Under a cloudless sky and a baking sun in late January, Argemiros Capela, 76, pointed to a patch of scrubland on his lot that had started to grow back after years of desertification.
“The iguanas have started to come back too,” Capela said, smirking. Splash upon splash could be heard nearby – the sound of iguanas jumping off of trees and into the cool waters of a pond behind him.
Capela is a displaced peasant from Montes de Maria, an isolated range of rolling mountains along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and home to of one of the worst massacres in Colombia’s recent history.
In 2000, several fighting blocs from the state-backed paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, descended upon the small farming village of El Salado in a savage scorched earth offensive to “cleanse” the village and surrounding area of rebel collaborators.
With the assistance of the Colombian armed forces, who blockaded the village, 450 AUC paramilitaries proceeded to murder, torture and rape villagers for 5 days – using chainsaws, reportedly playing football with villagers decapitated heads, and killing a total of 60 people in El Salado alone.
As a result, there was a massive exodus of peasant families from the region, many of whom sold their land for a fraction of the price, or saw it usurped.
Return of displaced families
After five decades of civil war, Colombia is holding more than seven million displaced people, second only to Syria worldwide, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
Many, like Capela and his family, came back. Others waited years until the AUC was officially disbanded (between 2006-2008) to return to their land. Capela became the de facto leader of his community after braving the journey back to his farm by muel two weeks after the massacre had taken place in order to retrieve items that he’d left while fleeing.
“I was tortured while fleeing,” he said, though he refrained from going into detail. “But I knew I had to go back.” Capela eventually led the return of 32 families who lived on the outskirts of El Salado.
Returning home hasn’t been the only challenge for those displaced by violence in the region – deforestation, and the mounting effects of climate change have caused wide-scale desertification across Montes de Maria.
The spare but fecund “dry forests” that used cover the Caribbean coast are down to 10 percent, due to logging, cattle ranching and overdevelopment, according to a study in the Caribbean belt by Colombia’s Humboldt Institute.
Colombia’s dry forests are a hugely important eco-system, acting as a buffer zone from floods and a nesting ground for many species.
“The cows used to die of hunger and heat exhaustion,” said Karen Langton, a specialist for the Spanish-based non-profit Ayuda en Accion, which has spearheaded the regeneration project in Montes de Maria. She explains that traditionally, farmers would cut down the forest, cultivate food or tobacco crops, and then use it as ranch land, before moving on to another patch of forest.
Langton also estimates that 90 percent of the farmers in the region still use coal for fuel. Without any native forest cover at those levels, the landscape starts to consume itself.
“This is unsustainable, because the ground becomes arid, and leaves no shelter or food for the cattle,” she said.
Langton, who’s been based in the El Salado region for three years, explains that the goal of the project is to get enough farmers on board to create a buffer zone of dry forest that will restore the native habitat and allow farmers to earn a living. Some families that came back after being displaced, found they couldn’t sustain themselves, says Langton, so they left again.
So far, there are over 200 families involved in the project, and after three years, the efforts have started to pay off.
“In 2015 this was a desert,” Capela said as he found some shade under a hut made of wood and palm fronds. He wore a typical straw sombrero and work clothes, after a day in the fields. He said his dairy cows used produce as little 2 liters of milk a day (about half a gallon); now they are yielding 10 liters (more than 2.6 gallons).
Other farmers have also formed cooperatives to grow sesame and produce honey, which is suited to the habitat and sells at a good price on the national market.
Adapting to climate change
One of the factors that has brought many farmers on board with the program, according to Langton, is that farmers are realizing that they need to adapt to the effects of climate change.
The mountainous scrublands of Montes de Maria can reach up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius) in the summer. “And it’s getting hotter,” Langton said. Last year temperatures reached 116 (47 Celsius). The rainy season has come much later this year too, which disrupted crop cycles.
Despite reforestation efforts, says German Corzo, coordinator of the Humboldt Institute’s study on the Caribbean, there’s a renewed drive by the government to go “green.” Corzo says the government’s work to build dams in the water-rich Andes Mountains is having the adverse effect of damaging river systems and fragile habitats.
Stuck in the middle
But the situation in Montes de Maria is decidedly more complex than simply reforestation. Many families that were displaced by violence are still stuck in the bureaucratic limbo of Colombia’s cumbersome land restitution process.
Many mines were planted by the FARC guerrillas and a smaller number are left as unexploded artifacts by the army. Colombia has one of the highest rates of land mines in the world.
Locals contended that landowners, including politicians connected to armed groups and drug cartels, bought up hundreds of acres of land following the massacres that took place in 2000, the new owners of which contributed to wide-scale environmental destruction. But no one dares challenge them, explains Villarraga, for fear of retribution. In the first month of 2018, 21 social leaders were assassinated in Colombia, adding to 170 killed last year.
While there is no systematic research on those responsible for the murders, it is widely understood that it is related to land disputes.
Only 15 of the paramilitaries involved in the massacre of El Salado were brought to justice, and remnants of those paramilitary groups remain active in the region, says Villarraga.
“I’m not so optimistic that there will be investigations or judicial claims over these lands,” he said. “A lot of these lands have already been monopolized.”
Capela is fortunate to have a land title, though the increasingly hot summers and shifting seasons are a major cause of concern for him. The farmers involved in the project hope that in ten years they’ll have enough families on board to create a biological corridor in Montes de Maria that will act as a crucial buffer against climate change.