ISLA BARU, Colombia: Visitors find it a paradise of white beaches and brilliant blue waters, but Colombia’s Isla Baru island has been scarred by a long fight for control between Afro-Colombian residents and hotel developers.
Armed security guards, paid by the government and private business groups, this month fired around the feet of locals trying to plant fields on contested property worth millions of dollars near the booming Caribbean coast tourist city of Cartagena.
No one was wounded but residents are scared. “Now we know they have orders to shoot at us, we’re afraid for our lives,” said Carlos Rincon, a farmer. “This is getting worse.”
What local media have dubbed “The Battle for Baru” started in the 1970s when the government says it bought 300 hectares from business groups that say they still hold 200 hectares.
Together they have drawn up plans for a luxury resort and want to start building.
But the Afro-Colombian descendants of slaves who say they hold land titles dating back to the 1590s insist the purchase documents were falsified and that they never sold to anyone.
For years, residents have periodically tried to push back into areas they once controlled before being chased out again.
Manuela Miranda says she was detained in 1995 and flown to the capital Bogota where she was interrogated for two days in a hotel room and forced to sign papers saying she had sold her papaya farm.
“They said they would take me up to the top of Monserrate and shoot me,” she said, referring to a mountain peak that overlooks Bogota. “I ended up signing out of fear.”
Miranda never gave up her land though, and says she filed a complaint with authorities despite notes placed under the door of her home telling her to keep quiet.
Neither side has won. The developers have been unable to build their hotels, and Isla Baru is mired in poverty.
The island traditionally lives from fishing and tropical fruits but most families have shabby homes, schools are poorly equipped, women carry water to their homes in buckets on their heads, and there are very few jobs.
“We’d like to get to the beach to fish but the guards won’t let us through,” said Sergio Morales, a father of four. “That’s how we always fed our families before this conflict began.”
The attorney general’s office last year declined a government request to bring invasion of property charges against the locals, leaving the case at a standoff.
Oscar Rueda, Colombia’s deputy minister for commerce, industry and tourism, says those who claim land rights must stop confronting security guards and take their case to court.
“They are attempting to invade,” he told Reuters. “If you legally own a house you don’t come at night with a group of friends and try to take over the property. You file a legal claim to get your house back.”
Island residents say documents from the mayor’s office in Cartagena prove the property is theirs.
“If the national government and the conglomerates want to contest that decision then they are the ones that must appeal in court,” said their lawyer, Alvaro Luna.
A Reuters reporter was stopped by guards on the road to Baru’s best beach, Playa Blanca, and forbidden to pass.
Nearby, Morvil Rocha lives in a metal shack close enough to what he claims is his land to watch security guards strolling through the wasting orange groves he once tended.
Families being pushed from their homes is nothing new in Colombia, where more than 3 million people have been displaced by decades of guerrilla war driven by the cocaine trade.
“We’re willing to sell but we’ve never seen an offer,” said Carmen Garcia, the owner of a small group of huts that serves as Playa Blanca’s only hotel. “People are displaced in Colombia all the time, but by the war. This time it’s by tourism.”