Can Sustainable Farming Revive Colombia’s Former Killing Fields?

With help from agencies and the government, locals from Monte de María in northern Colombia are breathing new life into the land stripped by abuse and violence.

Shortages in clean water are a problem in the region
Shortages in clean water are a problem in the region
Karen Tatiana Pardo

SAN JUAN NEPOMUCENO â€" In what was once the setting of civil war and gangland murder, peasants in northern Colombia's Montes de María region are using sustainable farming practices to rebuild a degraded environment. It may be a ticket to their future.

The innovative approaches include protecting the dry tropical forest of the Caribbean coast, using efficient cooking techniques to burn much less wood and growing food in small vegetable patches.

This was "a very violent zone, where people used to flee their lands empty-handed just to avoid their sons being kidnapped and their daughters raped," an old man with a moustache says as he chews green mango in San Juan Nepomuceno"s main park. "These villages are practically entirely inhabited by victims of violence. But why don't you ask them about how we feel now and how we are being forced out again. Not by war this time but by drought, which is killing us.

This region last made headlines for the February 2000 massacre in nearby El Salado, when paramilitaries tortured and hanged 66 locals to the sound of tropical music. Four thousand people had already fled their homes. Between 1999 and 2001, some 354 people were killed in 42 massacres in and around El Salado, a town near the frontier of the departments of Bolívar and Sucre, while several localities were turned into ghost towns as entire populations fled for their lives.

This used to be rich agricultural land that produced corn, yucca and tobacco, among other crops. These days, it's mostly just dirt that crackles underfoot. Few crops could survive today's intense heat and lack of rain. Not a single drop has moistened its sandy soils in five months, as animals die of thirst and streams evaporate.

The area is surrounded by dry tropical forests, one of the country's most fragile and damaged ecosystems. From a distance, the Montes de María landscape now looks like useless shrubland, thanks to deforestation, open-pit mining, infrastructure work, livestock farming and urban sprawl. Sections are turning into desert. Yet the remains of the former forest are home today to more than 2,600 plant and 230 bird species, and at least 60 types of mammals.

The state began to protect this area in 2011 through the Natural Heritage Fund, with help from USAID. Its Conservation Landscapes program aims to assure the food security of local residents with sustainable practices, especially in the exceptional current drought brought on by El Niño.

More trees, less smoke

"God is giving us a lesson right now with all this heat," local farmer and mother of four Silvia Carmona says. "Our only option is to find new solutions, or we'll die of hunger and thirst."

She is among those who had to leave her home and also one of two million Colombians who habitually burn firewood and suffer the consequences of inhaling smoke. Silvia and six others decided to use their traditional knowledge to create a more efficient cooking facility called Prima, which uses 60% less wood and emits 90% less smoke.

Patrimonio Natural is helping locals earn an income with these ovens, and curbing carbon emissions in the process. It is also aiding locals with other sustainable initiatives such as replanting trees and weaning farmers off pesticides, and helping to market local produce in places like Bogotá.

One beneficiary is Erasmo Torres, who grows red beans that find their way into salads sold at the Crepes and Waffles chain in Bogotá. Torres was a victim of the civil war that once dominated this region: three of his sons were shot dead one day 16 years ago while picking crops on their land. Torres found their rotting bodies in the countryside three days after they'd disappeared,

"I don't like talking about what happened," he says, pointing at the horizon from his new farm as his voice falters. Still, he wakes up every day to try to plant a small and sustainable piece of the future for his country, and the world.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

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.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

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

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

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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