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On the Colombian plains, a leader stands up for her people against land theft

  • Ana Villa has fearlessly confronted agribusiness multinationals and armed groups that have tried to take over the land where rural communities and Indigenous people live in the Colombian plains.
  • She risks her life fighting for the rights of vulnerable communities in the municipality of Cumaribo, a region that serves as the intermediate zone between the savanna and the Amazon rainforest in eastern Colombia’s Vichada department.
  • The communities’ support has empowered her to continue her fight in a dangerous region for environmental defenders.

This article is a journalistic collaboration between Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and Colombian digital news website Rutas del Conflicto.

Ana Villa has traveled dozens of times on the highways of Vichada department in eastern Colombia, in service to her rural community. These trips can take up to 18 hours and cross an extensive savanna that’s the ancestral home of Indigenous communities and today hosts landless peasant farmers, or campesinos, who arrived in the area several decades ago. More recent arrivals, coming in the past 15 years, include agribusinesses, agroforestry and oil companies.

Villa defines herself as a “woman of character,” and her persistence has been key when dealing with land rights and environmental issues on behalf of her people in the municipality of Cumaribo. “Anita,” as her acquaintances call her, has not been afraid to confront the multinationals that have come to the region to establish large monoculture plantations, or the violent criminal groups that seek to dispossess rural and Indigenous communities of their land.

In 1991, Villa and her family arrived in Cumaribo seeking better opportunities and fleeing the violence that displaced them from their home in Cubarral, in Meta department, also on the Colombian plains. In 1996, she bought Las Azucenas, an estate that, in her words, “was only savanna and cheap,” but had no property title, like many other plots in Vichada.

Cumaribo is the largest municipality in Colombia by area, at 74,000 square kilometers (28,500 square miles) — more than three times larger than El Salvador, and more than twice the size of Belgium. It’s located in the Orinoquía region, the basin of the Orinoco River that forms an intermediate zone between the savanna and the Amazon rainforest. It’s in this region, with its enormous water wealth, where farmers like Ana Villa have sought out opportunities to build a dignified life. Large companies have also been attracted to the region, drawn by the extensive stretches of fertile soil in which to set up their industrial farms.

Ana Villa has made several trips to Bogotá to report safety and environmental breaches in the Colombian plains. Image by Ana Villa.

“There are two kinds of leaders: born leaders who seek to defend their community, and leaders on paper who claim for themselves and never seek collective gain,” says Luis Torres, a rural community leader from Vichada and friend of Villa’s. “She is a born leader. We admire her and that is why she’s in charge of everything.”

Villa has been active across a range of platforms to report the abuses that rural and Indigenous people living in Vichada experience. She has received threats from criminal groups for trying to help dozens of families obtain land rights. On one occasion, armed men cornered her and she confronted them. Besides her reports, she has also stood up to large agribusiness multinationals trying to take over land in the region.

This is her story.

Fearless defender

“I started to worry about environmental issues when I saw that the streams on my farm were drying out,” Ana Villa says. “I filed a complaint after they sprayed the entire river basin with glyphosate. Since then, I started to fight for water.”

Sabanas del Vichada, Colombia. Foto: Rutas del Conflicto.
The savanna of Vichada department, Colombia. Image courtesy of Rutas del Conflicto.

Her leadership and drive to protect natural resources soon extended beyond Cumaribo. Villa has taken her claims and protests to Yopal, the capital of the Casanare department, also in the Colombian plains. In 2014, the eastern region of Colombia was gripped by an intense summer that caused water shortages.

Some communities in the affected departments took their grievances to Yopal to demand answers from Corporinoquia, the departmental environmental authority. Leading environmental activists, including Villa, met to demand the resignation of Corporinoquia’s executives. They argued the authorities had taken little action in times of drought and didn’t follow up on complaints from communities about water contamination by the oil and agroforestry industries. “You go and report [it] and nothing is done. We wanted them to quit because they weren’t doing what they were supposed to do,” Villa says.

Martha Jhoven Plazas Roa, at the time the director of Corporinoquia, said in the authority’s 2014 accountability report that Corporinoquia had responded to most of the complaints and had carried out proper environmental controls in the region. She said that of the 1,123 complaints the corporation received in 2014, it handled about 1,000.

However, according to Villa, in the almost seven years since then almost nothing has changed; the complaints have not yielded the expected results, and companies continue to pollute the water. Making a request to the environmental authority is more complex today because its headquarters in Cumaribo has been closed since the end of 2020. Anyone trying to engage with Corporinoquia must travel at least five hours to La Primavera, another municipality in Vichada.

Being the leader of her community entails many responsibilities for Villa, including taking care of her neighbors’ and colleagues’ requests, and being the face of the claims against municipal administrations, public force, settlers who want to take over lands, multinational agribusiness companies, and even criminal armed groups. Addressing all this has put Villa in danger on several occasions. In 2014, while backing the protests against Corporinoquia’s management, she received her first death threat. “A man called me and said that my community had to obey him and leave the companies alone,” she recalls.

Vichada is home to 34 Indigenous reservations, inhabited by communities such as the Sikuani, Sáliba, Amorúa, Piapoco, Piaroa, Puinabe, Curripaco and Cubeo. Image by Ana Villa.

A year later, in 2015, while she was on her way to a meeting with villagers petitioning for their land rights, she was intercepted by armed men. “I don’t know what happened to me at that time. I had a lot of [anger] and I started telling them everything that crossed my mind: that they were used to killing people tied up because they were cowards. I told them that if they were going to kill me, they would have to kill me right there,” Villa says. Some residents of Cumaribo who witnessed the incident came to her aid and forced the three armed men to leave.

But Villa also speaks firmly to villagers if she sees that they are the ones damaging the environment. “The truth is that community members are targeted to plant coca. Sometimes they don’t think about the future,” Villa says, noting that the difficulty of growing food crops often pushes rural people to cultivate the more lucrative coca plant for the illegal drug trade. “In several meetings, I have told them that we must not cut down the forests, that we [should] plant the savanna and take care of the forests in Vichada because they are very small, and from there, streams that make up the river basin are born. If we cut down the forests, we are going to kill the fauna, we will destroy everything.”

“We trust Anita and that’s why we’ve asked her to stand up against it all,” says Torres, the community leader. “We take care of each other because those of us who claim land are targets of threats.” Villa says the community’s support is her source of strength, and that she’s not afraid to exercise leadership in a dangerous region for environmental defenders because “the community has my back, we all take care of each other.”

Claiming land

2021 brought good news for Ana Villa and her family. After more than a decade of claims, they received the property title to Las Azucenas, the farm they bought in 1996. This win provided another impetus for Villa to continue supporting 13 families in her municipality who are also seeking official titles to the lands they have inhabited for decades.

Villa has played a fundamental role in the community since 2014, when she witnessed families from a village in Cumaribo being displaced from where they lived. The villagers have sought official ownership of the land from the National Land Agency (known by its acronym in Spanish as ANT). Villa says she witnessed armed men arrive claiming to be the owners of those properties. One of the displaced villagers, Nepomuceno Pilón Caicedo, later became Villa’s friend and partner in pushing the families’ claims. “We are settlers. When we arrived there was nothing. We built our houses there and eventually the village,” Caicedo says. Villa has helped them contact lawyers for advice and collect information to request ownership of the lands. “I help the community members with information, contacts and writing documents,” she says.

Her activism has made Villa an expert on land issues. “When I started as a leader in the Community Action Council, I joined the Norman Pérez Bello Claretian Corporation as a volunteer and I began to learn about land claims and what to do in those cases,” she says. The Norman Pérez Bello Claretian Corporation is an organization that assists vulnerable communities, rural and Indigenous people fight for their rights. To date, Villa has helped 20 families in various villages who are in the process of formalizing ownership of their lands with the ANT, or by making requests to the Land Restitution Unit, the government agency in charge of verifying that applicants have lost their lands due to Colombia’s long-running armed conflict, and taking these cases before specialized judges.

An official with the Norman Pérez Bello Claretian Corporation describes Villa as a very active leader who has been present in various political events to report what is happening in her community and the abuses that villagers and Indigenous people who live in Vichada are going through. “Ana helped us a lot to build and establish a protection and self-care system in rural areas,” the official says. “She is a woman who has always made an effort to report and make her voice heard as a campesina who defends human, land, ecosystem and environmental rights.”

Ana Villa se ha preparado con cursos y seminarios en temas de reclamación de tierras y temas ambientales para ayudar a las comunidades. Foto: Ana Villa.
To help the communities, Ana Villa has taken courses and seminars on land reclamation and environmental issues. Image by Ana Villa.

In 2013, Villa and other social leaders created the Association of Community Action Council of Vichada (Asojuntas Vichada), which was the beginning of the reports regarding the irregular accumulation of vacant land by various companies on the Colombian plains. This is one of the major battles she has fought.

In the council, she met Luis Guillermo Pérez Casas, a lawyer. Together, they began to document how the company Colombia Agro, which at the time was owned by the U.S. multinational Cargill, had accumulated about 50,000 hectares (nearly 124,000 acres) comprising more than 40 campesino properties. Cargill had done this with the assistance of Brigard Urrutia, a law firm, it was later revealed.

Colombia Agro had created dozens of paper companies, each of which would buy a piece of land and thus evade the limits on accumulating vacant land. Under a 1994 law, no individual or company may own more than one property that has been vacant. The legislation seeks to guarantee that state lands are handed over to underprivileged villagers and distributed to a few. In Vichada department, no more than 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) can be granted to a single applicant.

Cargill, one of the largest agribusiness companies in the world, has had a presence in Colombia since the 1960s. Communities in several countries where the company operates have complained about its business and environmental practices, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. environmental campaign group Mighty Earth.

Ana Villa and the lawyer Luis Guillermo Pérez showed how Cargill, with the help of Colombian officials, had acquired land larger than the urban and suburban areas of Bogotá, spanning 47,700 hectares (118,000 acres). Villa says she began investigating the case when several foreigners arrived in the region to buy the land that the government had already granted to villagers after a process that took decades. She says many of the villagers sold their land at low prices due to the difficult conditions of violence in which they lived. The outsiders, after a few months, resold the land to Cargill for much higher prices.

El parque El Tuparro es rico en fuentes hídricas. Foto: WCS Colombia.
El Tuparro National Natural Park in Vichada, an area rich in water sources. Image courtesy of WCS Colombia.

Villa says that while the company was obtaining titles for properties in Cumaribo, rural and Indigenous communities who had been trying for years to obtain land titles continued to wait in vain. Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto were able to verify that the ANT had denied several adjudication requests from Villa’s neighbors, who, as victims of forced displacement, had to go to the Land Restitution Unit. The unit accepted their cases and will present them before a judge.

In 2013, Villa and Pérez’s complaint reached Colombia’s Congress, via the offices of Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo and Representative Wilson Árias. The two congressmen that same year initiated a debate in which they stated that the then Colombian ambassador to the U.S., Carlos Urrutia, was a partner in the law firm advising Cargill. Villa traveled from Cumaribo to Bogotá and participated in the debate in Congress, testifying about what she and other leaders in the area had documented.

After the debate, Urrutia resigned as ambassador, but Cargill and its subsidiary remained in the area as owners of the properties where corn and soy crops were being cultivated. Villa continued to be the spokesperson for the rural and Indigenous communities who complained daily about the effects of the agrochemicals used by the company.

The fight against environmental pollution

In Cumaribo several rural and Indigenous communities have complained to Corporinoquia about Colombia Agro’s environmental behavior between 2013 and 2015. Villa has led several of those claims to protect the health of Indigenous people as well as the ecosystems of the area. “They all drink the water from the river, that’s what they bathe with. Fish died some time ago. We went with the engineer Julián Quintero” — a former Corporinoquia contractor who has helped Villa draft the environmental complaints — “and we even saw dead rays, and the Indigenous people got sick,” Villa says.

Atardecer en el río Bita, departamento del Vichada. Foto: Ministerio de Ambiente de Colombia.
Sunset on the Bita River, Vichada department. Image courtesy of the Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

The mismanagement of Colombia Agro’s waste has been recorded in several visits made by Corporinoquia. Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto requested information on these visits, and the environmental authority said it has carried out five inspection processes since 2013, in which it found that Colombia Agro did not have permits for the discharge of industrial wastewater.

In two visits, it found an “open-air disposal of solid and hazardous waste” on two properties,” as well as “the illegal capture of water (surface and underground) and discharge of domestic and non-domestic wastewater to the ground, without the respective permits” on three properties.

The complaints against the company’s environmental impact escalated into a criminal prosecution in 2016, after a villager living close to the company reported the aerial spraying of crops using the herbicide paraquat. According to Colombian environmental regulations, this chemical may only be used manually. The newspaper El Espectador reported in 2015 that prosecutors had charged various officials from Colombia Agro with environmental damage, including former manager Juan Aquilino Pérez and the contractor in charge of aerial spraying.

Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto were able to verify that Aquilino Pérez and other company officials and contractors were charged in 2016 for the illegal use of resources, aggravated damage to renewable resources, and environmental contamination. As of March 2021, the criminal process is still ongoing and no ruling has been handed down.

According to the residents of the area, the prosecution for environmental damage caused Colombia Agro to reduce its operations in the area in 2017. However, Ana Villa says that in 2019 the company returned stronger and resumed its agribusiness project. To find out if they are still operating in the area, we searched for the ownership titles and confirmed that they continue to belong to Colombia Agro through the companies it created to acquire them. By reviewing documents from the Chamber of Commerce, we were also able to confirm that Cargill is no longer associated with Colombia Agro.

Ana Villa has made several trips to Bogotá to report safety and environmental breaches in the Colombian plains. Image by Ana Villa.

The documents show that, in 2016, the parent company that owns Colombia Agro went from Black River SAS, which was a Cargill subsidiary, to Proterra, a company created by former Cargill officials.

Robert Philipp Hutter, who, according to his LinkedIn profile, worked for Cargill in 1999 and is the son of former Cargill president Heinz Hutter, is also the president of Proterra. According to its website, Proterra is a private equity fund manager, and while Cargill no longer owns it, the multinational still “maintains its relationship with Proterra as committed limited partner to the Funds.”

Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto were able to establish that Matthew David Waller, partner and head of finance and operations of Proterra, has an ongoing criminal case with Colombian prosecutors for damage to the environment, related to the Colombia Agro case and its properties in Vichada.

We contacted Cargill representatives in Colombia to ask if the company directly managed the properties, if it had resumed the agribusiness project in Vichada, and if it had made adjustments to comply with Colombian environmental regulations. But Cargill only said that since 2015 it has had no ties with the companies that own the land in Vichada. We tried to contact Matthew Waller from Proterra and officials from Colombia Agro, but got no response.

There is no clarity on the presence and performance of companies like Colombia Agro in the region. Ana Villa says she fears the agribusiness projects have been reactivated, which in the past, and according to reports from Corporinoquia, have caused damage to the natural resources of Cumaribo.

Also, the presence of criminal armed groups in the region has increased over the past year. Several Indigenous and rural communities have reported threats against leaders who defend their rights to own land and have a healthy environment. Even the Ombudsman’s Office, with its early warning system, raised concerns in April 2020 about the increase in criminal armed groups and threats to social leaders in municipalities in Meta and Vichada.

Several neighbors have warned Villa about the dangers of traveling to certain areas. She says she’s become very discreet while traveling to relay community requests to government agencies. “My life has changed a lot since becoming a leader, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. I know that there are many complications such as threats and risks, but I have dedicated myself to the people most in need, to the people who live in the most remote and abandoned territories,” she says.

Despite all this, whenever she is needed, she is willing to travel, if necessary for more than 25 hours. That doesn’t matter to her, she says. She insists on finding solutions that help improve the living conditions of her rural community and of the Indigenous people who trust her work.

This article was first published here on Mongabay’s Latam site on March 16, 2021.

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