Mampuján: an introduction
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Mampuján is a community in transition, filled with memories of displacement and acts of resistance. All the different aspects that constitute the community are therefore directly impacted by the act of forced displacement and the long process of recovery.
The original township of Mampuján was founded in 1882 by the couple Pedro López and Dionisia Maldonado as an agricultural community on the banks of two different creeks. Located in the Montes de Maria region of Colombia’s Bolivar department on the Caribbean coast, Mampuján has experienced the full force of Colombia’s past and ongoing armed conflicts throughout its one hundred and thirty year history. The most decisive and formative event, however, occurred on March 11, 2000, during the height of violence in this zone, when the members of the community of Mampuján were displaced from their original location by a group of right-wing paramilitaries, known as the Heroes of Montes de Maria. The community members were rounded up, accused of supporting guerrilla forces, and commanded to leave Mampuján immediately. Many people suspect that the displacement took place both because of the location of Mampuján on a major drug trafficking route and as a land conquest.
Many of the original community members resettled seven kilometres away, forming the township of New Mampuján, located four kilometres from the larger centre of Maria la Baja. The new community is literally situated on the side of a major highway, part of a transportation route to Cartagena, the capital of Bolivar. Today, Mampuján consists of around 240 intergenerational families, all of which are still tied to their former lives in Mampuján Viejo, as many people travel daily to cultivate crops of corn, yucca and ñame.
Many of the people living along Colombia’s Caribbean coast are Afro Colombians, descendents of slaves brought from Africa by Spanish colonizers. In Mampuján, the community members can trace their lineage to the Palenqueros, rebel slaves who escaped from the Spaniards to form their own communities. Despite their strong history, Afro-Colombians are one of the most marginalized groups in Colombia, facing shortened life expectancy, lower standards of living, and less access to public resources than many Colombians. Combined with the impact of armed conflict, poverty is a way of life for many in Mampuján.
The streets are dirt, mud when it rains. There is no garbage collection system, and garbage is often burnt by each household on their street. There is no public water service. Many houses do not have wells and therefore any sort of indoor plumbing system and rely on rain water collection to meet all water needs. Even those who do have wells must still collect rain water for drinking as well water is generally not potable. The majority of members of the community have electricity, but it is not always reliable. Because of a lack of infrastructure, life slows down dramatically with rain fall. School may be cancelled, and it is often difficult or impossible to access crops in the mountains.
The change in geography due to displacement has had a dramatic impact on social life in Mampuján. The community is located in a much smaller amount of land and people now live very close together. Neighbours changed after the displacement, forcing people to engage in new and different social interactions. People also continue to deal with the psychological impacts of violence and fear.
The lack of access to land and the creeks that bordered old Mampuján has also had an impact on changing social interactions. Before, the women would meet together to wash clothing and collect water almost daily, while the youth would swim and play. Now, many natural spaces for interaction have been lost, as the following anecdote illustrates. The old area was abundant with fruit trees, which provided a source of natural employment for the youth. They would pick fruit, sell it to the community members, and then have a small source of revenue to spend at the local store. Today, the majority of the youth do not have access to even this small income or recreation, which has lead to boredom, fighting, stealing and increasing drug addictions. The average age of women when they have their first child is twenty; many young women became pregnant in their teens and must support their children without support from a partner. Many of the young women are therefore occupied taking care of children and households while the young men struggle to find meaningful ways to fill their days.
Food production and economic activities have also changed dramatically. Additionally, Mampuján has a very high unemployment rate, which has caused many community members to seek work in the cities of Cartagena, Bogotá and even Caracas, Venezuela. The main economic activities left today consist of agricultural work. Many of the men of the community make the seven-kilometer journey to their farms in the mountains, travelling by bicycle, motorcycle, donkey, or on foot to work in fields of yucca, ñame, and corn. The time and money needed to make this journey have seriously limited the amount of production possible. Today, many of the women have small home business, selling food items such as popsicles, coconut sweets or ice. In Mampuján Viejo, almost every house had a large backyard where women were in charge of growing vegetables and raising animals, such as chickens and pigs. The lack of space in new Mampuján has made this impossible, resulting in a less varied diet. A few people continue to raise small livestock, but face the risk of having their animals stolen as they wander through the only space available, the street.
Health care and education have also changed in Mampuján. There is no local health clinic, like there was in Old Mampuján, but there is a hospital located in Maria la Baja, three kilometers away. There have been no reported incidents of AIDS/HIV in the community, but several people have struggled with cancer and many people deal with high blood pressure, due to a diet high in salt, sugar and fat. Intestinal parasites due to unclean water and often poor sanitary conditions are a constant reality. Physiological health within the community not really been dealt with. There is a local primary school located in the community, where the majority of the children attend. For those who wish to gain secondary education, there are a number of technical and high schools located in Maria la Baja, as well as some technical post-secondary educational opportunities such as primary education and accounting. In reality, access to education for those who can afford it, is better than before the displacement. Most people, however, do not have more than a primary or secondary education, and cannot afford higher education. Schools also only have limited resources.
Access to land also plays a key role in current community struggles and security issues. After the displacement, much of the land in Mampuján Viejo was lost or sold to provide families with needed income as they tried to rebuild their lives. Food insecurity in the entire region, including Mampuján, is a growing risk. Much of the land that people have been displaced from has been sold to large landowners and is being used to grow mono-crops of oil palms, guarded by armed groups. Fears of increased violence because of these developments are on the rise and people have no confidence in illegal or legal armed groups as a method to deal with this threat. Mampuján struggles to define what it means to be self defined as a community of peace in the midst of ongoing conflict over land and resources.
However, Mampuján is also characterised by resistance. Many community members are trying to regain access and title to their former land, taking advantage of new government land restitution laws. Currently, the community is in the process of re-entitlement, with around 65 families sharing the hope of eventually returning for good and rebuilding life in the old community. However, in order for this dream to become a reality, the community members demand to return with dignity, in other words, with all the services and infrastructure, including educational and health facilities, improved road access and electricity, needed to live a healthy life.
Mampuján is also the very first and only community in Colombia to receive a sentence by the Supreme Court of Justice under the Peace and Justice Law of former President Uribe. As part of this, the community is entitled to receive communal reparations for the harms suffered by the displacement; each family that has suffered displacement is also to receive 140 million pesos. Unfortunately, this money must be paid by January 1, or the sentence may become obsolete under Colombia’s new Victim’s Law, created by current president Manuel Santos. The community is now in the process of mobilizing and responding, attempting to remind the government that their promises will not be forgotten.
As a result of the sentencing process, Mampuján is achieving national fame and is currently the site of a great deal NGO and government involvement, all of which are having an impact on changing the community and forcing the community to think hard about its own desires for the future. Additionally, as the community waits for reparations, there are apprehensions about the potential changes a large influx of money into the community may bring, mixed with renewed hopes for the future.
One of the principle entities of the community working in Mampuján is the ASVIDAS Maria la Baja, (Association for a Dignified Life), designed to act as a social arm of the local churches within the Montes de Maria, to bring benefits to not only church members but the community as a whole. They were actively involved in organizing for the sentencing process, helping the community gain access to resources and jobs that would otherwise have left the community. Women play a dominate role in much of the leadership of the community, especially informally, including working with all of the Asvidas processes.
The Asvidas is currently involved in several different small business programs, including a women’s sewing group, a bakery project, a small farm and working with other community leaders on the return and sentencing follow up. The Asvidas is supported and encouraged by Mennonite Central Committee’s partner organization on the Caribbean Coast, Sembrandopaz (Planting Peace), headed by Mennonite peace activist Ricardo Esquivia. Sembrandopaz is located in the city of Sincelejo, Sucre, and is currently working with different communities on the coast to encourage sustainable development and peace.
In conclusion, Mampuján has shown extreme resiliency in the face of conflict and displacement. Despite undergoing eleven years of change and marginalization, the community continues to work together, looking towards a better future.