YOTOCO — "The first thing we did was to look for land, thinking not so much about crop productivity as security..."
Efraín Sierra, one of countless farmers forced off his land by Colombia's long-running civil war, recalls having had to move in the past from the district of Buga when paramilitaries moved in nearby in 1999.
So now, as part of government program to help resettle displaced farmers in the Valle de Cauca department, his first priority is to be sure no armed groups go anywhere near his new plot of land.
Still, the situation around Valle de Cauca remains precarious as armed gangs claim to still be fighting the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, at war with the state since the 1960s. But Sierra says the gangs' interests have mostly been economic, given the huge construction projects like hydroelectric dams being planned in some of the nearby districts.
He and his sons were among 271 peasant families who have benefitted from land re-allocation programs and counseling for rural farming projects from Incoder, the Colombian Rural Development Institute.
Today they live upland in the Yotoco district, which he says has little strategic interest for armed groups, even if it is less suited to farming.
Here is the setting of the "Japan and Australia" project, begun in 2012, where farmers are given know-how and assistance to grow coffee, fodder and livestock. Every peasant here has their story of forced departures, and of how they survived.
Incoder has helped distribute property titles for dozens of plots. Sierra began to grow coffee in 2013, in spite of rural strikes then and meager profits. Coffee he said "is an option for each family's life project," though he said the Government needed to provide know-how alongside subsidies.
"The regional economy's failure is partly because they provide resources and no more," he said.
Missing the corn
The Incoder project was now inviting families to meet with technicians, where they review the progress. In one such meeting, Diana Marcela Bermúdez and her husband Carlos Andrés Franco praised the latest program for focusing the farmers on how to best cultivate their current land. Other farmers miss their original plots or the colder climes they came from.
For Euriel Delgado "the change has been tough, because we were not from coffee lands but lands producing potatoes, corn and beans."
Farming expert Oswaldo Crespo Carvajal believes this resettlement project is making major progress, noting that it was "not imposed."
Maize in Colombia's eastern plains — Photo: Neil Palmer (CIAT)
In the district of Trujillo in the northern part of Valle — the setting of episodes of merciless violence decades ago — Incoder is implementing other projects especially in the Kipara protected area, home for the past five years to the Embera people who were forced out of Caquetá and other parts of Colombia.
Ángel Miaza, a former chieftain, nomad and day laborer, says his situation has improved by growing crops on his own land, but insists that the government must provide more land now, as 182 persons were living in the protected area and "there's no more space to farm."
Social worker Amparo Ramírez says the impact of displacement cannot be overestimated, as families risk losing the agricultural work and culture they've relied on for generations. "Families' desire to be in the countryside is compounded by what they lived through in the city while they were displaced," explains Ramírez. "Memories and personal histories are a weight they must bear as they recover, in spite of the State's attempts to come closer to them. Another great difficulty in this process is the official appropriation of land. Ownership documents are hard to obtain for the informal nature of land ownership" in Colombia.
And yet in spite of the hurdles, the aim is not just to give people land and training, but also to spread the economic education that will turn them into businessmen of the countryside.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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