*This profle is the first in our grassroots newsmakers series. The series puts a spotlight on people who work within their communities to take up causes such as land rights, reproductive health, environmental protection and labour rights, often at huge risk to their own personal safety, in countries where human rights are threatened. Stay tuned for more next week via #grassrootsnewsmakers
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - She has survived five attempts to kill her, received countless death threats, been forced from her home several times and is a widow of two murdered husbands, but nothing has stopped Carmen Palencia from campaigning for the past 30 years for victims of Colombia’s conflict to get their land back.
Under the gaze of four bodyguards and an armoured car provided by the government, Palencia helps local communities and farmers displaced by violence to return to their homes and get back their land, stolen by illegal armed groups during nearly half a century of fighting.
“I fear for my life and for the lives of my daughters, but I’ve made the decision to fight head on and to confront my fear,” Palencia told Thomson Reuters Foundation in her office in north Bogota.
Land grabbing lies at the heart of Colombia’s conflict. Leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers have all snatched swathes of land to gain territory and control strategic corridors they use to smuggle drugs and arms. The government estimates 7 to 10 million hectares of land have been stolen through violence, extortion and fraud.
The government aims to use historic legislation passed in 2011, known as the Victims’ Law, to return over 3 million hectares of land to some 4 million Colombians and offer victims of the conflict compensation. The law is seen as the centrepiece of the government’s efforts to heal the wounds of war and underpins the peace talks it is holding in Havana with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
It is campaigners like Palencia who are implementing the Victims’ Law on the ground. This brings them under fire from drug-running criminal gangs and paramilitary groups bent on maintaining control of their fiefdoms and cocaine-smuggling routes.
“There are many powerful landowners, businessmen and criminal groups who don’t want to give back the lands they stole, sometimes at gunpoint,” Palencia said.
She is only too aware of the risks she faces - in the past five years, 80 campaigners battling to help people reclaim land from armed groups have been murdered in Colombia, according to local rights groups.
“I’ve been offered asylum in several countries but I won’t go. Colombia is my home. I’ve given my life to defending our rights and fighting against inequality. I’ve made a moral and ethical commitment to my country,” Palencia said.
A WIDOW AT 24
Her crusade started the day her husband, a well-known local businessman, was killed by paramilitary fighters back in 1989 near their farm in the northern cattle ranching province of Cordoba.
“My husband was forced to give extortion payments to the FARC guerrillas. You pay up or you get killed. And then when the paramilitaries came to the region, my husband was considered by them to be a FARC collaborator because he had been giving money to the FARC.”
At the age of 24, Palencia was a widow with three young children.
“It was being a victim that motivated me to fight against injustice. The day my husband died I decided I had to do something. I just couldn’t turn the other way. They (the paramilitaries) had made my life a misery.”
Several days after her husband was killed, a group of armed men came looking for Palencia at their family home. She knew then it was not safe for her to remain in her home town.
“As far as the paramilitaries were concerned, we were all FARC collaborators and therefore military targets. I packed several suitcases with all I could take and fled town with my daughters, the youngest was just five months old then. It was very difficult.”
Palencia ended up in Uraba, a nearby banana-growing jungle outpost along the Caribbean coast in northwestern Colombia. She survived by selling plantain she grew on a small plot of land.
It was here that she joined the political wing of the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), a now defunct Marxist guerrilla group helping poor farmers defend their rights and their land.
An ideological dispute within EPL ranks over a strategic alliance with paramilitaries in 1992 prompted Palencia to leave the rebel group. It was a move, she says, that made her more enemies and led to the first of five attempts on her life in 1995, when she was 32.
“Bullets started coming through a window in a house where I and colleagues were having a meeting. I hid under a table and then I realised I had five bullet wounds, including wounds in my liver, chest and leg. I saw my blood spreading like a pool around me. I remained conscious until I was taken to a hospital on a motorbike. There I was in a coma for two-and-a-half months. I had kidney failure and two heart attacks.”
Her survival was a miracle, Palencia says. “They (paramilitaries) haven’t been able to kill me because God hasn’t wanted it. It’s not part of God’s plan for me. God has worked miracles.”
DUTY TO DEFEND RIGHTS
The attack only strengthened her resolve: “After the attack on my life it became an obligation, my duty, to fight to defend our rights for my own dignity. I don’t want my children to have to hide under a table.”
Her close encounter with death also spurred on Palencia to set up a non-governmental organisation, Land and Life, in 2009 that helps return stolen land to its rightful owners.
“My biggest achievement is getting back over 4,000 hectares of land for 200 families in Uraba and raising the profile of victims of the conflict,” Palencia, now 57, says proudly.
Her organisation helps families report the theft of their land to judicial authorities, navigate the red tape needed to reclaim it and support families returning home to rebuild their lives.
“At least we have the Victims’ Law that allows us to demand our rights. But there are still thousands of victims who are still too afraid to report crimes because of possible reprisals from armed groups.”
Palencia supports peace talks between the government and the FARC rebels. “We must back the peace process. I want my grandchildren to live in peace, something that my children have so far never known.”