As the sun hovered at the horizon, I got into the big canoe with 20 people from Las Pavas. We were mostly men with a few woman and one young boy. We pulled away from the bank of the river and began motoring towards the sunset, racing against the light.
It was June 22, and we had just heard that platanos sapplings on one of the community member’s farm had been ripped out. In Las Pavas, calling the police won’t do any good. It was up to the community, their lawyer and two Christian Peacemaker Team members to investigate. The vandalism came on the last day of a visit by INCODER, a government agency responsible for deciding whether or not Las Pavas will get title to their land. They had agreed to accept photos of the dead plants into their report. But we needed to get the photos before dark.
As we headed up the river, I felt nervous. Why had the vandals acted while there was an international presence in the community? Two days before, the man likely responsible for the sapling destruction was part of a verification hike we were on as part of the INCODER visit. It seemed clear that supporters of the palm company were trying to send a message that the farmers of Las Pavas would not be allowed to plant their crops. How far were they willing to go in their attacks on Las Pavas?
When we arrived at the farmer’s plot five minutes up the river, the extent of the devastation became clear. Over 250 freshly planted trees had been ripped out of the holes in the ground and repeatedly cut to avoid any possibility of replanting. Some of the plants had been thrown into the river. There were also 40 cows missing. Their loss is estimated at around $15,000. I thought of my father-in-law who buys calves and raises them over the course of a year. What would it mean for him to lose his entire herd in one swoop?
This is the farmer with one of the 250 plants that were killed.
Beyond the immediate economic impact of the attack, there was also a clear message for the community. As one leader looked at a plant that had been repeatedly slashed into small pieces (as in the photo above), he wondered out loud if hands would be next. "This is a message of war," he said.
For a community committed to nonviolence, these are the times of trial. There is no space for retribution or revenge attacks, just a continued commitment to the long and lonely struggle for the land they need to raise food for themselves and their families.
My colleague Chris Knestrick takes notes on testimony from community members while others look at the photos they took of the dead plantain trees.