Ramón Bedoya in the palm oil plantation behind his family’s farm that, over decades, has been subject to seizures by local businesses. (Photo: Thom Pierce / Guardian / Global Witness / UN Environment)
'This is a last hold-out': son of a murdered farmer in Colombia
by Jonathan Watts
The bullet-proof 4x4 is speeding through the countryside of western Colombia with two armed bodyguards, reggaeton is blasting out from the speakers, banana trees flit past the reinforced windows and the protected passenger – a threatened, recently bereaved 18-year-old campesino (poor farmer) – is explaining from bitter personal experience why he thinks Netflix’s Narcos TV series is trash.
“It glorifies killers,” says Ramón Bedoya. “Drug dealers and paramilitaries. These are the type of people who murdered my dad.”
The young man speaks with a maturity far beyond his years, perhaps because he has been forced to grow-up fast in the seven months since his father – a leader of the opposition to palm oil plantations – was assassinated by a gang linked to agribusiness and narco-traffickers.
Hernán Bedoya was shot 15 times on 5 December while he was riding his horse to the vet in Pedeguita y Mancilla, Chocó. It was broad daylight when the two gunmen rode up by motorcycle and carried out the hit, but no witnesses dared to come forward.
The death is among the most prominent in a wave of murders of land rights activists, environmental defenders, human rights campaigners, journalists and lawyers that followed the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and Farc (Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia) rebels.
That deal made headlines around the globe by bringing an end to the world’s longest-running civil war, which killed 220,000 people over half a century.
But in its wake, paramilitary groups have rushed to fill the power vacuum in former Farc-held territory. This pushed up the death toll of land defenders in Colombia last year to 32, making it the third deadliest nation in the world.
In Chocó – the nation’s most murderous region – these gangs provide the muscle for big extractive industries to ride roughshod over land rights and the environment.
Bedoya, who dresses in the typical style of a Colombian teenager in jeans, sneakers and a football shirt, has grown up in the shadow of this struggle. A journey to the family finca (farm) shows why his father was a target and why he now needs bodyguards.
Outside the reinforced car, the path is highly exposed. It flanks a banana plantation, crosses a wooden plank over a muddy ditch, and passes through an area of scrubland before reaching a small fence and a sign declaring “Mi Tierra (My Land) Biodiversity zone for the defence of life and territory. Area of protection, conservation and recuperation of native ecosystems, rights and food.” A panoply of international backers’ logos are emblazoned on the bottom: Christian Aid, Caritas Canada, InspirAction, Mundubat, Agencia Vasca.
“I think the local businessmen hated that because it showed we had outside support,” says the young man.
He and his father cleared half the land for cultivation of subsistence foods – corn, manioc, mango and papaya, but left the remainder as wild forest. They also collected and planted the seeds of rare native plants such as roble, romula leon and coracol (snail tree) – a rich contrast to the monoculture plantations of banana and African palm that surrounded the finca. “This is a last hold-out. Everywhere else has been cleared,” says Ramon. “I want to continue this. My dad raised me to care for nature. We planted these trees together.”
He fears the same people who killed his father will try to kill him. Two bodyguards have been provided under a federal government protection programme, but there are still threats. He and his brother and mother had to evacuate one night after tip-offs of an imminent attack.
The family say Hernan’s grandmother bought the plot in 1992, but they were driven off four years later by paramilitaries. The land was then taken over by the businessman Juan Guillermo Gonzáles Moreno, who owns a palm oil and fruit company called Cultivos Recife. The family returned in 2003, were evicted again in 2008, and returned once more in 2013.
A year before he died, Hernan warned the palm oil companies planned to plant another 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres), which would be impossible unless he and more than a dozen other campesinos were dispossessed.
Ramon believes his father’s death was ordered by a politician, who secures land for businesses with the hired muscle of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
This narco-army has its roots in the Los Pepes death squads that targeted Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel in the early 1990s. The AGC – as it is most widely known – claims to be the country’s largest neo-paramilitary group with 8,000 members. As well as cocaine smuggling, its former commander Vicente Castaño was a proponent of the palm oil business and used his forces to drive campesinos from their land in the late 90s.
The same appears to be happening again, particularly in Chocó. This mountainous and forested western department – which is home to just 1% of Colombia’s population – has seen 57% of the forced displacements since the peace deal as more than 6,000 Afro-Colombians and indigenous people have been driven from their farms.
As extractive industries move in, those that resist become targets. Ten days before killing Hernan, it is alleged the AGC murdered Mario Castaño, who was leading a campaign against the AngloGold Ashanti mining project in nearby Larga Tumaradó, Urabá. The police do little to stop this. Those who are not corrupt are too weak to counter the paramilitaries. The most the federal government does is provide bulletproof vests, mobile phones and – in extreme cases – bodyguards.
Ramon Bedoya is undaunted. He plans to study law, become a rights activist and realise his father’s ambition to restore the forest and build a “great finca” with trees and cows.
The key he says is the support and understanding of the outside world – environmental NGOs, the United Nations and consumers. “People would use less palm oil if they could see the damage it is doing to people’s lives and to the environment. The companies take our land and give nothing back.”
The odds are stacked against the 18-year-old, but he is his father’s son.
“I want to finish what he started,” he says as we return to the car and drive back past the plantations. “We campesinos can win. There are many of us and we are ready to fight for our rights. It’s our land and we are not going to give it up.”