Fighting for the welfare of others: Life as a social leader

I was born in Rio Blanco, Tolima. I arrived in Putumayo in 1986 with my family, looking for opportunities, like most people did back then. I moved around a lot during my childhood, following in my mother’s footsteps. First, we arrived in Valle del Cauca, where my grandmother lived. She was born in Antioquia, a Catholic, a member of the Liberal Party, and had settled in Valle del Cauca with her children some decades before. The family grew corn and beans, hunted in the surrounding forests, and raised chickens. They also felled trees for wood, which they transported by mule to be sold in Sevilla or Tuluá. My grandma was the soul of the family. During elections, she would tell us, again and again, the story of how she had to hide my uncles from Los Pájaros, armed groups allied with the Conservative Party who were killing liberal peasants. While my mother went out to make a living on the nearby farms, my grandmother taught my sisters and me how to read and carry out farm chores: taking care of the vegetable garden, tending the chickens and sweeping the patio.

After a few years, my mother got married, and we moved to Pradera, another village in Valle del Cauca, to a cattle farm belonging to my stepfather’s family. Those were tough years. My mum, my sisters and I were mistreated by my stepfather. He and his family were chauvinists. According to them, women are only useful for cooking and having children. They said horrible things to us, screamed at us, and made my mother cry. They would lock us up, often without any food. All this, just for being girls! I felt I had an obligation to defend my younger sisters and rebelled against my stepfather’s violence. This led me to leave home in my adolescence and to be separated from my sisters, one of who committed suicide soon after I left.

I ended up living with an aunt, in Palmira, a neighbouring city. I began to work as a babysitter during the day and to study primary school at night. Though it was hard, I managed to have a good living standard, and, most importantly, I grew confident in myself and was convinced that my stepfather was wrong and I could accomplish whatever I set out to do. This period, when I came of age, was crucial in my life. It forged my strong character and my rebellious personality in the face of those who mistreat others.

I finished primary school when I was 15 and was going to continue to high school, but I got my first boyfriend, and I got pregnant. The situation didn’t affect me emotionally that much; I embraced motherhood with full responsibility. The birth of my daughter coincided with the suicide of my sister. The feeling of being a mother, but also the feelings of guilt I had for leaving my sister alone and then losing her – those feelings led me to return to my stepfather’s, to be with my mother and my younger sisters. This helped my mother a little bit, to soothe the pain she felt after losing her daughter. I treated my stepfather with respect, but after everything that happened, we were never friends. He understood that he couldn’t control me.

Just after I went back to my mother’s place, confrontations began between the M-19 guerrillas and the government army.

We were caught in the middle of a battle. We couldn’t go anywhere for two days.

That was the first time I saw with my own eyes that there was an armed conflict between the state and some revolutionary or illegal groups in Colombia. Sadly, it wouldn’t be the last time. When the confrontation ended, we were forced to move to the village and had to stay there for several months. Although I could get a job in a restaurant there, neither my stepfather nor my mother had it easy. So, we got in touch with a relative who lived in Putumayo, who told us the situation was good there. He said there were opportunities to work, and it was a good place to live. My stepfather was the first one to travel to Putumayo to make sure the situation was OK. Two weeks later, he returned, and then my mother, my sisters, my daughter and I took the bus from Florida, Valle del Cauca, to Orito, Putumayo. We travelled through Cali, Popayán, and then on the road they call ‘the trampoline of death’ to Mocoa. It was more than 30 hours of travel.

Orito was growing at the pace of the oil and coca economies. Engineers and skilled workers, in general, worked for the oil industry. They all lived in an urbanisation, built especially for the oil company’s employees, made up of very well-made houses, with architectural design and everything. The peasants made a living from coca.

Harvesting coca crop Puerto Asis
Harvest work in a coca crop in Puerto Asis, Putumayo. Photo by Frances Thomson/SOAS & Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

The rest of the people, like me, made a living from commerce. The land behind the oil company’s urbanisation belonged to the mayor’s office and was assigned to displaced families like ours. There, we built our house with wood and other materials that people gave us. The town consisted only of the main street, the town hall, a market square, a church and the houses we were all rapidly building.

Those were the times of fat cows! My family was doing well economically. My stepfather worked on a coca crop, my mother enrolled my sisters in school and took care of my daughter, and I worked selling lottery tickets in the town.

Little by little, we bought everything we lacked in the new house and settled down in our new life.

I spent that first year working, building the house and adapting to my new life. But before long, I was bitten by the political activity bug. Back in Valle del Cauca, I didn’t know anything about politics. I spent all my time struggling to solve my own personal problems. I only started to learn about politics – what it is and how it’s done – in Putumayo. I got in touch with the Liberal Party, and thanks to my relatives’ credentials as long-time liberals, I started working with them. That’s how I got the job at Orito’s lottery house. Later, I founded our neighbourhood Community Action Board. I was very young, I was only 21 years old, and nobody knew me well, but still, the neighbours voted to appoint me as secretary of the board. At that time, very few women participated in the boards. Most of the members were men. And that’s how my life in politics began.

The Community Action Board brought neighbours together to demand the paving of the roads, the construction of an aqueduct and access to other public services. One of my first tasks as secretary of the board was to conduct a census of the families participating in a government programme to build and improve homes. I remember going from house to house, talking with the neighbours. That’s how people got to know me. I was not very good at writing and made many spelling mistakes. Luckily, that was not a problem because I have never liked working alone and have always got help from more experienced people. In this case, I formed a good team with some social leaders who advised me. They taught me how to use a typewriter and write documents and even corrected my spelling. Apart from teaching me many technical skills and how to interact with government functionaries, one of them also became my ‘political father’.

As I said before, when I lived in Valle del Cauca, I didn’t even know what politics were. For example, in the restaurants where I worked, homeless people came to ask for food from time to time. Some people helped them, and others didn’t. I didn’t understand why there had to be people living in such miserable conditions.

Later, in Putumayo, I understood that poverty is a consequence of politics and economics.

I owe this understanding to someone I consider my first political guide: a member of the Communist Party who had arrived in the region years before me and who was assassinated by the paramilitaries in 2004. I owe him my taste for politics and the knowledge I have on the matter. I remember he lent me books and taught me about the political history of the country, ideologies in the world, and the differences between the traditional parties and the left-wing. I liked everything he taught me so much that I felt the need to go back to school and I began studying at night.

Later, I quit the Liberal Party because I didn’t have time to work, study and care for my family. But, mostly, my resignation was a decision of conscience. Discussions with my friend, the communist leader, made me reflect on the shortcomings of the traditional parties. As a member of the Liberal Party, I fought for people’s rights, but the party only helped those on its membership lists. Those who were not part of its networks were not even considered. When I realised the barriers traditional parties put up between people, I left the Liberal Party and began working in the Communist Party.

Rapidly, I went from being the secretary of our local Community Action Board to being the secretary of the association of all the Orito Boards. When they elected me, I was the only woman in a directive position. I was the only one because, unlike the rest of the women living in the rural area, I knew how to read and write, a requisite for the position. The role of the secretary is fundamental because she or he has the responsibility of keeping up with correspondence, files and public relations. It’s like a ministry. This new position suited my qualities very well because I’ve always been very organised, and in this kind of position you need to learn quickly and be eager to be taught.

I was the secretary of the Boards Association until 1996. In those years, I divided my time between my work as a community organiser and social leader, my job selling lottery tickets, and my family. I had no time for vacations or parties or anything like that. By then, I had a partner who, fortunately, was not a traditional male chauvinist who wanted his wife at home all the time. He always supported me. He was a radio host, and I fell in love with his social sensitivity and desire to help the needy. We had three children and built a house in the town. And it was then that the famous coca rallies began in the south of the country. Although I didn’t know it at the time, they would end up changing my life.

In the ‘90s, the state began to fumigate coca crops in Putumayo and other departments in southern Colombia.

The peasants’ response was to organise rallies to demand an end to the fumigations and a dialogue to seek alternatives to illicit crops involving social investment.

These protests first took place in 1992, but the coca growers’ mobilisations became stronger in the years that followed. Community Action Boards were key protagonists, calling for and organising the demonstrations.

The big rallies started when I was pregnant with my third daughter. I didn’t take on tasks that would be a risk to my health but rather dedicated myself to gathering support for those participating in the protest. The peasants left their hamlets and villages for the nearby towns.

A rural farmhouse in Putumayo
A rural farmhouse in Putumayo. Photo by Frances Thomson/SOAS & Universidad Nacional

They set up tents in parks and on the streets to interrupt the traffic as a form of protest. The Community Action Boards and peasant organisations had already decided that it was essential to work on political, logistical, health and security matters and create a commission for each topic. The Political Commission had to negotiate with the government. The Health Commission was in charge of verifying everyone was in good health and of speaking with the hospital to take care of the sick. The Safety Commission was in charge of blocking the roads. And so on with each commission. I led a group for the Logistics Commission in town. We were in charge of going to the shops, the marketplace, and the neighbourhoods to collect food and other things people staying in the tents needed. We distributed everything with the help of friends in the transportation business. At that moment, I didn’t realise the importance of the rallies. I just felt I was doing my bit.

When the government said that the guerrillas were behind the rally, my heart and soul were in pain. It had been a challenging process, with a lot of effort, and it was legitimate.

Maybe some protesters were members of the FARC. It wouldn’t be unusual in Putumayo, where there have been guerrillas for years, and considering that it’s a political and military organisation, but claiming that the guerrillas organised the mobilisations was outrageous. Peasants were completely aware of their struggles; they were not being manipulated. And the worst part was that stigmatisation came together with murder.

A month passed, and protesters hadn’t been able to come to an agreement with the government when, one night, at around nine o’clock, we heard explosions. Usually, during the rally, there were cultural events at night. People played string music and told jokes and bedtime stories. That night, when people were leaving for their tents, some guys threw explosives into the crowd! Three people died, and more than 80 were wounded. The same happened in several towns in Putumayo. Back then, we thought it was a coordinated attack organised by the government army to spread fear and bring the protest to an end. It’s still not clear what happened. We just don’t know. Anyway, violence against coca growers and their leaders would get even worse in the years to come.

Protesters returned to their homes after agreeing on a work plan with the government to discuss social investment, access to services and infrastructure, and economic alternatives to coca. Mainly, the Community Action Boards participated in this negotiation process. Several social leaders realised that we also needed a regional peasant organisation to voice the needs of people in Putumayo. So we had the idea of creating a peasant union. Due to my experience in the Boards Association, and perhaps to the inexperience of our rural comrades in organising files, correspondence and the like, I was elected secretary of the Putumayo Peasant Union. It was my leap from local social organisation to broader peasant organisation platforms.

That was a time of intense social activism. While we were negotiating with the government, we were building the union municipality by municipality. It was a very enriching experience because I got in touch with peasant leaders from different parts of the country. We realised that the problems we had in Putumayo were very similar to the issues elsewhere. Therefore, joining a broader platform to fight for land and peasants’ social and political rights made sense. In April 1997, we created a local branch of the union in Orito, and we were doing the same in the rest of the towns when the paramilitaries came to Putumayo.

The violent operations of the paramilitaries had a clear objective: not to let the peasants’ organisation advance. And, in that selective hunt, the first ones to fall were those who led the coca rallies.

First, they killed a leader in the neighbouring town of San Miguel. Then, they attacked a leader from Puerto Caicedo, who was miraculously saved. Some colleagues travelled to Bogotá to file complaints, while others – myself included – stayed to participate in a forum with the Minister of the Interior to talk about human rights violations. We took a break to have lunch during that forum, and when we returned, we found threatening pamphlets on the chairs. It was a terrible period. Later, they killed the mayor of Puerto Asís, who had been elected with the support of the peasant organisation, and a leader from Orito, whose tongue was cut off. Those who weren’t displaced had to stop all political activity, forced by the circumstances. Others joined the guerrillas to save their lives.

I resisted a couple of years, but in 2000 we were displaced. We had to find a place to live elsewhere because I could no longer bear the permanent surveillance of the paramilitaries. By then, I had already left my partner, so, forced by necessity, I sold my house in the town for a low price and travelled with my four children to the rural area of Puerto Asís, on the border with Ecuador. There, another stage of my life began.

I planned to leave behind my social work to protect our lives. I wanted to go where I could be safe, and my children could study. It was painful for them because they had their friends in Orito, and the oldest one had a boyfriend. Still, fortunately, we were able to establish in an area where the guerrillas were strong, so I was protected from the paramilitaries who were chasing me. There was a good school, and there were good conditions for commerce. With the money from the sale of our house and savings from my work, I bought a new home and set up a restaurant.

Our new home was in a hamlet by a large river and with stunning landscapes. There were many coca crops around, but also chontaduro, pineapple, sugarcane and subsistence crops. I estimate that 40% of farm production was coca, and the rest was other products. There were also many indigenous people with solid organisations. People in this area were organised in Community Action Boards, producer associations, and, in the case of the indigenous people, in Cabildos. As a result of their collective efforts and the agreements of the coca grower strikes of the ‘90s, they had managed to get the government to build a rural school, the only one in the surrounding area. My children went to primary and secondary school there. Even though my decision to move to the area was forced, I believe it was the best decision I made in my life. The territory welcomed me in a tough time, and my children grew up and happily came of age there.

Putumayo river
A journey on the Putumayo river. Photo by Frances Thomson

However, not everything was a rose garden. I couldn’t go to the town. I had to stay in the rural area because the paramilitaries controlled the urban area. To get to the town, you had to cross a river, and the paramilitaries would go to where peasants disembarked from the ferry, list in hand. Those on the list were killed right away and thrown in the river. Therefore, I had to buy groceries in Ecuador or send my oldest daughter to the town to get supplies for my restaurant.

In 2002, when I was working at my restaurant and focused on supporting my children, the paramilitaries, with the support of the government army, assassinated the Putumayo Peasant Union’s president. Because I kept the organisation’s archives, his relatives and the International Red Cross contacted me to help in the search for the body. We found him buried in a cemetery as an NN (‘no-name’) eight days later. I had distanced myself from everything related to social work until that moment, but I felt I had to return to it under the circumstances. When you are a leader and fight to achieve better conditions for people, you feel like a leaf flying in the wind, heading nowhere, if you are not doing something. It’s impossible to sit still. I tried it for my children’s safety, but after the murder of our colleague, I began thinking about their future and what could happen to them. These reflections, which I shared with fellow peasant leaders, led us to reactivate our social work.

At that time, we believed that we couldn’t stand still in the face of violence because, if we did, the death of all our colleagues would have been in vain.

The first thing we did was reactivate the organisations in every municipality. The plan consisted of holding assemblies with Community Action Boards and Indigenous Councils to inquire about the communities’ opinions. Although many were afraid, many others welcomed the idea of organising again. We created a new peasant organisation, and I was elected vice president. We discussed a Life Plan for the area, defining the population’s needs and priorities. A company had started to exploit the oil wells in the area, and so, our idea was to get them and the local and national authorities to support our Life Plan. The plan included, among other things, legal recognition of peasants’ land rights and the protection of water sources, both of which were threatened by the oil company, and the maintenance of the roads we had built ourselves and which the oil company deteriorated without compensating us.

We spent a couple of years organising our Life Plan and then approached the oil company and the governor of Putumayo to help us implement it. However, the violence did not stop. In 2004, we met with the mayor, the governor and the company. We told them that they couldn’t continue exploiting oil in the area if the national government didn’t participate in the meetings and help us with the plan. The oil company wasn’t interested in agreements and refused to invite the national government to have a dialogue. Instead, they complained about all the problems the guerrillas caused to their operations. Anyway, we left the meeting feeling happy because, although we couldn’t come to an agreement, we showed them our political strength and presented our proposals. But, five days later, the president of the newly created organisation was brutally assassinated with several shots in the back.

As I was the organisation’s vice president, I was supposed to take over his post. However, the paramilitaries were still in town, so I couldn’t go there to do everything that the leader of an organisation has to do. We had to temporarily suspend our Life Plan project and dedicate ourselves to denouncing human rights violations My financial situation was not good because I had left my restaurant unattended to devote myself to social work. Besides, one of my sons became seriously ill. Fortunately, by then, I already had the support of my current partner. He was the president of a Community Action Board and had come to Putumayo to work on coca farms until, with his savings, he was able to buy a piece of land. Being with him is a blessing because he’s a hardworking man, humble, and patient. It’s not easy to find a man who accepts his wife leaving home all the time, participating in meetings, and not being there for cooking or washing. He was always understanding of my leadership and took on those duties in the house. So, to solve our economic situation, I worked with him on the farm. I never worked in the coca crop itself, but I cooked for the workers, supervised them, and created and looked after coca seedbeds. The farm gave us enough to support my children.

The partial demobilisation of the paramilitaries in 2006 gave a second wind to the social movement in Putumayo. That was the moment to reactivate our Life Plan project, protest against the environmental and social damage caused by the oil companies, denounce human rights violations and oppose aerial spraying.

At that point, the demands were very similar to those of coca growers in the ‘90s; for example, to stop the fumigations, but the social movement was stronger and better trained. By then, we had solid proposals to negotiate with the government, and there were new peasant organisations that we didn’t have before.

Despite the demobilisation, paramilitary violence didn’t stop, and in 2007 I suffered the misfortune of losing one of my children. He was 19 and worked as an assistant in the chivas [a particular type of bus that transports merchandise and passengers in rural areas]. One morning, he was on his way from the hamlet to Puerto Asís, and the paramilitaries took him off the bus, carried him away in a truck, and killed him. My son didn’t mess with anybody. He wasn’t involved in political activity either. His only ‘crime’ was to wear a black t-shirt and trousers and rubber boots [wellies]. That was enough for the paramilitaries to kill him. According to them, anyone dressing like that was a member of the guerrillas. That was the most brutal blow I’ve ever received. But instead of falling apart, which was what people might have expected of me, I decided to continue with my political activity.

Navigating between personal tragedies and the threat of violence, little by little, I approached peasant organisations at the national level. I left local leadership behind and became part of movements with broader – countrywide – aims. It was a beautiful experience that taught me other lessons in life.

Before then, I never had the opportunity to meet leaders from different parts of the country. I was always focused on Putumayo. I remember that a peasant leader I knew always told me that I should leave the region to work at the national and international levels because local problems result from policies formed at these levels. The first time I participated in a meeting with peasants from different parts of the country, I realised his message was true. Despite the differences between the regions, the problems were very similar.

Time passed, and not only did they invite me to the meetings, but they appointed me as the Women’s Secretary of the peasant organisation where I was working. I was in charge of all the participation and education policies for women within the organisation. An essential experience I had in that position was traveling to the south of Colombia to organise local leadership workshops with peasant women, later replicated at the national level. The idea was to place women in high positions to ensure they started taking on roles traditionally given to men. The process led me to participate in the Vía Campesina World Assembly in Africa. It was a very long journey, more than 24 hours! I met people with different cultures and languages for the first time, and I learned about the continent’s history. I discovered that, despite being a region with a lot of inequality, its people have strong dignity because they have fought for their rights all their lives.

Later I became treasurer and general secretary of the organisation, among other posts. These responsibilities forced me to leave Putumayo and go to Bogotá, the organisation’s headquarters. It was tough because it involved moving away from my family, leaving behind my work in the region, and coming to a big city. Although it was hard at first, and I even got sick, I managed to do the job entrusted to me.

I was fortunate to participate closely in some of the most important political events in recent years in Colombia. First, I helped with the 2013 National Agrarian Strike, which mobilised thousands of peasants throughout the country to demand better living conditions, access to services and rights, and a change in economic policies. This strike positioned agrarian problems back at the centre of the national debate. Additionally, I participated with my organisation in the peace process with the FARC guerrillas. We wanted to contribute to building peace in our country. As several points on the agrarian problem were included in the conversations with the guerrillas, we were committed to promoting compliance with the Peace Agreement.

Today, I feel very uncertain about what may happen with peace and the social movement in Colombia. We believed that peace would bring the changes we had fought for, for years, but that has not happened yet.

If I look back at my life, I can say that I am proud of who I’ve been and what I’ve done, despite all the difficulties and suffering due to having lost my loved ones. I made the decision to follow the path of those who fight for the welfare of others. That took me away from the ordinary life of a family woman. It has been a good life!

In war and peace, we black people always lose

Most people who came to Tumaco came to grow coca. Those who arrived after 2000 cleared the forest to plant that bush. Bundles of people came from Putumayo and also from Samaniego and Caquetá. It’s so funny! Before, it was the other way around: people from Tumaco moved to Putumayo to make a living from coca. They worked as raspachines. 36 That’s how people from Putumayo and Tumaco became friends and even relatives.

Settlers came to Tumaco for many reasons. Some were displaced by the Plan Colombia fumigations. Others arrived with the guerrillas: the FARC groups from different places in Putumayo came here and brought their people with them. And how did it work? People came, displaced by violence or following the guerrillas, and then would tell their family members or friends who were also starving in Putumayo because of the fumigations or the war. ‘Come, there’s enough land here … There’s land for coca, to cultivate, land for this and for that.’ Then the relative or friend would come with his son, sometimes with the oldest one, and even with his woman. Later, they would send for the niece, uncle, cousin. That’s how these lands, even those of the Community Councils, were populated. People came packed into trucks and crossed the river on a ferry.

Many of those who came to plant coca went missing. We don’t know if they disappeared or were killed. I honestly don’t believe they are still alive. Too many people are missing in Tumaco. Those people came here looking for opportunities, but they had no IDs and because of the difficult situation in the area, some suspected they were members of the guerrilla groups and others suspected they were paramilitaries. Coca generates fights and makes folks jealous. For many people, the river became their grave. For me, 2002 was the worst period. Rafts full of bodies came floating down the river frequently.

Coca is not only for peasants. Coca is a chain that ties everything together.

For example, I’m not a coca grower. I never grew coca, and not because I didn’t feel like it, but because of the problems it brought. Where there was coca, there were always armed groups. But, for example, my wife had a shop, and she sold things on credit to the coqueros.  Others sell gasoline to those who process the leaves or transport the coca. It’s a long, long chain!

Although I never grew coca, I know how the business works. Some people planted it next to my palm crop. There was a guy who had around five hectares; he was a small coquero. He worked hard to get the land to produce, but it seemed that the profit was never enough because, when he finally sold the coca, he already owed money to everybody, and he couldn’t pay. He harvested every three months. But between harvest and harvest, he had to work an awful lot. He had to add many chemicals to the soil, fertilise the crop and then fumigate it, and he had to do this almost every day. On top of everything, the guy went to sleep at ten or eleven because he had to go with a flashlight at dusk to check that the ants weren’t eating his crop. He was working all the time. So, if I were to put a price on all the hours he worked, I don’t think he was making a lot of money from coca. Coca isn’t such good business for small growers. The profit goes to those who buy it or grow more than ten hectares, those who make the base paste and crystallise it, to the large laboratories, the industrialists. The money ends up going to those who don’t even live here.

coca bushes
Coca bush. Photo by Diego Lagos/Universidad Nacional

Some say there was a coca bonanza, in the same area where I had my palm crop. Growers say those times were good because they could buy three crates of beer, which they piled up in their homes. Their dining rooms were full of bottles. But the next day they ran out of money, and once again, they had to go and pick coca leaves. This has been a big issue: small coqueros spend all their money on booze. They don’t invest it or save it. Coca has only improved the lives of a few people, at least in the area where I live. I visited some villages on the border where people who grew the bush don’t even have a house and are just surviving. I’d love to ask them what they did with the coca money, if they ever had it, although I don’t believe they ever had it.

For us, black people, coca has brought more sorrows than joys. It broke down our culture.

The hamlets in the Community Councils were filled with bars where all one could hear were forbidden corridos. Coca and its armed groups and settlers displaced many native communities. At one point, so many people moved from Tumaco to San Lorenzo, an Ecuadorian municipality close to the border, that they formed whole neighbourhoods over there. Settlers say they bought the land from the natives, but the land here cannot be sold! Our territories are collective property. Black people from these areas were very welcoming. There was always an extra dish for unexpected guests. But this custom is being lost, and one day it’ll disappear completely. Coca has caused enormous damage to our black culture!

Coca also brought fumigations to our territory. In 2003, the government began spraying in Tumaco. Everyone knew: whenever they shouted ‘the planes!’, we started running like hell. One could always see a guy in the plane aiming a machine gun at the people. Once, a boy aimed his rifle at the plane to make a joke. It came down after him, almost to the ground. The boy ran fast and, luckily, he lost them. Those people sprayed everything, even the mangroves. Apparently, they were paid to dump tons of glyphosate. Later, the palm crops got a disease called bud rot. That was devastating; it killed thousands of hectares of palm. We were sure the fumigations made the palms sick because both things happened around the same time: first the spraying and then the bud rot disease.

They almost got tired of fumigating here; nothing could get rid of the coca crops. The peasants learned tricks to save their bushes. They used panela41 and some other stuff. They washed the plants that had just been fumigated. Others cut them near the base, before the poison went from the leaves, down the branches, and into the roots. They curbed the damage in this way. They would lose that harvest, but in three months they were harvesting again.

Coca is just one of the problems that torments us here in Tumaco. The dispute over the land is broader. It has been going on for years, for decades.

And, to be fair, it didn’t start with the Putumayo settlers. Before the coca crops, other people from different parts of the country – pastusos, rolos, caleños, and paisas –42 took over our land to grow palm trees.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, businessmen from other parts of Colombia, even foreigners, came to Tumaco to set up plantations and palm oil refineries. Some of them were funded by the mafia. It was then that the exploitation began. Our concern was that we were going to be left with no land. In 1979, local people created some associations and they told the palm misters:

‘This cannot continue like this! Stop accumulating land, don’t be greedy!’

The rules of the game changed in 1993 with Law 70. This law recognised our territorial rights and created the Community Councils, the way we black communities organise to exercise authority and autonomy over our territories. Thanks to this law, black people began to come together and organise, to investigate what tasks we needed to complete to get legal rights over our lands. Most of these titles were granted in the 2000s. For us, the land is communal, and Law 70 states clearly that it’s inalienable, unattachable and imprescriptible. No one can take the land from us.

Tumaco farmer walks up a muddy path
Muddy footpaths are part of everyday life in rural Tumaco. Photo by Diego Lagos (@dalagossph)/ Universidad Nacional Photo by Diego Lagos/Universidad Nacional

The struggle for our lands has cost us dearly. Many legal representatives of the Community Councils have been assassinated. One never knows who it was: the palm growers, the armed groups, or both. Collective titling didn’t bring these conflicts to an end. Some palm companies still say that areas within the council’s lands belong to them, and they continue invading our territories. The same happens with settlers and coqueros. They insist on having individual property titles in the council’s areas. As soon as the issue is mentioned, an endless discussion begins. Our land cannot be sold! Instead of solving the situation, all the authorities do is let us negotiate by ourselves. Frankly, I wonder if the state wants us to continue fighting over the land. We have tried to coexist peacefully, but for us the council’s territory is not up for discussion.

The struggle to defend our lands has kept us in conflict with palm growers, settlers, coqueros, and as if this weren’t enough, with the FARC guerrillas.

Making them understand Law 70 was very complicated. It depended on the character of the commander. But since the FARC rotated or changed commanders frequently, just like what happens with the army, what the community explained to one commander was immediately lost, and they had to start from scratch with the new one. And, it’s one thing to argue with the palm company people or with the settlers, but quite another thing to tell it straight to someone who’s armed. When people didn’t obey the FARC’s instructions, complete an activity or whatever they said needed to be done, they were given three days to comply, or they had to leave, or they were killed. It’s pretty traumatic for people who have lived through these situations. People in Bogotá, for example, have other kinds of problems. Maybe it’s mobility, catching a bus, common crime or theft. For us, the main issue is securing peace in the territory, peace with the armed groups, with the FARC, the dissidents, with everyone. I insist that it’s traumatic to live with an armed group, under their command – and in a country where legality supposedly prevails.

So we tried to explain the role of the councils and Law 70 to the FARC. Some commanders allowed us to remain in the territory. Others threatened us when they arrived. I remember once in a meeting, the commander had already spoken a lot, and I asked him, ‘Comandante, may I speak?’ He replied, ‘What do you want? Shut up!’ And he kept on talking. He talked about their military strategy. He said they killed, that they did everything. And then he pointed at me and yelled, ‘What were you going to say?’ Then, our secretary, the council’s secretary, a really calm boy – I don’t know where he got the nerve from – took out a Law 70 brochure and handed it to the commander saying, ‘Comandante, when you have time, read it!’ The meeting was over, and we went home. In the next meeting, the man had a completely different attitude. He said: ‘Who is going to explain this shit about Law 70 to me?’ I even took it as a good joke. A knowledgeable young man told him, ‘You see, Law 70 is about this and that. That’s why we are telling you that these are collective territories.’ And well, at least he listened to us.

To live through war is to feel death breathing down one’s neck, especially for those of us defending the welfare of our communities and the land that we black people would like everybody to respect.

Here in Tumaco, black people were not born with these clarities. So much work is needed for people to understand that we have to fight for what belongs to us, for our rights. Fortunately, there’s been progress: Law 70, leaders emerging in the councils and in the hamlets.

Before, it was different. Black people believed that they had to be poor. When I was a boy, I saw people living in the mud, almost grateful for their misfortune. I like to believe that I helped raise consciousness among the black population of Tumaco. They started to understand that we could demand things from local authorities. I think that I inherited the desire to be free from my maternal grandparents. I never met them, but I learned that they came here searching for the sea or wanting to return to Africa. They escaped from the mines in Barbacoas, another municipality on the Pacific coast. I was told that they reached the sea and went up the river on a canoe – there were no roads back then. My grandparents examined the land to see if it was suitable for sowing, and eventually found somewhere to settle.

I owe my education to my father. He took me to the priest’s school and then brought me to the urban area of Tumaco to finish high school. I had the best of relationships with the priests, even though I was a rebel – I’ve always been a rebel – and I didn’t accept them imposing things on me. I liked to defend people who could not protect themselves, and I would fight for them. I went on strike over the food they gave us at the boarding school and, thanks to the protest, they didn’t give us rotten fish ever again.

In 1975, they appointed me as a teacher at a small school in Tumaco. Beto Escrucería, Tumaco’s great political chief, appointed me. Tumaco changed completely when the Escrucerías came to power. They are white, they have Spanish ancestry, but they also grew up here, in the territory, together with the black people. Beto was a committed politician, but with him and his people, politics were closed. They were the lords and masters of Tumaco. The municipality was like their hacienda, and they managed it as such. They helped their friends, everyone who was a Betista, but no one else. Beto was my father’s preferred politician, but not mine.

In fact, I was almost his opponent. Anyway, he gave me the position at the school, and I spoke to him several times. I don’t know if he realised the problems I was causing him. Once, when I was a juror at a voting table for mayoral elections, I didn’t allow a Betista to vote because the photograph on his ID was not clear enough. It all became a huge thing, the police even came. I stood up and told everyone, ‘Sorry, but he won’t vote here, not at this table. As long as I’m here, he won’t vote.’ Nobody uttered a word, and the guy didn’t vote. I was never a juror again.

Back in the ‘70s, we learned about what was going on in communist China. We studied booklets by Mao and Fidel – I have no idea where those booklets came from. We championed that cause.

People from a party called MOIR, the Revolutionary Independent Workers Movement, came to visit. There was a lawyer named López, who had been to China and Russia. He was from the University of Nariño and came here to give us classes and lectures. Later on, they killed him.

In Tumaco, we started talking about social change. We compared Beto to Somoza – that dictator from Nicaragua. During political campaigns, they’d cover the walls of some houses with Beto’s propaganda. At night we would tear down all his posters, even if we had to stay up until dawn. I never liked Beto’s governing style, even though he appointed me as a teacher.

The fishermen’s’ children attended the school where I worked. At that time, Tumaco fishermen were considered evil, challenging to deal with. I remember I had a meeting with a father, a wicked guy, who was a fisherman. I asked him why he had sent his son to school, and he replied, ‘so that he can learn, so that he doesn’t grow up to be like me.’ I said he was not helping him much and that if he wanted to help him, he should do this and that, and I gave him some tips. The man looked at me and asked: ‘And what’s your name?’ I said, ‘I’m so-and-so.’ Then he said: ‘This is the first time somebody tells me that, the very first time,’ and he shook my hand. He said, ‘Let’s be friends.’ The man considered me his friend until the day he died.

I believe I fostered changes in the consciousness of the young people in that school. They still remember me. Sometimes I walk through the neighbourhood, and I meet the boys who studied with me. Some of them are already technicians and they call me ‘teacher’, and they even bow to me.

I was a teacher until the ‘80s. Then I went back to my hamlet and saw that things weren’t working. Many things were lacking. People were not living well. The first thing I did was to insist that we all needed to improve our houses. I started to build my house and then other people copied my idea. They became aware that houses are part of our environment and that we had to protect ourselves from the weather and the rain. You see, before, the houses were made of cardboard. In 1986, I did a census of the hamlet, which was already a large village, and everyone had houses with cardboard roofs. In other places, the roofs were made of straw, a local material. It was good because it absorbed heat, but rats destroyed those roofs in 15 days. I told everyone that houses should be comfortable and last for a lifetime.

Rainy day in rural Tumaco
A rainy day in a rural hamlet of Tumaco. Photo by Diego Lagos (@dalagossph)/Universidad Nacional

After nagging people about their houses, I got into another struggle. The hamlet didn’t have water or electricity. We bought a power plant – me and a paisa friend – for our houses, but people were suspicious and jealous. So I said to my friend, ‘let’s do something so everyone can have electricity. Elections are coming, and you know who the candidate is? Beto Escrucería’. We brought together more than 180 families. We shared our idea with them. We said that we wanted a power plant for the hamlet and that we could ask Beto for it while we were in election season. As soon as Beto was aware of the possible revolt, he told us not to continue with it, that an oil palm company would give us the plant. That promise, unlike most politicians’ promises, was kept. The community obtained the plant. It arrived from Bogotá before the elections. Then, we needed the power lines. I spoke to someone and asked him to donate the cables and transformers. The community made the poles. We cut the trees for them with a chainsaw and an axe. A technical guy from a company helped us with the installation. And so, lights came to my hamlet for the first time, with poles made from guayacán trees.

Fighting for black people’s rights has never been easy. That’s why I was excited about the Havana Peace Agreement. With peace, access to electricity, water, health and education would improve.

Maybe we wouldn’t get them for free, but at least projects could be requested and implemented, and the community would benefit from them. That’s what makes the difference. But no, peace has been a scam. The council and its members joined the illicit crop substitution programme believing things were going to change. And things have indeed changed: the FARC guerrillas are gone, but now there are dissidents, those who did not lay down their arms or who rearmed. We are working towards the substitution of illicit crops, on voluntary coca eradication, in exchange for an alternative, a feasible productive project, in exchange for roads, for help with marketing. But armed people are back in the territory willing to defend coca. It’s so tricky!

Substitution has been jeopardised. I believe the programme was poorly designed from the beginning. Say one used to live from coca, and six or eight months ago, uprooted their crop, but the state only comes up with two million pesos out of the twelve million they promised. That was what they gave them as payment for eradicating their crops: money! But money comes and goes. That’s not sustainable! I think about it and say, ‘Why don’t we sit down first and plan the programme together? You, Mr. Peasant, what do you want to grow, and how will we commercialise it? Let’s not provide more cocoa to Luker44 for them to pay whatever they want for it.’ Suppose we produce a lot of cocoa, then they lower the price to 3,000 or 4,000 pesos per kilo. Someone must tie up this chain with a sustainable price! Let’s fix the price of cocoa at 10,000 pesos a kilo. If this were the price, everybody would hurry to plant cocoa, leaving coca behind, and the government wouldn’t have to pay them two million, that’s for sure! Because cocoa, when well taken care of, can be profitable if prices are good. But none of this has been done. Nothing has happened. They took away coca from the people, and now they no longer have the means to live.

Substitution has been a hot potato for the council leaders who took the programme on their shoulders and believed in the government. We have been singled out and stigmatised in our territories. The programme has failed, and we’ve had to face the people who sacrificed their livelihood, their coca, to comply with the government’s demands. That’s why they’re killing leaders, because when things go wrong – and with substitution, everything is going terribly wrong – it is us who are blamed.

Peace is dying in Tumaco. New groups arrive every day. There are so many that one no longer know who’s who. Building peace in these territories, with no guarantees from the government, isn’t possible.

The state lost the opportunity to do things differently. Or maybe the state never loses, and it’s in their interest that things fail. Meanwhile, for us, the failure of this process is at another price: we pay with our lives. It seems black communities always lose, both in war and in peace.

Life amidst coffee, coca, marijuana and war

I’ve always lived in the Sierra Nevada. My parents were settlers who arrived in the ‘50s at the time of bipartisan violence. My dad came from Santander when he was 13 or 14 years old and got a job in Vista Nieve, one of the coffee haciendas boosting the economy in the Sierra at that time. He worked on that farm for several years until someone told him that they were giving away land in Ciénaga. It was far. It took 11 hours walking to get there. My dad went, and the locals told him: ‘as far as the eye can see, that land is yours.’ After walking along the edge of the mountain, my dad marked the land he wanted. It added up to around 150 hectares. The land was his because, at that time, people respected whatever piece of land you chose.  

Towards this side of the Sierra, there was nothing. It was all virgin mountains. To clear the land and build his farm, my dad worked in the Vista Nieve hacienda for a little longer. From there, they brought different kinds of banana shoots and coffee seeds to plant. Although the haciendas didn’t want to give away their coffee seeds, the land was fertile and the coffee grains fell to the floor, so there was virtually a seedbed under the crop. My dad told us that he and his friends went to the hacienda at night and collected the coffee seeds to plant on their farms. They carried them home on their shoulders – there wasn’t even a proper path back then, just a trail.

Around that time, my father met my mother, who was also the daughter of settlers. After a while, they decided to stay here and finish building the farm. First, they built a tiny house on the high ground, but it was too breezy, and the house fell apart. So, they decided to rebuild it on the lower part of the farm. My nine siblings and I were born there. Eventually, other families began to settle nearby too. We had more and more neighbours every day. They decided to call the hamlet Canta Rana because there were many frogs in the area, and they didn’t let us sleep at night with all their singing.

I spent the first years of my life surrounded by coffee bushes. That’s why I say I’m a coffee grower from birth or, rather, from the cradle.

I remember that there was only one variety of coffee in the Sierra, arabica, which produced tall trees and large grain. It lasted for many years, but it wasn’t that productive. And since there were good and not-so-good years, many people hesitated about whether to continue cultivating coffee.

coffee bush
Coffee bush. Photo by Catherine Setchell

My dad never stopped: he continued to grow coffee year after year. But others stopped looking after their coffee crops when they started to grow marijuana.

At the beginning of the ‘70s, anyone caught with a marijuana plant was tied up and handed over to the police. But by the time I was aware of the issue, a few years later, we were in a marimba [marijuana] bonanza, and practically everyone was in the business.

The most productive region at that point was La Reserva: there were marijuana plants wherever you looked. It was a sparsely populated area, and it was not easy to get there. It took four or five hours by foot from our farm. Not even the mules could cross that trail. So the axes, the machetes, the food, everything had to be carried on people’s shoulders. Only a few families lived there, growing coffee. Since they owned the land, they began leasing parcels to people who came to the Sierra to cultivate marijuana. They told them, ‘I lend you the land, and you give me four hundred pounds of marijuana per hectare.’

Four of my brothers had marijuana crops. They managed to plant almost seven hectares altogether.  Most of the crops were like theirs, small. But my brothers were a little more independent. Unlike the  settlers, who arrived with virtually nothing and had to find a ‘sponsor’ because maintaining a crop for several months was expensive, my brothers already knew the region and had tools and mules. In short, they already had what it takes to clear a few hectares and plant a crop. And since several of them were working on it, they didn’t need to hire more hands.

It all started by clearing a bit of land. People had to do it with an axe because there were still no chainsaws in the area back then. At that time, the weather was orderly, not like now, and you knew that it rained in April. So, my brothers burnt the land and started sowing in early April. Since the soil was very fertile, maintaining the crop was easy. It didn’t need fertilisers or anything, just cleaning from time to time. They would go up there for 10 or 15 days, and then they would come back to the farm. After a few months, the crop was ready to harvest. They cut all the bushes to collect the buds. Then, they stored everything near a creek in the forest where no one could see it. They piled the marijuana up in a shed they had built.

My brothers would wait for prices to go up, and when they had negotiated a reasonable amount, they transported the weed from their caleta [hiding place] to the mafia’s collection centres. That’s when I would help them. I was a boy, seven or eight years old, and I herded their mules. They paid me to look after them. I did many things like that.

Peasants would go to the collection centres where the marijuana would be weighed, and they were paid accordingly. The mafiosos paid everyone right away: the carrier, the worker, the cook. Then the bundles of marijuana that the peasants had brought were packed into fique sacks and converted into compact bales using a hydraulic press.

The mafiosos kept the weed in the collection centre for a while until they decided it was a good time to move it. Since we had mules, we would go there and wait for work. Sometimes we took it down to the road to be loaded onto trucks. Other times, we took it directly to a beach or an airstrip. The trip could take up to three or four days. It was hard because the area is dry, and I felt thirsty all the time. When the buyers came, they paid everyone according to the number of mules they had: ‘How many mules? Here’s your money.’

At that time, money flowed freely. Marijuana was more profitable than coffee.

And those who had no cash could quickly get someone to finance the planting of a marijuana crop. Some of my friends, who came to the region as coffee pickers, set up marijuana crops and made up to ten million pesos, which was a lot of money at the time. But they spent it all. Many peasants were not used to handling so much money, and since everyone believed that the bonanza would never end, they wasted it. Only a few decided to invest in their farms, buy a house or fix up their beneficiadero – the place for processing the coffee harvest. Of course, those wealthy families who got into the business already knew how to handle money. They invested in land, cattle and banana crops in the flatlands.

The bonanza didn’t last long. My brothers only managed two harvests. In the early ‘80s, it all got complicated. There were years when nobody was buying weed at all. Many people sold their harvest on credit and ended up losing everything; the buyers never paid them. Then, the government decided to fumigate the crops with glyphosate.

In addition, things became very violent. This was another reason some people stopped cultivating marijuana. Theft was common, so the mafia formed ‘combos’ or small groups of armed men, who they paid to guard the caletas and transport routes. But different combos ended up fighting each other, and anybody could be killed for their harvest, money, even their mules. There was violence all around. Everybody was armed. To be in the marimba business, you had to have a gun.

So, the bonanza ended, and we all had to go back to coffee.

Few people had cut down their coffee crops to grow marijuana, but we had to build the farms again because they were neglected during the bonanza.  And by then, conditions were even more difficult.  The environmental damage caused by the crops and the fumigations was noticeable. Also, armed groups had established themselves in the area.

The first time I saw the guerrillas, I was eight years old. Two armed guys and a young woman came to chat with my dad. My father sent me inside because children were not allowed to talk to adults in those days. Soon, local people were hanging around with them. With time, they were no longer four or ten rebels but a whole army. And, gradually, we got used to seeing them around. Many people my age got involved in that story. They invited me to join them, but, thank God, I never had that madness. Many of my friends and neighbours left to join the insurgency and died quickly.

When the guerrillas arrived, the first thing they did was to finish off the combos and ban marijuana crops in the region. I remember that, on the same day, they eliminated two combos, one in Nueva Granada and one in Parranda Seca. They also purchased guns from people; many peasants were armed. So they started to gain credibility because security improved in the area. They also spoke about social change in the country and encouraged us to form community action committees and organise ourselves – collectively – within the villages. Roads and other things in the region improved as a result. I remember that community leaders were encouraged and went to the city halls to demand resources. It wasn’t as dangerous then as it became in the ‘90s.

The guerrillas set the rules: you couldn’t go out at night; roads had to be clean; you had to attend meetings they organised.

We had to obey their orders, but we could still work, and governmental entities could still visit the zone. For example, the Coffee Growers Committee was able to come to the region and support the community. It was like that until the guerrillas killed one of their workers who provided technical assistance to the coffee growers. After that, they stopped coming so often. 

Over time, the guerrillas’ authority became stronger. We had to do whatever they ordered. They became more and more powerful every day until they were the lords and owners of the whole territory. In the beginning, when you saw the guerrillas, you weren’t afraid of them. They came to your house, and it was normal. If you had something to offer them, it would be welcome. If not, there wasn’t a problem. Later, they began to turn against those who wanted to earn more from their farm work, forcing them to contribute money or leave. They began to ask for the so-called ‘vaccines’, that is, to charge a fee that you had to pay with cash, animals, or something else. So, on top of everything – poor harvests and low prices – coffee farming families had to give what little they earned to the guerrillas.

Later, other guerrillas arrived, and each group had its own rules. And of course, if you paid one group, you also had to pay the other!

In other areas, some combos grew stronger and became paramilitary groups. The division of the territory between different groups made life really difficult. Family and friendships were broken. Hatred grew among people from different regions of the Sierra. Those here said people from over there were paramilitaries, and those there said people from here were guerrillas. Before, we could visit our relatives in other towns, but when the conflict began, they forbade people from there to come here and those from here to go there. When we had to run an errand  in the city, we had to go incognito without letting ourselves be seen.

Everything got even worse when the paramilitaries arrived in our area. That’s when our ordeal truly began.

One day they came to my farm and stayed overnight. They stole everything from us. They left us without anything to eat and without anything to eat with – they even took our spoons! They said they would be back in a month, so we were practically waiting for them when they came again. The first ones arrived one day in the morning and locked us in the house. By noon, there were four or five hundred of them. We were kidnapped for almost a week, and we could only eat what they gave us.

The paramilitaries and the guerrillas started fighting. We could hear gunfire every day. Then the army arrived, and we were trapped between the paramilitaries, the military and the guerrillas. We were terrified. You never knew when you, your relative, or your neighbour were going to be killed. 

I thought about leaving many times. In 2002, I felt I couldn’t take it anymore, but they wouldn’t let us go. If I went down the mountain, then my wife and my children had to stay. They had this rule that only one member of a family could go down the mountain. We couldn’t work for almost a year. Nobody was allowed to come up. The coffee crops were nearly lost. And they ate or took away the few animals I had.

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
A view of the low-lying banana zone from the Sierra Nevada mountains. Photo by Luis Castillo/Universidad Nacional de Colombia

Eventually, the paramilitaries took control of the region and drove the guerrillas out. Overnight, we went from being a guerrilla zone to being a paramilitary zone. The paramilitaries came with their own rules, and you had to comply with them. Like the guerrillas, they also took money from us, but it was even worse because they charged per hectare. Also, since they came from a coca-growing area, they wanted to replicate that here.

People hadn’t been involved in the drug business since the marijuana bonanza. Once, a group tried to grow poppy plants in the highlands, but four people were killed in a year, and the guerrillas imposed a ban, just like they had done with marijuana. But then the paramilitaries gained ground. They would approach people and say: ‘Look, you have good land to grow coca, and we can finance you. Take this two or three million and start planting’. Because of the economic crisis, and under their command, many of us began to plant coca.

First, the paramilitaries brought seeds. But later, since they wanted the crop to grow faster, they brought shoots. And since coca is so resistant, we carried the little plants up the mountain on our shoulders – it took us three or even four days walking. We planted them in the shade, and they started growing quickly. When the leaves were ready to be harvested, the paramilitaries sent some expert guys to teach us because nobody from the area knew how to raspa. They were like machines, very fast to collect the coca leaves. What we called ‘cooking the leaves’, that is, mixing the leaves with chemicals to make coca paste, came later. The paramilitaries sent an expert in chemistry, and he explained how to use the stuff.

Coca cultivation had just started to take off when the paramilitaries demobilised.

The paramilitaries set up a collection centre in La Tagua. From there, they amassed all the coca paste produced in the region and supplied us, producers, with everything: food, tools, and chemicals. Of course, it was the only place where we were allowed to sell. The rule was that we could only sell to them. So we took the coca paste there, and the buyer paid us, discounting what we had asked for in food, chemicals, and the like.

We didn’t have experience with coca, so I decided to plant a hectare of it, but also one of coffee. I thought, ‘well, if it doesn’t work, then I will still have the coffee’. And so it was, because the coca boom was shortlived, around two years. I only managed to harvest twice. Coca cultivation had just started to take off when the paramilitaries demobilised. And since no illegal armed groups were left here, the authorities and the government army arrived, saying that whoever had coca crops had to destroy them immediately. Since most crops were still small, it was easy, and we put an end to that story.

By then, people in the region were enthusiastic about organic and special coffee. The idea emerged in the middle of the conflict, but it was stagnant for about seven years. We needed to associate with others for the plan to work, to form coffee growers’ associations. But just when the project was taking shape, the paramilitaries started killing the association leaders. So we all got scared. We started over again when the demobilisation began. At that time, we only had the Ecolsierra Network. Today there are more than 12 associations. 

There is still a lot to do in the region.  After the demobilisation, security did improve, but we have a development delay of about 15 years

The associations have helped raise coffee growers’ quality of life because the extra money from organic coffee can be invested in farms, housing and social programmes. But it isn’t enough to cover the region’s needs. Our roads should already be paved, but they are terrible, and we lose a lot during the harvests as a result. We need more support from the authorities. Before, the mayors and governors didn’t come to the region, supposedly because there were guerrillas here, later because there were paramilitaries here. Now, none of these groups are around, but they still don’t come. Coffee has great potential here, but the conflict slowed us down. Most of those who didn’t die left the region. Those of us who stayed are still struggling.

Cycles of trauma

My family all come from the jade mines region. I have many relatives in and around the Hpakant township close to the jade mines. None of my family is well educated. From my parents’ generation, my father, from what I can recall, couldn’t read or write, and his brother and sister were only educated to primary level education. They all worked as farmers. My father’s family was relatively well off when compared to others. My grandfather was village chairman. When my grandfather passed away, he had enough in his estate to be able to divide his buffaloes and cows between his two sons. So, their wealth was in land and livestock, not money.

Now there is only my aunt left from my father’s family and I don’t see her often, even though she is not far away.

My aunt used to do some trading as well as work on the farm. If you wanted to sell any goods in Hpakant at that time, you had to walk along the path through the forest to get there. She also used to do some jade business before the companies came and when the jade was all dug by hand. My father and uncle just concentrated on the farm and made a living that way; they never got involved in the jade mines.

My mother passed away several months ago. I was close to her but not to any of my other relatives. Her side of the family comes from Tanai and they were also farmers. It was a big family with seven children, but only three of them are still alive. None of the children went to school apart from my mother. They couldn’t read or write and just worked on the farm, but my mother, the youngest daughter, was sent to school and trained as a nurse. She worked in the hospital in Myitkyina. They weren’t as well off as my father’s family, but overall they had a comfortable life because they had land they could farm.

Like most Kachin at that time, the families of my parents arranged for them to get married. In fact, my mother wasn’t originally the one who was going to get married to my father. My father’s family had arranged the dowry and was preparing for their son to marry my mother’s older sister, but it turned out that she already had a boyfriend, a soldier in the KIA [Kachin Independence Army], and so she ran away to avoid getting married to my father. She had quite a lively character! But my mum had a simpler character and so it was agreed that my mother would marry my father instead. So, they got married because of the arrangements between the families and not because they loved each other.

My grandfather was a very forceful character and none of his children could refuse his wishes. It seems my father also had a sweetheart but my grandfather wouldn’t let him marry the one he loved. My parents’ marriage wasn’t happy. I don’t think my father liked my mother and he used to beat her badly when he was angry. They split up when I was eight years old but remained officially married until they were separated by death.

My father used to drink a lot and when he was drunk, he would become very quarrelsome and violent. When he wasn’t drunk, he used to love us, his children.

My father used to drink a lot and when he was drunk he would become very quarrelsome and violent. When he wasn’t drunk, he used to love us, his children. I have five siblings but one of my sisters and both of my brothers have passed away.

I was told that, when I was born, I was very cute. I used to blame myself for the beatings my mother received because one of the issues that would trigger this violence was that I didn’t really look like him. My elder brother and I don’t have the same dark skin tone, and I am a little bit tall and a bit fat, and so he said that my brother and I were not his children. He used to say that my mother was not faithful to him. Because of this, he would beat my mother, and I would be beaten often, too; but he didn’t beat my brother. When I was little, if the neighbours said that I was very cute; I would ask them not to say that because my mother would be beaten. Sometimes we tried to intervene to stop him beating her. I remember one time when I was eight, he even stabbed her in her thigh with his ‘Dah’ [traditional sword], which Kachin people use for farming. He was blind drunk and it was only because my brother was there that something even worse didn’t happen. Later in my life, my mother would also tell me frequently that I was one of the reasons that she would be beaten. She was quite simple and I don’t think she really knew what she was saying. My father would look for any opportunity to criticise my mother and to beat her.

My father used to believe in animist nat or spirits, but then our family converted to Christianity. My siblings and I were Catholics and other family members were Baptists. But I think sometimes when he was blind drunk that, although he had rejected animism, the spirits were still bothering him because he wouldn’t comply with their wishes and make offerings.

One day, when my father was drunk, my mother took me and my sister and she ran away with us.

My father always said that the reason she did this was because she was being unfaithful with other guys. The fact that she only took me and one other sister caused problems with my siblings. She left one of my sisters behind as she believed that my brother, who was looking after the farm, would need someone at home to feed him and make sure that he had enough rations when he was working. My sister was left behind with a sense of injustice and she developed a very cold relationship with my mother, even when she became an adult and had her own family. She refused to have much contact with my mother after that. My sister thought that my mother took me because she must love me the most.

My mother ran away back to her parents several times, but she was always sent back to my father. The family on my mother’s side felt that they had to send her back because the arrangements between the family were fixed and dowries had been paid. My father’s family never had to come and fetch her; she was always just sent back.

The last time I saw my father was when I was 12. At that time, when I went back to the village to see him, again people told me how much he used to beat my mother. My father took a second wife according to a tradition we have: when my father’s brother passed away, he had the responsibility to marry his brother’s wife. When my father died, he died in her arms. My mother passed away recently. Now both of my parents have passed away and I don’t want to be involved in the village anymore. I used to rely on my mother but now she is gone, I feel that I am just wandering and flowing in the current.

I remember when my mother grabbed me to go to Tanai to her parents’ house, it was a really difficult journey, and I became very ill. I cried a lot and my mother almost left me on the road while she went in search of her younger sister to stay with. I cried the whole night. The next morning, we decided to go to Kamaing where there were some more relatives. You could only travel there by boat and people would take it in turns to carry me on their backs until we got to our destination. My mother registered me at the local school and then she went to another village to stay with some other relatives and where she could do some trading.

Morning market in Tanai
Morning market in Tanai, Kachin State. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

So, I was just left in Kamaing. No one else from the family came to look after me or to give me money.

When I needed to pay for extra tuition at the school, I couldn’t pay and I was so embarrassed. Over time, I realised there was some water spinach around the house where I was staying and so I used to pick it and sell it.

This helped me to pay for school and also to buy rice. Gradually the water spinach ran out and so I decided to go to the place where my brother was living and ask him for help. He gave me some rice, but he didn’t give me any money. I still blame my brother for that. My brother was fairly well off and he could have given me some money. I also blame his wife; my sister-in-law is really immoral. They had cows and would get about five new calves every year; they also had a lot of paddy fields. But they never supported me. I think my brother had the same diseased blood as my father when he is drunk. My brother later died in prison. He started dealing drugs and was put in prison for that. While he was locked up, my sister-in-law had a relationship with a KIA officer, which my brother heard about. One day, he ran away from the work camp he was in, outside the prison, and shot his wife’s lover dead. He did it openly where people could see him clearly so he was rearrested. He was sentenced to death by hanging, but he was beaten to death first in the prison. The family had to pay a lot of compensation according to customary law and so we lost all the cows, which were each worth about 30,000 kyats at the time. The KIA could have handled the case differently, but we didn’t know anything about this legal process at the time and so we lost all the cows. I still bear a grudge because of that.

When I was in the third grade, I sent a letter to my sister. I could no longer bear the hardship anymore and so I went to stay with her. But it was difficult. She had a bad relationship with me and my mother. I went to another village for Grade 4 but the school only went up to that grade. So, I would have to go back to Kamaing to progress to Grade 5. But I couldn’t stand going to school any more in Kamaing because they used to beat me with a broom; my life there was so hard. That is why I stopped my education at the fourth grade.

I went to see my aunt in a nearby village, where she and her family are farmers. I was crying because I had been beaten with a broom. She thought it would be best if she taught me how to plant paddy and then I could work as a day labourer. That was in the time when they introduced the 200 kyat note. I have worked as a casual and day labourer ever since. My cousin is just one month older than me and so it was decided that we would both stop school at fourth grade together and my aunt would teach us what we needed to know.

I just continued planting and reaping paddy and never thought about doing anything else. I was paid 200 kyats per day. I did that until I was 16. Occasionally, a group of us would go to the shallow ponds and catch fish by bailing out the water. We just went from one job to another. Eventually, I went to the village where my mother had been living and stayed with her.

Close to where my mother was living there was a KIA post. They would often seize young people from the area, probably two out of every four people coming from nearby villages, although their parents would sometimes take them back later. It was a problem for us because, at that time, the KIA needed more women soldiers. Although I was younger than all my friends, I looked more mature than them and couldn’t dress like them, and often the soldiers would tease me. I would respond angrily and sometimes get into trouble. My brother didn’t want me to stay there because he was worried I would be taken by the KIA for military training, but my mother said that one of the commanders was a relative and this would help me to avoid it and she gave me a ring that I could give to him.

It was around this time that I met my first husband. The relative I was living with needed to move and I was worried that I would have to move too, and so I plotted how to avoid that outcome. My first husband didn’t like me but he had an affair with me secretly – his family had a shop on the opposite side of the road to my relative. My uncle, who I lived with, didn’t like him. Still, we got married and we had two children, but it was really bad, and I was in so much trouble.

As my husband was the youngest son, we had to live with his family. My father-in-law used to be a soldier in the Burmese army and he would curse me because I couldn’t speak Burmese.

He treated me badly. He also encouraged my husband’s drug habit. Whenever my father-in-law wanted my husband to go and work on the family farm or bring goods from the river, he would offer him money to do it, but my husband would refuse to take it. He would only go if he were given drugs and so my father-in-law gave him drugs. Because of this, we didn’t have any money. I didn’t like it but when I complained, my father-in-law would slap me. Lots of my husband’s relatives were drug users.

Mine workers Hpakant, Myanmar
Mine workers in Hpakant, Kachin State. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

I was beaten so much because of this drug issue. My husband used to beat me a lot, mainly when I tried to interrupt his drug taking. The family also wouldn’t allow me to cut my hair. My husband used to plait it and dye it and then he would loop my hair around his hand and beat me with it. My hair fibres became ruined because of it.

My husband joined the KIA and went to the front line in Hkaya Mountain. It was there that he started injecting heroin.

He had two brothers but one brother had a broken hand and the other brother had many children to support, and so my husband joined up. I just waited for him, but by then I knew that he had a lesser [or second] wife too. I didn’t want to do any work in the family and I just bought rice for myself. As my husband was a soldier and on the front line, I was supposed to take rice to help support the army camp. We were supposed to take a bushel of rice to the camp every month. My husband’s friends went and took rice but I wasn’t interested in doing it. I just stayed away and fed the pigs and distilled liquor.

I think I am very headstrong and in the past I was very loud and rebellious, and could be rude to people. My mother told me before she died that I should not be too proud and outspoken but I think I am like this because I was never reprimanded or supported when I was a student. As the wife of a KIA soldier, I think I became even more fearless than I was before!

One time after my husband had left the KIA camp, a relative who was also his commander in the KIA and whose pigs I used to feed, bought some piglets from me. We agreed that they would pay 30,000 kyats. However, the next day, my husband told me he already asked for a 10,000 kyat advance from them, which he had spent on heroin. We quarrelled really badly and he beat me so much. In the past when we quarrelled, he would sometimes wait around for me and then beat me again, but this time I decided to leave. My children were still young, with a gap of just two years between them; my eldest son was just about to enter primary school. I wanted to take them with me very much, but I didn’t want my husband to follow me. My mother also didn’t like him at all and so I left my children and all the money I had with my sister-in-law, his first brother’s wife, to look after them. That’s when I started working in the opium cultivation sites, to provide money for my children.

When I moved to the new village, I started to drink more and more. Before this, although I would distil alcohol, I couldn’t drink it; but I missed my children and soon I found myself drinking a jug of liquor in a few minutes and getting drunk. I then also started to use drugs because I was very fat and I thought taking drugs would help me to lose weight. I wanted to wear jeans, but I didn’t dare to do so. I couldn’t wear skirts or short pants because I was very fat. With drug use, I soon became slim because I didn’t eat anything. So, I was able to wear whatever I wanted and I didn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. Ever since then, I have used drugs. I also started smoking, but when I smoked cigarettes my lips became very dark. Some of the camp commanders from nearby told me that I should be put in the pigsty with the hogs because my lips were very dark.

The first time I tried to detoxify from formula [opium mixed with cough syrup], I had withdrawal effects for about three or four days. I suffered a lot. I lost body weight, and my face was thin. I couldn’t sleep the whole night. After that, I started going to the opium farms and used drugs there but this time I used black opium. There were many people there, both men and women, living and working on the farms. The farm guard cooked black opium and the workers didn’t have to pay the farm owner for it. They didn’t tell you that you had to use it, it is your choice, but I used black opium for as long as the opium cultivation lasted.

Using black opium was different to using formula. When I used formula, I didn’t want to speak a lot, but with black opium although at first I was dizzy with its smell, I was very happy. We positioned the long pipe with the black opium in the middle and formed a circle around it. Then, we chatted and took it in turns to take it. When we use formula, we don’t need friends to take it, but when we use black opium, people crowd together.

The people who cultivate the poppy are the bosses. We were the workers. Young boys and girls from Myitkyina also came and worked there. After we had scratched opium, we weren’t allowed to go back home until the poppy cultivation had finished. Even the opium owners didn’t leave from that point. When the cultivation had finished, people could leave, but no one was allowed to carry opium with them; we even had to throw away our clothes and leave them behind. There were a lot of checks at the check points in Tanai. Sometimes they would even check your little finger to see if you had a small cut from where you had scratched the poppy with a knife.

I worked in opium poppy farms in Tanai for a few seasons, and also in Tarung. Altogether I did it for about seven seasons. When I was away from the cultivation sites, I didn’t use opium, but when I was there, I used it all the time. I didn’t suffer very much when I stopped using it at the end of the season. It wasn’t like when I stopped heroin. When I stopped using heroin, I suffered a lot and got a very haggard face.

At first when I used heroin, I didn’t like the smell of it. I first tried it when I went to Hkun Sar Kong to scavenge for jade stones.

Hpakant jade mine
The Hpakant jade mines, Kachin State. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

Initially, I brought some black opium with me, which I hoped would last about a week while I worked there. When I ran out, I gave 15,000 kyats to the person who used to examine our jade stones for quality and asked him to buy some black opium for me. He knew the area and knew a lot about the drugs scene because he was a drug user. He went out but he didn’t get it for me as he said he didn’t want to cook black opium. I was craving the drug by this point, and he went out again at 12 o’clock but came back after he had already used heroin and told me again that he didn’t get it. I asked him again to go and find some for me. He went again and this time brought back some heroin and a syringe for me. I told him that I didn’t want it, but by the time it got to 3 o’clock and I couldn’t eat rice because I was craving the drug, I took some heroin and it gave me a bit of relief. I then used it again that night.

This is one of the differences between opium and heroin. If we use black opium just once, it is enough to last all day, but with heroin, you can’t stay without it for that long.

When I was staying in the mountain area with my first husband’s family, I became very ill. All the family used drugs and when I got sick, they would always suggest that I use some heroin to take away the pain. When I had a stomach ache, they would give me a little heroin. Later, if my back ached, I was told to use heroin and when I said I didn’t want to, they injected me with it anyway. As soon as they had injected me, the pain was relieved. The next morning, they injected me again and from that point, I started to become addicted. I didn’t inject heroin myself as I was afraid. My friends injected me. I put the heroin in the syringes, but I didn’t dare to inject it into my body myself. This happened for about four months and I started to use heroin more and more. Also, in the village where I lived, the Pat Jasan anti-drug movement had made it very difficult to gather to use a long pipe. After a while, I chose heroin because I liked the taste. Soon I was spending all the money that I needed for my children on drugs. When I had money, I would just sleep all day. But as soon as I got up, I would wonder how I could get the drug.

After the terrible time of my first marriage, I married another KIA soldier. We have two children and my youngest became addicted when she was in my womb. I was living with my mother-in-law at this time and she didn’t know I was using heroin at first. She is very godfearing. I used to use heroin secretly when I was lying under the mosquito net, and it used to make me yawn after I had used it.

I was using more than one bottle of heroin a day when I was pregnant. For the first months of the pregnancy I didn’t inject, but in the last month, I started to inject. I gave birth to my baby at 11 o’clock at night by caesarean section and after the baby was lifted from my womb, I yawned because I had exerted myself and I really craved heroin. I asked my husband if he could go into Kamaing and get me some drugs but it wasn’t so easy to find there and he couldn’t get any. I hadn’t used heroin since 3 o’clock and I was really craving it so much that I didn’t even want to stay with my baby. Also, the baby was crying a lot because she was aching and also craving heroin. She wouldn’t stop crying even when I breast-fed her. As I was craving the drug so much, I left the hospital and went out onto the street. At that time, my husband came back and took us home. Before we arrived at our house, I injected heroin in the house of our brother-in-law. My husband held our baby and when my baby sensed the smell of heroin from my body, she started to cry. After I had taken the heroin, I breast-fed my daughter. From that point, I knew she was addicted to the drug. Since then, we have had to be very careful with her because of this problem. In the mornings, I would suck in the smell of the heroin and blow it into my baby’s nose. She really knew the smell. Since then, as she has grown up, she has come to recognise it even more. When she smelled heroin, she approached us. She wouldn’t take my breast milk unless I had injected heroin. We really had to look after her because she could have died. My daughter has got emphysema because everyone uses drugs in the place where she lived with me and she inhaled the smoke and fumes. I became very thin, and initially my child was even thinner than me. I saw her recently and now she is very plump and her face is very big and full. At least I never beat my child.

While I was breast-feeding my baby, she was taken from me and then I came here to this rehab centre. This was two months ago and I have really missed her a lot in the last few days. I didn’t like that my relatives did that to me and I cried a lot at that time when they took her away, but now I really thank them. We were all in trouble, my children and myself. It is not that I don’t love my children, but I don’t have strong feelings of attachment.

I haven’t had close relationships with any relatives apart from my mother, and she has passed away. I won’t go and meet my children when I leave from here in case I feel too attached to them.

It was very difficult when I had to look after the two children I had with my first husband in the past. I had to look after them, so that is why I went to the opium farms for work.

Poppy farm
Poppy farm. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

But my relatives then were not helpful. They didn’t like it if I left my children with them. That’s why I don’t have a close relationship with my relatives. I don’t like my siblings. I am not upset about it because I have never got anything from them and I have never relied on them. I don’t have feelings of attachment to my children, my sisters or my brothers.

My two eldest children are now in the old village where their father, my first husband, looks after them. I don’t want to go back to that house or to meet my children there. Who would feel the most hurt? Me or them? My married life was unfortunate, but I wasn’t unfaithful and I always fulfilled my duties, unlike others.

Some women who need drugs sell their bodies, I have never done that even though men have asked. They assume that if you are a woman user that you will sell your body. I usually take drugs with men and that has probably made my use worse, but I don’t sell my body.

I have a room close to the main place where you buy drugs in the town, near the bridge, and I was staying there with my baby and my young child that I had with my second husband because it was easier to live near the place where I could get drugs when I had two young children than have to travel a long distance. I built the room myself. People see me with my children, one holding my hand and one on my back and they are surprised – the police and the dealers are surprised. Sometimes if my child cries or if I hit my child, some of the dealers will give me a large bottle of formula because they feel sorry for the child.

I only buy from the big dealers, and I also sell some drugs. One of the big dealers, a woman, built a place almost like a house with small holes in it. Yaba [methamphetamine pills] was sold from one side and heroin was sold from the other side. They have their own security there and you can’t use your phone. If you do, they will beat you up, especially if they don’t know you. It was recently set on fire. But the police told them beforehand and such things happens sometimes. When I became a drug user I became shy and ran away when I saw my friends and relatives. In the past, because I needed to make money, I used to be very friendly with bosses and administrators, but now when I see them coming to me, I run away from them and hide in the alley. I don’t even want to leave home anymore. I am ashamed in front of those I know and I am not ashamed in front of those I don’t know. If there is no sense of shame, it is difficult to detoxify from drugs. If there is no shame, I might continue to use drugs without caring or paying attention to anyone.

Twelve years in prison was the price I paid for using drugs

My name is Sai Sarm and I was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the use and possession of illegal drugs. I have spent a quarter of my life in prison. Those 12 years were the lowest points of my life. I had to be apart from the ones I love, my daughter, my wife and my relatives.

Throughout my time in prison, I felt like I was living in the darkness and that I would not find my way back home. Sometimes thoughts of death occupied my mind, but I resisted, endured and survived. Whenever I got depressed and felt like I had lost all hope, I would look at a photo of my daughter and tell Myanmar 57 myself that one day I will be out of prison and I will see her and my wife’s faces again.

My life as a young man

I am from Muse, so I grew up on the Myanmar–China border in northern Shan State. I got married when I was 21 and we had our daughter after two years of marriage.

As I was the head of the household, I had to earn money and take care of my wife and daughter. It was not that easy to make money back then. So, in around 1994 or ‘95, I went to work for a man who owned a gambling business.

My job was to help the boss look after the customers. Of course, where there is gambling there tends to be drugs. When people lost money, some resorted to selling drugs to get more money to gamble. Others would use drugs as a way out [mentally].

Due to the nature of the work, all my time was spent there – even sleeping and eating. I had to go wherever they sent me and do whatever they asked me to do. Consequently, with more income, and having the nature of a man, I started to get involved in taking drugs and having lovers.

Later I got myself a mistress. Then my income reduced and what I earned was no longer enough to support my family.

The government had started to crack down on gambling and was closing gambling sites. I became very distressed due to the reduced income and about my family affairs. I resorted to drugs to ease my troubled mind.

But drugs could only temporarily reduce the stress. Gradually, I found myself becoming addicted. Although I really wanted to stop, I could not and there was no one that I could go to for advice. I was so lost. I was in the grips of a serious addiction on the one hand, and had the responsibility of supporting my family on the other. I knew that there was no one to blame but myself. Nobody was pressuring me to earn a certain amount of money, not my parents, not even my wife. Still, I could not save myself from addiction. I could not work at all if I did not use drugs.

Later my family members and people around me started to notice that I was using drugs. They wanted me to recover from the addiction. Several times my older brother took me for treatment, but it never worked.

At first, I was only taking khaku [black opium mixed with dry gotu-kola, a herbaceous plant used as a medicinal herb]. Later on, it was more difficult to get khaku, so I turned to heroin. In the beginning my friend would lace tobacco with heroin. I noticed that after smoking I would feel a calmness and an easing of the mind. Initially, I didn’t think about the side effects and bad consequences. I learned about those gradually. After two months, I knew that I was seriously addicted. Khaku was 500 kyat a pack, while the same amount of heroin was worth only 200. So, instead of khaku I continued using heroin.

Although I was using drugs, I never asked my family or parents for money. I had also never stolen from anyone. I would find my own way to get drugs. After I quit my job working for the gambling business, to support my wife and children (and my addiction), I started to work for a businessman who was involved in drug trafficking. At first, the boss allowed me to take some of the drugs. However, I found myself using an increasing amount. In the beginning I would use about a teaspoon of heroin each time, but that increased to two teaspoons. Finally, my boss fired me.

My arrest and detention

In 2002, one late evening, I brought some drugs with me to smoke with my friend. I was so drunk and high that I couldn’t return home on the same day (back then there was limited accessibility from one place to another by road). Unfortunately, we bumped into the anti-drug police. They searched me and found some heroin. They also tested me and found drugs in my urine.

I was charged for both use and possession of an illegal narcotic. I was sent to Muse court. I told the court that I only used drugs and that I was not involved in selling or trafficking them. I had to seek a recommendation from my ward authority [the head of the local administration] who confirmed that I was not involving in dealing drugs. With the recommendation the court sentenced me to 12 years imprisonment.

After I was sent to prison, one of my older sisters came to visit me. I told her ‘Do not worry about me and cry, I will come back and see you again’. I was right; I would get the chance to reunite with my relatives and see my sister once again.

As it was a long imprisonment, I was so depressed and felt like I had lost all hope. There was nothing I could do. I missed my family and home terribly. I was not sure when I would return home or if I would get out of the prison alive.

I could not do anything but tell myself that Karma will decide.

My life in prison

During the 12 years, I got transferred to different prisons. First, I was in Muse, then I was sent to Lashio. After that I was transferred to Mandalay and finally to Taung Lay Lone Prison in Taunggyi (Shan State’s capital) where I served over eight years.

When I was in Lashio prison, one of my inmate friends asked me to join him and some others in an escape attempt. Just before we made our attempt he said, ‘you need to eat a lot of rice so that you will have the strength’. However, we failed. The prison guards made me kneel down and held my hand across my head, they beat us and interrogated us one by one. Back then I could not speak Burmese very well. So, they asked another inmate, who is a Shan guy from Lashio, to help with interpretation. They asked why I had tried to escape and where I was planning to go. I told them I didn’t know why or where we were planning to go, that I was just following my friend. So, the prison authority did not punish me.

One day in Mandalay prison, the Myanmar army came to ask for 50 convicts, most of whom were serving longterm sentences of a minimum of 12 years. I was one of the 50 prisoners to be used by the military as porters on the frontline.

We had to carry their ammunition and weapons all the way from Kholam to Keng Tawng and Keng Kham in southern Shan State, a journey that lasted about 20 days.

When we were on the frontline in Keng Tawng, one of my convict friends, who is a Burmese guy and only had a three-year sentence, asked me to escape with him. We had the chance to go when the two of us were tasked to collect water from the river in the valley and the soldier who guarded us was on the hill in the distance. My friend gave me a sign to escape with him, but I refused to join him. Even if I had managed to escape, I would not have been able to work and take care of my family freely. And if the attempt failed, I would have had to serve a longer prison term.

I met that same inmate again in the Taung Lay Lone prison [in Taunggyi]. He told me that he should have listened to me. He would have been a free man by then, but they added more years to his sentence for trying to escape.

Release from prison

Most of the convicts I met in Taung Lay Lone were Shan. There were also prisoners of other nationalities and ethnicities, such as Indian and Chinese descent. Some had committed general crimes like stealing, robbery and killing. But most of the Shan convicts were charged with drug-related crimes – either use, possession or trafficking.

Prisoners were often rented out by prison authorities (who collect the profit) to work as forced labourers in the farms or paddy fields.

Rice field in Shan State, Myanmar
Rice field in Lashio township, northern Shan State. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

The prison staff asked the inmates to raise their hands if they knew how to plough and till the land. I did not raise my hand, although I did know how. But a few other inmates knew that I knew how to farm and the prison staff approached me and told me not to lie. So, I had no choice but to work on the farm. There were four of us in our group. I had to take the lead in working 200 acres of paddy field owned by the military.

The paddies happened to be having a good yield and so the prison authorities allowed me to have certain freedoms. I stayed in a make-shift shelter that we built ourselves and worked in the field during the day. I was still a convict and under the prison department’s watch.

For five years I had to work, for free, in the farm and paddy field. During those five years I had many chances to escape. But I did not as I knew it would not be a true freedom. I wanted to go back and stay with my wife, my children and my relatives freely. So, I had to resist the urge to escape.

Throughout 12 years of imprisonment, I had different experiences involving all kinds of work and forced labour. Towards the end of my prison term, I was called in by the monks to stay and assist in the monastery. I used to accompany the monks to collect alms. I stayed in the monastery for about six months. The monks told me that I no longer needed to worry about anything and that I was a free man. I replied to the monks that I would not feel like I was a truly free man until I got the discharge certificate from the prison department.

On the day I completed my 12 years in prison, a monk went to the prison authority to get me the discharge certificate. As soon as I saw it, I was so joyful that I could not control my tears. There were a few inmates who got released on the same day. We were hugging and looking at each other. We were too numb to even feel the happiness. We didn’t know if we should cry or laugh.

Looking back at my life in the prison, it was ups and downs. I’m not sure if I should say that I was lucky or unlucky. I was unlucky to get arrested and put in prison and I was put on the frontline as a porter, carrying weapons and ammunition. But I was lucky to have had the chance to stay in the monastery and do the morning alms round with the monks.

Return home

Returning home was quite a journey for me too. It had been over 10 years. I could no longer recognise the surroundings, including the houses or the people I met. I had to ask the names of their parents to identify who they were.

I was so happy that I got the chance to return to my hometown. I still am. People in the community treated me the same and there was no discrimination at all. I returned to my community as a totally renewed person and with a full recovery.

Village in northern Shan State
Village in northern Shan State. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

When I first arrived, I did not go out much as I did not want my relatives and people in the community to think that I had gone to look for drugs. I would stay at home and help my family in the household so as to gain back their trust.

After a while I gradually interacted with the community and re-entered into society. Over time, my full status as a normal person was restored. With the help and connection of one of my friends who was working in the business department of one of the militia groups in the area, I got work in the same department. Only then did I gain my physical and financial strength, and my self-esteem, back. Working for this department that serves the people gave me a chance to restore and recover. I needed that courage and strength to reunite with my daughter.

Reunion with my wife and daughter

I hadn’t seen my daughter’s face since the day I was arrested. Throughout my time in the prison, I only had a picture of her taken when she was a little child. I had no idea what she would be like by the time I was released.

Not long after my release, I had the chance to attend my daughter’s university graduation ceremony. Please imagine that! I had wasted over 10 years of my life in prison. I had left my daughter as a young child and she had already completed university! The day that I attended my daughter’s graduation ceremony was the happiest moment of my life. I do not know how to express the joy that I felt on that day.

I was so ashamed and had no confidence at all when I saw my wife’s and my daughter’s faces for the first time. I had lied to them and left them for such a long time. I had made a lot of mistakes. But it was important to admit my mistakes and face the consequences of what I had done. The guilt struck me as I was taking a picture with my wife and daughter. But I told myself that I would work hard, behave myself and become a new person.

This is my life story and it is a huge life lesson for me. I would like to encourage young people to learn from my mistake and my life. I would like to urge you to stay away from drugs. Finally, I would like to encourage all the young people to study hard and seek to become educated and live their lives wisely

Life as the sole breadwinner of a family impoverished by drugs

I am so fed up with drugs. I don’t even want to hear people speak about them. I say this because my family has been badly impacted by drug addiction.

I am the elder sister of four younger brothers. Three of my brothers have used drugs.

Currently, we have no idea where my first younger brother is. He stole from people and left because he had no way to pay back the debts. My second younger brother has contracted HIV. My third younger brother used drugs, but not in a serious way. So, I sent him and my youngest brother to live in Taunggyi. We were afraid that if they stayed in our community, they would become addicted to drugs too.

My family and I live in a remote village in Hsipaw, northern Shan State. We rely on seasonal farming, like everyone in our community. In the past, when our father was still strong and healthy, our family was doing fine. All our siblings could go to school. But three of my younger brothers gave up on school. They were never interested in studying. They said that even if they finished school, it wouldn’t be any use. I was the only one who finished school. I struggled to support myself through university, and finally I graduated. Our youngest brother is still studying.

I went to university in Mandalay (in a different region). During that time, I didn’t get much chance to go back home and I didn’t know much about what was happening there. My younger brothers were living with our parents, doing seasonal work to get by.

After university I returned home. Two of my younger brothers took up a job transporting cattle into China. That was in 2012–2013 and cattle trading across the border was a really good business. Each trip lasted about 10–20 days, but sometimes up to two months. However, I never saw them bring home the money they earned. I guess they spent it all on drugs. They only came home once all the money was gone. Around that time, my first younger brother married a woman who is older than our mother! I was speechless.

Rural travel Lashio Shan State
Rural travel and transportation in Lashio Township, northern Shan State. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

In my village, almost every household has people living with drug addiction (there are only about five houses without anyone using drugs). In our community drugs are easily and cheaply available. Three tablets cost around 200 MMK [less than 50 US cents]. I learned just how serious my brothers’ addictions were after I returned home from university. They would use all kinds of drugs, including heroin and amphetamines. My parents knew about it, but they couldn’t intervene to stop it.

I feel so desperate for my brothers. I don’t think they wanted to fall victim to drugs, but I guess they could not resist the peer-pressure. I think another reason why young people start using drugs is the bad influence of seeing their family members use them. They’re everywhere in our society. I have seen parents or adults ask their underage family members to buy them cigarettes. This is giving young people a good impression of cigarettes and drugs. Traditionally we think that everything our parents, adults and older people say is true and good. We are taught to abide by and listen to older people, and especially our parents whom we regard as our first teachers. This way of thinking in our society might have contributed to my brothers becoming addicted to drugs.

Initially my brothers were able to sustain their drug use with their earnings. Later, they were no longer willing to work like before. At some point, they stopped working and started stealing to support their drug use.

Our father was also getting old and no longer able to make large amounts of money. So, the responsibility to support our entire household fell on my shoulders. I was working with a local non-governmental organisation in my area, so my income was not that good. But anyway, I had to struggle on to support my family. There was no other choice. My brothers’ situation gradually got worse. They would steal anything – furniture, people’s possessions, including motorbikes and cars. They would even steal motorbikes owned by the police and soldiers.

My brothers didn’t care how much the item was worth, they would exchange it for any amount of money to buy drugs. In many cases, the people they stole from would come to our house and ask us to compensate them for what they had stolen. When that happened, I would be the one who had to apologise, pay them and sometimes beg them not to escalate the issue to the police or local authorities.

I had to sell all my valuable items and belongings, including my smartphone, to pay people back for what my brother had stolen. I would find alternative ways to earn money, like selling groundnuts. Sometimes, I even had to sell my clothes. I borrowed money from friends. I had to beg and promise that I would pay them back when I received my salary at the end of the month. Some of my friends even made a remark that the only job I have not done is prostitution and how fortunate that I did not. They were right. I am lucky that I have managed to find better alternatives to earn the money. Otherwise, my life would be in ruin. Sometimes my brothers asked me for money and when I didn’t have any they would become verbally abusive and violent. At times, the debts left our family with not even enough money to buy rice. Things were very difficult throughout 2013–2016. No matter how much I earned and how hard I worked, the money was never enough.

We felt so embarrassed and humiliated. People would talk badly about our family. They would not trust our family at all.

For example, if one of our neighbours found something was missing, they would accuse my brother and come straight to our house to search for the item.

We don’t know where to seek help or who to rely on. We have to find the way out on our own. No government or organisation will come and help tackle this problem.

We have village leaders and a village headman, but they can barely do anything to tackle the drug dealing and addiction issues. Even when the community has brought up specific cases of drug dealers or drug users, the village leaders could not take any action.

Discarded syringes
Discarded syringes in northern Shan state. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

There have been some community efforts to help tackle and prevent the use of drugs. My friend used to carry out some community campaigning work, arresting drug users and asking the local authorities and the police to handle the case (for example by sending them to treatment centres). But the police and local authorities said there was nothing they could do, so my friend had to let them go.

The local authorities and the police are only interested in arresting young drug users from rich families; only wealthy parents are able to bribe the police to release their sons/ daughters. We can never expect local authorities and police to proactively arrest drug users or dealers in the Myanmar community. Local authorities and politicians are not interested in finding a way to help tackle the problem and help us. So, who are we going to rely on? We have to rely on ourselves and find a way out on our own.

In 2017, I received news that there was one ethnic armed organisation helping with drug treatment. I heard about this because of my work engaging with different local organisations, most people would not have heard about it. They said that there was a drug treatment centre in Lashio. I had never heard of that place before. It was not a drug-rehabilitation centre, rather a drop-in centre for drug users to get medication. Most people don’t know there is such a facility.

I contacted the centre to send my brother for treatment.

When he arrived, they tested him and found that he had HIV. He needed HIV treatment. We had the option to send him to Thailand for the treatment. But he didn’t have an identification card and the medication was very expensive, so we couldn’t.

We were so desperate. I had no choice but to seek help from one of the youth organisations in Southern Shan. I begged them to accommodate my brother and promised that I would try to pay for all the fees, including for the medication. The organisation was very understanding of my brother’s situation and accepted him. He is still receiving treatment there today.

As for my first younger brother, in 2014 he was arrested and sent to Taung Lay Lone prison in Taunggyi. Since then, we haven’t heard from him. We don’t know if he is dead or alive.

When he was in the prison, we couldn’t visit him because the travel expenses were huge. We did not even have enough money to feed our family, so we could not afford to visit him. Anyway, he had to pay for his own misdeed.

I brought my other two brothers with me to Taunggyi, where I am working now. If I let my brothers stay behind in the village, they would become addicted to drugs. My third youngest brother is helping the organisation I work for. He doesn’t use drugs anymore. As for my youngest brother, we let him stay in the dormitory and go to school. Once, I asked my brother living with HIV if he would like to come back home, he replied, ‘I am sick of seeing those people’. I teased him ‘is it you who is sick of seeing them, or are they the ones who do not want to see you?’

Our house in the village is empty. Drugs tore my family apart. We are all in different locations. Our parents went to stay with our relatives in another area. Only once in a while our parents go back to the village.

The struggles and difficulties caused by drug addiction are still impacting us today. This is such a huge problem, and it is very challenging to tackle. So, for me there is nothing that can be done but to console myself with Dharma [a Buddhist teaching] and tell myself that I am not the only one who has gone through this struggle and these difficulties.

I want to share the struggles of our family so that others might be able to avoid what we have had to go through. I pray and wish that I will not have to go through those same struggles and misery again.

Transforming war economies into peace economies

Over the past four years, the Drugs & (dis)order consortium has been addressing the question: ‘how can war economies be transformed into peace economies in regions experiencing or recovering from armed conflict?’

We have conducted research in nine drug- and conflict-affected borderland regions of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar – three of the world’s biggest illicit drug producers – and all have been shaped by peace processes alongside escalating violence.

We focus on illicit drugs because they are one of the main commodities fuelling war economies, and on borderland regions as they are major hubs in transnational drug economies. Even after the signing of national peace agreements, these regions often remain conflict hotspots, and are thus central to the challenge of transforming drug-fuelled war economies into sustainable peacetime economies.

There has been growing recognition that drug policies should be more pro-poor and aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. But the evidence base to support any such reform is patchy, politicised and contested.

Drugs & (dis)order sought to generate robust empirical data to help build a new evidence base. Of course, better evidence alone will not transform policies. Our research has also placed the policy fields of drugs, development and peacebuilding under the spotlight to better understand the agendas, interests and power struggles that shape policy dynamics and outcomes.

Contested transitions in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar

A lot has happened in each of the three countries over the course of these four years. The events that have unfolded show that war-to-peace transitions are rarely linear and that illicit drug economies play a complex role in these processes.

Our research in Afghanistan started more than two years before the Doha talks initiated in September 2020 between the US government and the Taliban, which led to the Doha Agreement in which the US agreed to a staged withdrawal from the country, conditional on Taliban security assurances. This set in train a series of events that emboldened the Taliban and weakened the Afghan government, which ultimately led to the collapse of the regime and the Taliban taking over power in August 2021. By the winter of 2021–22, Afghanistan faced a humanitarian catastrophe triggered by financial sanctions, the loss of foreign aid, the effects of COVID-19, and the impact of repeated droughts. As the crisis in Afghanistan worsened, illicit economies became increasingly important; human and drug trafficking and opium poppy production were the only economic sectors still thriving in the country. While illicit economies could not resolve the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, they provided a lifeline for many.

In Colombia, the Duque government, which was elected in 2018 on an anti-peace deal platform, reneged on many of the commitments written into the 2016 peace agreement; one of the key casualties was the illicit crop substitution programme. Violence involving both government forces and a range of armed groups was re-activated in many parts of the country. While war was being reconfigured in Colombia’s rural areas and borderlands, social protests, which often turned into violent battles with the police, erupted across the country. Community organisers and social leaders have been among the main victims in this messy reconfiguration of armed conflict, targeted for different reasons, including their work on the illicit crop substitution programme.

At the start of our research, the early optimism about Myanmar’s democratic transition and peacebuilding efforts had faded. Hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi’s re-election in November 2020 might offer scope to reinvigorate the peace process were destroyed by the military coup in February 2021, which resulted in a devastating and protracted political crisis across the country and a significant, sustained upsurge in violence. The military junta responded with extreme violence against protesters and opponents but struggled to consolidate control in the light of concerted and widespread resistance. Amid worsening armed conflict and the effects of COVID-19, the country’s economy contracted by more than 20% in 2021. In this context, the drivers of drug production and drug harms in Myanmar – poverty, conflict, poor welfare provision and limited opportunities in the legal economy – remained deeply entrenched.

These trajectories remind us that war-to-peace transitions commonly involve instability and contestation; in retrospect, they may prove to have been only brief pauses in ongoing and mutating conflicts, rather than genuine transitions from war to peace.

Voices from the borderlands

The perspectives of people living in the drug- and conflict-affected borderlands of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar have been at the heart of our research.

Participants in illicit drug economies (producers, transporters or consumers) across the global South tend to be poorly represented – or not represented at all – in global and national policy debates on drugs, development and peacebuilding. And yet, they are among those most affected by counter-narcotics policies.

Comic image of glyphosate spraying of coca crops

Policies that purport to address drugs, support development and build peace can only do so if they are attuned to how drugs shape livelihoods and power structures in borderland regions, and the uneven distribution of risks and opportunities for those that engage in illegal drug economies.

Hence, there is a need to listen to and learn from, in a serious, sustained and meaningful way, the voices and experiences of individuals and communities living in drugs-affected borderland regions.

‘Voices from the borderlands’, intended for a broad audience of researchers, practitioners and policymakers working on issues related to drugs, development and peacebuilding, is one of several Drugs & (dis)order outputs that shed light on the experiences and perspectives of people involved in illicit drug economies.

Our 2020 ‘Voices from the borderlands’ publication presented three key messages from each of the countries we work in. These messages were based on survey data, semi-structured and life-history interviews with those involved in the drug economy, as well as informal conversations and participant observation during ethnographic fieldwork. We hope this collection of stories will challenge readers to think and engage more critically about how illicit drugs intersect with development and peacebuilding processes.

This 2022 edition of ‘Voices from the borderlands’ again focuses on marginalised voices, but this time through a collection of nine life stories from Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar. Every life story is in some way unique. But we hope that that these stories of the everyday lives of those engaged in drug production, trafficking/trade and use, can illuminate how drug economies and policies shape the dynamics of violence and peace, poverty and development, and insecurity and resilience in borderlands.

We hope this collection of stories will challenge readers to think and engage more critically about how illicit drugs intersect with development and peacebuilding processes.