Encounters with Human Rights Defenders
Daira Elsa Quiñones Preciado
Community Leader, Nariño Department
Portrait: Verónica Giraldo Canal, 2012.
May 29th, 2012
I am convinced that my thirst for justice goes back to my childhood. As a little girl, my mother would call me "the lawyer" because I always wanted to decide who was right. I used to sit down on my grandmother’s lap and she would teach me many things: to pray, to cook, to use traditional medicine and always to be good to others. My father was a very just man and I learned a lot from him. When I started school, I became responsible for organizing cultural activities. My passion for culture led me to write songs related to the protection of the water, the land and the children. For instance, the day of 1993 that Act 70 was approved, I wrote a song in its homage, even if I could not attend the ceremony. [Act 70 officially recognized Afro-Colombian communities and several of their rights, including their right to territory and a form of local government, called Community Councils.]
When I was a girl, I lived on our land, in the community of El Pulgande. My parents worked in the fields and every family had its own plot. Life was full of possibilities. When I reached the age of 14, my parents sent my first to the city of Pasto and then to Cali, where I studied business. In Cali, I worked with a German priest in the community center of the Retiro district, where Afro-Colombian families used to arrive when displaced from their lands. I talked with the priest about what was happening on the Pacific Coast and he suggested me to go back to help my people. In 1986, when I came back to Tumaco, many things had changed. People had lost their lands and were living on the edges of the highway. African Palm was being cultivated on our lands. When I asked my parents what had happened, they simply answered that nothing could be done.
I decided with a group of people to start a process of land recuperation, based on a ethno-historical document prepared through interviews with the elders. A man aged 115, Silvestre Ortiz, recounted how they had escaped slavery in Barbacoas, crossed the mountains and arrived by water to our lands in the Caunapi River basin in 1906. Many people in the community thought that this would be impossible, since much of the land had received formal title in the name of others. We replied that if the lands had been stolen from our elders, they could still identify them and we could get them back. We did not know if we would succeed, but at least we knew that we were going to fight for them.
This is how, in 1998, we officially formed the Community Council of La Nupa. This process had started in 1994 with 120 families who wanted to recuperate their lands. We would support the people who set up their plots. Later on, many others joined the process with the goal of obtaining a collective title for eight communities of the highway area. In 1996, we built up the first primary school there.
The violence started to increase in the region, while many landowners were buying more and more lands. In 1994, the Government withdrew the San Jorge military base, since there were many military confrontations in the area. My partners and I calculated that more than 2,600 people were murdered. For example, the son of a palm oil company owner once ordered the commission of a massacre. The workers had united to ask for better conditions, among which not to be flogged by the supervisor anymore. Among them, there were many Awá Indigenous from the region. One day, some of the workers attempted to assassinate the company owner, but killed his manager instead. The owner’s son, in retaliation, sent his people to kill many of the inhabitants of the region, including workers who had nothing to do with that matter. I remember the day when the shootout was carried out in the middle of the street, because I was in a nearby shop. There is since an impressive amount of widows in the region, and around 90% of the land of La Lupa has be taken away from us.
In 1998, we started being threatened: it was rumored that they were going to cut off my tongue and break my bones, and that they would finally kill us. When they started threatening us, they told us that we should stop “looking for trouble” with the land and that in exchange we would get some money. Our response was that we refused any kind of money and that we would keep on fighting.
In 2000, I had to move to Tumaco to save myself and then, in 2001, to Bogota. Later on, in 2002, I was granted provisional measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, thanks to a petition made by Asociación MINGA and Proceso de Comunidades Negras. The Ministry of Interior’s response was to place some motorcycle patrols near my home. But I rapidly realized that this was not very useful, since as soon as the patrols left, the threats would continue. We reported this with the license plate numbers of the cars who followed me to the prosecutor’s office, but no one did anything about it. I stayed inside for one month and a half. It was very hard not to be able to do anything, nor to seek justice for all that had happened. I felt so helpless that I stopped eating and my body suffered a lot. It got disconnected from my head, blocked and I fell sick. Finally, a friend took me to the doctor and then, another one helped me flee to the United States. Before that, I had also found refuge in Brazil and Spain, each time supported by friends and civil society organizations.
In 2002, a very close friend of mine, Jose Arístides Rivera, was murdered during a technical visit to our territory of La Nupa. The next day, I secretly visited his corpse in his mother’s home. They had bathed him and fixed his face, since his body had been greatly damaged by the gunshots. I realized that some dangerous people were waiting for me outside the house and thought that they were also going to kill me. I decided to come out at night through the backdoor. Before leaving, I took José Aístides in my arms and told him: “Comrade, if I come out from here alive, I’ll keep on fighting. I won’t stay silent”. For me, that was a source of strength to continue.
In 2005, I could not go back to my land, but I returned to Bogotá from my exile. My comrades would phone me to tell me how the projects were going and I felt the need to continue contributing my share, so that the children that I saw when they were little would not have to suffer form the armed conflict. Life in the city is not made for me and I feel a strong need to return to La Nupa. The first time that I went to visit my people was very moving. After so many years, they thought that it would be impossible for me to come back. When I arrived, they started shouting: “She’s back, she’s back!” About fifty people arrived and I was surprised to see so many children. Everyone shouted and it was very beautiful.
But the difficulties started again. People influenced by outsiders would ask: Why does she come? What is her business here? I always explain that this is not a personal fight. I fight for collective title for our land, the land where we were born and where we have fought, the land I could have died for and for which I had to flee. My goal is give the land back to its people, instead of it being held by palm oil companies. Today, the Government has included La Nupa in its land restitution plan. Nevertheless, this land is still strategic for multinationals, the Government and armed groups and we need a lot of support from human rights international organizations. For my part, I will continue fighting as long as I can.
One day of 2006, my mother went to visit some neighbors and never returned. My brothers searched for her and finally found her in a pond in front of her house. Her body showed signs of violence and of rape. I wanted the corpse to be submitted to a forensic examination, but my family was afraid of reprisals and refused. Some people thought that I was responsible for what had happened because of my work, and they let me know that they wanted no more tragedies. That was very hard. My older sister Floresta was also stabbed to death in 2009, while she was taking care of my parents’ house.
The murder of my loved ones made me feel very helplessness and furious. The suffering even caused me kidney disease. At the same time, it made my determination to fight stronger. These people give me the motivation to continue with my work and to seek justice. In all my travelling, life has given me the chance to meet people involved in beautiful projects. I am searching for such people, since I feel that together we are stronger and we can help those who do not know how to change things, those who do not believe that this is possible or those who are too afraid to try.
With all the resources of the world, there is enough for all to live well and I do not understand how there can be so many hungry people. I think that the thirst for power of those who own the wealth leads them to manipulate the others in order to take their lands and their possibility to live a decent life away from them. Maybe on this day I will no longer be, but I dream of a world where life is respected in its entirety, and not only our own lives. If we contaminate the land or the water, no one will be able live well and I hope that this is something that future generations will understand.