around 70,000 cases of Zika. The fact that Colombia has reported over 43,000 cases of Zika with 7,000 plus being pregnant women and has yet to confirm a microcephaly case in any birth so far is another obvious sign that perhaps Brazil is looking in the wrong place for it's microcephaly crisis.  



Here is the saddest part, though.  It is ludicrous to have Latin American governments focusing on Zika, when the risk it represents pales in comparison to other women and infants health issues that have been around for years.  This is where I get so frustrated by the idea of risk, how we perceive it, and how we react to it.  For a thorough and extremely well-written article that addresses Zika and women's health see the following Washington Post article

Another question of risk presented itself in our Christian Peacemaker Teams office yesterday in Barrancabermeja.  I had just returned from 5 days in the campo, returning in the morning to help host a delegation of 12 persons from a university in the Netherlands.  CPT delegations are learning tours that start by giving a background of the conflict(s) where we are involved in a particular country.  Colombian delegations end by spending few days visiting one of the communities we are accompanying, hearing their stories first person, staying in their homes, eating their food, etc.  These campo experiences are extremely powerful, in part because one is so far out of the cultural comfort zone. They can be life-changing experiences.



With this particular group there had been a change of plans.  They were to have visited the community of Garzal where I had just visited.  The consensus in the community was that the unknown armed men were trying to find the community leader Salvador Alcantara who happened to be out of the area visiting family.  The organization handling travel arrangements for the Dutch students advised the two professors in charge that it was probably too dangerous to travel to Garzal.  They arranged to come to our office in Barrancabermeja instead and have folks from the campo come into the city, in doing so, deleting the campo experience.

The professors totally understood that they were missing something special.  What they were surprised to hear from me is that their big city travel advisors from Bogota had warped sense of risk.  A tiny town in the countryside where everyone knows everyone else is a much safer place than a city of 300,000 where gangs infiltrate neighborhoods and armed robbery is part of the daily routine.  The armed intruders in Garzal have a specific goal political goal, to get the president of the community killed or relocated by force.  Harming an international delegation would be very bad for their cause.  Yes, Colombia led the world in deaths of human rights activists in 2015 with 54, but the slain were Colombians not Dutch or US citizens.


It is when CPT and others go to the rural areas that are under pressure that violence can diminish for those who are really at risk.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Reclaiming Sacred Space

by Julie Hart

I spent Friday in the village of Cantagallo (Singing Rooster!).  We were accompanying the Colombian Popular Women's Organization, OFP.  They requested CPTs accompaniment for "reclaiming sacred space" in their women's community center following a killing there a few weeks ago.  In response to this type of violence, many villages and organizations in Colombia declare "a zone of peace or humanitarian space" where no weapons are allowed.  The Cantagallo OFP had done this years before, so having a killing there was a significant offense.  The OFP invited community members as well as officials of the Mayor’s office for lunch and a Catholic liturgy to reclaim the sacred space. 

The trip to Cantagallo and back began with a one-hour chalupa boat ride. This is how Colombians travel on the major rivers like our Mississippi.  It's like being in a motorboat mini-bus for 20 people - wonderful scenery, wind in your hair, and sun on your face. 

The two directors of the organization, Yolanda and Gloria, have 24-hour armed bodyguards for protection, but the guards weren’t present as we were reclaiming this sacred no-weapons space. My fellow CPTer, Pierre, and I were their unarmed bodyguards for the day.  Anonymous actors have threatened Yolanda and Gloria’s lives because the OFP speaks out against the ongoing civil war and violence in general. Certain right-wing groups believe that any group that speaks out publicly against the violence is associated with the left-leaning guerrilla groups.


The day began with a meeting at the local mayor’s office.  The OFP, their lawyers, and the Director of the Organization of Victims of the War were there to negotiate the scholarships, jobs and money the Cantagallo OFP will receive through the Mayor’s Office on Victims of the War.   When the negotiation was complete, we walked through the narrow streets of the port town to the humble women’s center with a small kitchen and large covered patio area for the gathering. 

We enjoyed a local soup called sancocho with veggies and chicken legs and waited for community members to gather for the liturgy that would begin at 1pm.  By the time we began singing, the patio was teeming with at least 100 women and children in their purple OFP shirts ready to reclaim the sacred space. 


Many rural women have been impacted in some way by the violence of the 60-year long civil war between rebel guerrilla groups demanding land reform against a combination of government forces and paramilitaries or hired guns.  In the last 30 years the violence, impacting 15% of the population, is primarily from the paramilitary groups involved in the cocaine trade and supporting the interests of multinational corporations desiring to mine and develop the many resources Colombia has to offer.

We enjoyed scripture readings, songs, prayers, and short speeches from local leaders.  The priest’s homily focused on love of enemies - very appropriate for the occasion. The local leaders passed out roses when we arrived and in the end we brought them forward to our simple altar to symbolically reclaim the sacred space.  Passing of the Peace of Christ was especially joyful and we ended in a circle reminding us of our strength together.  These women know how to reclaim sacred space and I was honored to play a part.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Back in Barrancabermeja


Julie and I have been back in Barrancabermeja since early May.  Normally, I'd have had a couple posts up by now, but the team was short on personnel, and I've had three back to back trips out to the campo.  We'll be putting up several reflections in the next few days.  Hope you have time to give them a look.

Just briefly, to remind those of you who aren't up on why we are here, we have been serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams as part-time members for many years now, Julie since 1997 and Phil since 2009.  Check out http://www.ecapcolombia.org/en/ to get an overview of the Colombia team's work.  When I first began doing talks about my experiences, I would cite international human rights numbers for internally displaced refugees in Colombia at over 4 million persons.  A couple years ago it bumped to over 5 million, and this spring reports have the number surpassing 6 million.  This puts Colombia back in second place, behind Syria.  Bet you didn't know that.

The Colombian government has been trying to address the issue, and made some serious legislative moves in 2011 to get these displaced families onto previously abandoned land where they could receive titles.  Polarized congress members cite wildly disparate measures of success in their effort.  In the middle lies the truth of the matter.  Two of the communities that we have been accompanying, have completed all the necessary inspections and paperwork and have received national and international recognition for their efforts.  But even these families continue to be physically threatened by large private interests, and the government, both local and national, appears incapable of addressing it.  The lack of functioning legal infrastructure and abundance of corruption is jaw-dropping to outsiders and heart-wrenching for the victims.

Then you have our own murky US national influence on Colombia.  The following piece was inspired by news that was coming to a head during our first week here.

Campesino lives matter, too

I’ve claimed to be an organic gardener since I originally started planting vegetables in SE Ohio in the early 1970s.  At the same time, I confess to having used Roundup and a few other herbicides to deal with poison ivy and a few other invasive species that were frustrating me.  I apply it as sparingly and specifically as possible, never when windy or wet.

So, last week, here in Colombia when we were sitting in a restaurant watching the mid-day news on the TV I was stunned to see video of US planes flown by US contractors aerial spraying US-supplied glyphosate on suspected coca (plant used to make cocaine).  Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup.  Everything I knew about applying this chemical said aerial spraying had to be a bad idea.

The practice is making the news because in March the World Health Organization’s research arm issued it’s finding that Glyphosate is likely carcinogenic.  Then on May 9 President Santos called for a ban on all aerial coca fumigation.  It has been a controversial program with opponents likening it to Agent Orange use during the Viet Nam War.  Residents in the areas of spraying report the loss of food crops, and various illnesses have been linked to the practice.  The cancer link has moved Colombia’s Health Ministry to support the ban.

AFP/Getty Images

Proponents of this kind of aerial spraying are few.  The US, one of the last countries to support aerial fumigation, says that in the long run the benefits outweigh the risks.  They point to the decline in coca production since 2008.  They also point to GPS units now installed in the planes that allow complaints from farmers to be promptly investigated. 

However the proponents are having a hard time explaining why a 14% increase in spraying in 2014 led to a 21% to 39% surge in land area being planted. And this is where I’d like to point out two things that I have learned working in Colombia with Christian Peacemaker Teams over the past seven years.  First, there is no such thing as a prompt investigation of any incident that involves poor farmers or indigenous people in Colombia.  Specific incidents of violence often see weeks pass before police arrive to investigate.  There is no reason to expect a crop failure to be investigated any more quickly.  But the bigger, more subtle violation of human rights is the US position that essentially says, “Yes, there is a risk of collateral civilian damage in Colombia, but we are saving Americans lives and money by keeping cocaine out of our country.” 

To this I say, campesino lives matter, too.  I cannot imagine the public outcry if the federal government were to begin aerial spraying of Roundup in rural communities to control marijuana planting in the US.  How can we continue to treat citizens of other countries as if their lives do not have the same value as American lives?

Colombia’s justice minister recently asked the United Nations to come up with alternative policies to combat drugs, claiming “we declared a war that hasn’t been won.  Because of this, it will be imperative to on a global level come up with and agree on policies and interventions that allow us to respond to this enormous challenge in a more humane, intelligent and effective way.” 

I totally agree.


Sources:

Colombia Reports - WHO article,  Mar. 23

Colombia Reports – Santos calls for ban, May 10


Guardian (photo source) http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/06/colombia-air-war-drugs-last-flight-looms-health-cost#img-1

The Pulse of Nightlife


Julie in Barrancabermeja, Colombia

 One of my favorite activities here is my evening walk.  Please join me as I step out into the street around 8 PM.  The small grocery owned by the family across the street is still buzzing with local customers.  The parents sit outside greeting customers and helping as needed.

 As I step over the horse droppings and assorted trash, I move to the side of the road to avoid the motorcycles whizzing by - often with families of four squeezed aboard.  Next, I dodge some small nipping dogs running loose in the street.  I greet families and young couples as they pass-by flirting with each other. 

On the right is Dona Lucia’s house, front door open to the street.  I greet her as she visits with two of her neighbors.  A few houses down is a retirement home for about 20 elderly without family caregivers - a rarity in Colombia.  They lounge on the patio in their rocking chairs or watch television on a big screen TV. 

 On the left, I approach the bright red home and grocery of Consuelo and Marcos, the in-laws of one of our long-time Canadian CPT members. Consuelo is my age and joins me in my exercise rounds a few evenings a week.  We chat about our day and local news like the fact that there was an attempted robbery across the street a few days ago. Luckily, the neighborhood alarm system was activated, scaring the armed robbers away.  Neighbors take pride in watching out for each other and want to avoid hiring armed guards, a common sight here.


 Next on the left are two teenage girls sitting on the curb in their best skinny jeans and halter-tops watching the passersby.  On the right, is the local tailor shop. The owners use their substantial front porch to display eight mannequins dressed in beautiful wedding gowns, tuxedos and Quinciñera apparel that 15 year-old girls dream of for celebrating their coming of age parties.

 Soon I am facing the local Catholic Parish of Miracles with their preschool and colorful murals. The large open sanctuary draws about 30 men on Monday evenings for a pep talk by a parish leader.  Outside, they have neatly parked about 20 motorcycles.  Across the street, at a small baby blue cafe, a few couples and families are enjoying a late dinner or ice cream with Latin music spilling into the street.  At this point, I’ve only gone about one-eighth of a mile.

 I take a right at the parish rectory to find folks on benches in the park.  As I pick up my pace, more motorcycles speed by but only a few cars and sometimes a small yellow taxi.  Two Nuns live next to the church but are rarely out in the evening.  When they are, we usually stop to greet them. 


 At the next corner, I ogle the pastries in the large bakery showcase.  Next a sharp right at the busy street ahead and I am soon weaving through dozens of parked motorcycles outside an open soccer bar.  The rowdy young men are cheering on their favorite teams and enjoying some beer.

 Next, on the left I pass a carpentry shop that is open even at night.  I hear the buzz of the circular saw and inhale heavy sawdust in the air.  On the right is a tiny motorcycle repair shop with engine parts strewn around the floor and men discussing the problem.

 At the next corner, there is bright green family grocery and across the street, a small yellow family restaurant still doing brisk business.  I take a right and enter a more residential area with multiple families on their front porches playing cards or watching their kids play in the street.  Some watch me curiously as I am moving faster than alll those simply strolling home or to visit a friend. 

 On the left, I see a large crowd spilling into the street outside a small orange house.  Peering inside the open doors and windows, I witness a birthday party for a young boy.  The cake is about to be cut.  Balloons and crepe paper provide a festive atmosphere. A dozen 5-10 year olds are excitedly awaiting a piece of cake as they sing the Colombian version of happy birthday.

 As I head up the street, I pass a handful of young boys riding bikes while balancing their friends on the handlebars, laughing and fooling around the whole way. Five young men stroll by on my left wearing coordinated soccer uniforms and eagerly discussing their game at the new soccer court with artificial turf where neighborhood teams compete. The older outdoor blacktop court further down the street now attracts younger kids and a women’s Salsa Dance class one night a week.  Although I considered it, I decide to stick with my brisk walking routine.  The temperature is still about 85 degrees and the women look like they are working up more of a sweat than I can handle.


 As I turn the final corner home, I slow down for a handful of young boys and girls playing soccer in the street.  The courageous ones yell, “what is your name?” in accented English. My friend Consuelo kisses me on the cheek and heads off to her house.  After eight sweaty rounds, I head home smiling and invigorated for a much-needed cold shower and a good book.  Life here is both very hard and very full. Thanks for joining me.  Julie