Composting under fire

| 28th March 2009
Next time you grumble that it's too much effort to seperate you plastic from your cans, imagine doing it as the bullets are flying over head

I’ve just spent a week in the settlement of San Josesito, in the northern Colombian region Urabá. This is where the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó relocated when the Colombian police and army moved into their village three months ago. They left their comfortable houses to build a new village from scratch because they refused to accept as their ‘protecters’ the same armed forces whose most recent crime (in a very long list) was the February massacre of eight members of the community, including a baby and two children.

They also moved out because they knew that the presence of the police and army was bound to attract guerrilla attacks. Which it did. When I arrived on Monday morning I had just missed the last bursts of machine-gun fire from a night-long battle between soldiers and guerrillas that had left three soldiers injured, and the people of the Peace Community shaken by a sleepless night of ‘fireworks’ (so called because the army bullets are accompanied by a little red light – apparently something to do with differentiating between enemy and ‘friendly’ fire).

The new settlement is less than a mile from the town of San José in Antioquia province, where the army and police are barracked. It’s built on a river bend, surrounded on all sides by forest – idyllic. In three months the community has built more than 40 wooden houses, each with a space mapped out for a garden and kept dry by miles of drainage trenches and stone and gravel paths. They dismantled the cool, breezy, straw-roofed round hut that was their community centre in San José and moved it to the new village green. The dozens of pigs, chickens and mules are happy as there’s more mud and grass here, and the children love the river with its excellent rapids and swimming holes.

I went there to follow up on a course on gardens and composting held there last August. However, I never got to see the six gardens that the people of the community have created in the village of La Union, two hours’ walk from the new settlement. The constant outbursts of shooting and bomb-dropping, the hundreds of new police and army members brought into the region, and, most of all, the huge workload at the new settlement made travel impractical.

After a day settling in, I figured the most useful thing I could do was sort out the community’s rubbish problem. They are determined to recycle and make compost, and when I got there they had already dug two enormous pits for organic and inorganic rubbish. But many people hadn’t understood the concept of separation, so both were filled with smelly mixtures of plastic and rotting vegetable scraps, and one had flooded and turned into a malarial mosquito breeding ground.

The next day I went round the houses to talk to each family about recycling and compost, before convening a village meeting. Realising that the adults were all far too busy, the following day I started working with the children. I was a bit nervous about how they would take to collecting and sorting out the community’s rubbish, but I figured the best way to teach them was to actually do it. So we borrowed two wheelbarrows, one each for organic and inorganic waste, and went to each house to collect and sort the rubbish.


The children took about 15 seconds to become enthusiastic recyclers and another 30 to figure out an excellent working system: we tipped out each bag of rubbish in front of the householders and showed them how they should have separated it into categories.

After collecting half the village’s rubbish we began a new above-ground compost pile and collected lots of sawdust, horse manure and leaves and made a pretty, clean compost heap. I had thought I’d manage to get them to work for an hour or two at most, but they worked me into the ground until it was me who suggested we finish the day with a swim in the river.

Over the following days, when the nearby shootings and bombings allowed us out, we repeated the collecting and teaching process with the rest of the village. Two young men made a corral around the growing pile of waste to keep the community’s pigs and chickens from dismantling it. A huge group of adults and children cleaned up the festering pits, keeping one open for plastic and tins. We held a rubbish-tip meeting to show everyone how to manage the compost, and the children decided to organise themselves into a work group and ask each household to pay them a little each month (the equivalent of about 10 pence) for their collecting service, while I made a big poster to show simply which rubbish goes where. We also dug and planted a vegetable garden, cooked lots and swam regularly in the river.

Most nights were disturbed by the fireworks. We were very lucky that no one in the settlement was hit by one of the many stray bullets. We sat around talking and drinking tea till the shooting died down. These people keep their sense of humour even in the most extreme situations, and usually we ended up laughing at rude stories about who threw up/ pissed/ shat themselves during past bombardments. There is nowhere to escape to, as running into the forest would mean running into even more danger and being shot ‘by mistake’. I asked them what plans they had for a direct hit… ‘We’ll dodge the bullets and catch the bombs and throw them back,’ said one man laughingly.

Adults and children talk openly and naturally about their terrible losses in the past and their fears in the present. In the river one day, a beautiful little girl told me that she was seven when her mother was killed and eight when they shot her father. She told me she was the daughter of Luis Eduardo Guerra, who was killed alongside his eldest son, Deiner, in the February massacre; his wife was killed by a stray grenade last July. The little girl now lives with her baby brother, four cousins, a few stray babies and her aunt in a one-roomed house, where they cry when we talk about her father but the rest of the time the house is filled with love and laughter. Another aunt wanted to take the girl to the city, away ‘from the danger’; but the aunt angered everyone as she would not visit San José to see where her niece lives as ‘they’re all guerrillas up there’, and she would have ripped the girl away from what was left of her nearest family at an extremely traumatic time. She had no idea of the kind of love and community that this girl is growing up with. She could only see the poverty and danger; real, of course, but in the end only secondary factors.

This woman’s misguided attitude is common among people who don’t know the community well, as the powers that-be in Colombia have deeply vested interests in making sure the guerrilla reputation sticks. If it were widely known that a small and utterly defenceless group of dirt-poor campesinos has managed to take an effective stand against the horrors committed on a daily basis by the state forces/ paramilitaries (and, to a lesser extent, by the guerrillas), in spite of suffering terrible cruelties for so doing… Well that would be really dangerous. As one man said: ‘[Colombian] president Alvaro Uribe Velez says worse things about us than he does about [the revolutionary guerrillas] the FARC.’ This is true, because the campesinos represent a true ideological opposition to the armed, drug-mongering forces that control Colombia. Furthermore, calling the campesinos guerrillas ensures less public outrage when there is a massacre, as then people can just shrug and say ‘they probably deserved what they got’.

In the six days I was there, the tension and pressure mounted daily. The ‘peace process’ with the paramilitaries is taking place just hours away, and the ‘reinserted’ paras (legalised killers, in other words) are to be sent to ‘help’ the police and army in San José; one angry policeman threatened that 3,000 were coming. That was probably an exaggeration, but 30 would be enough to cause real terror and death. Daily, I felt terrified for the people I was working with, since unless the open paramilitarisation of Colombia is stopped they have no future. Nonetheless, they are all deeply committed to staying on their land even if it means death.

The only ‘protection’ they have is the voices and actions of support from abroad. Anyone of any age who would like to travel to San José to help, work with and accompany these brave people would be welcomed. The company of foreigners gives great moral support and is a real buffer between them and the war. But you’d have to be aware of the following factors: that San José is in a war situation and therefore dangerous; that the climate, being hot and humid, is not easy for people from temperate zones; that the conditions of bed and board are extremely basic, and as people are extremely poor you would have to contribute towards your own living costs; that life in San José is tough and physical, and the daily agricultural work is hard but gratifying; that psychologically you’d have to be patient, calm and willing to listen, learn and observe without trying to impose your own views; that you’d need to have a fair grasp of the Spanish language; and that the use of alcohol and drugs is completely prohibited inside the community. On the other hand, the gains from working with a brave, pioneering community that is building an eco-campesino village from scratch are enormous.


The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is one of 13 indigenous, black and campesino communities that form Recorre (the Network of Communities in Resistance). Recorre is not an NGO but a loose web of communities that have had enough of the violence, disappearances, displacements and food, medical and education blockades caused by Colombia’s army/paramilitary forces and, to a lesser extent, the guerrillas. The San José community is the unwilling leader of this network, simply because it is the most organised, committed and dynamic of the communities involved. It constantly tries to rotate leadership and responsibility among the other groups, but they always land back on its doorstep. Recorre’s aim is for more self-sufficiency in food, healthcare, education and justice. It is not looking to set up independent states, just for its members to be able to live peacefully in their own country.


For anyone unfamiliar with the seemingly endless complications of the Colombian conflict, there are important differences – as well as far too many tragic similarities – between the army/paramilitary forces and the guerrilla groups.


The left-wing guerrilla groups frequently commit dreadful killings and cruelties, and often by ‘mistake’ – as the community of San José knows to its cost, having had two young men killed in 2000 by ignorant militia, who decided that because one of the men was Irish, fair and blue-eyed he had to be a gringo and therefore an enemy. However, in spite of the chaos and corruption within their ranks (caused by the easy availability of lots of drug money in recent years), the guerrilla forces are basically campesino defence armies. They came into being because of the constant slaughters, massacres and displacements suffered by poor country people at the hands of a rich, very corrupt, US-supported ruling class. The guerrillas are not the cause of the war here; they are just a symptom of the deep, ongoing oppression.

Without their existence, Colombia would be more de-forested and less democratic than it is, and it is unlikely that there would be ‘space’ for groups like the Peace Community. Campesinos fear the guerrillas – for they are often arbitrary and petty in meting out ‘justice’; but they also appreciate them, as there is much less violence and more social equality in areas of guerrilla influence. How well an area is run by them depends very much on the level of the local commander’s social consciousness: many are excellent, well educated and very socially aware leaders, but some are violent despots who only understand arms.


In contrast, the army/paramilitary death squads are mercenaries, created, armed and paid by big business, national and international, to terrorise campesinos, indigenous and black peoples off ancestral lands that are rich in minerals, wood and water. They are driving communities off collective lands, which are then turned into enormous plantations for the cultivation of African palm oil (a future petrol substitute among other things). They also strive to ensure the continuity of the sympathetic powers-that be and are very successful at this right now, thanks to the ironically titled ‘peace process’ initiated by Alvaro Uribe Velez. The Colombian president first began to give the death squads legal status when he was governor of the state of Antioquia many years ago. Where there are no natural riches to exploit there are no paramilitaries.

Anne Barr works with the Atlantis Ecological Community, a small commune consisting of English, Irish and Colombians who’ve lived and worked in Colombia’s southern mountains since 1988. To read more about the Atlantis Communities eco-activities look up Jenny James - Green Letters from Colombia on

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2005


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