Profile of a humanitarian worker: Claudia Gonzalez

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Death is never far away for some humanitarian workers.

For Claudia Gonzalez, a 32-year-old Colombian who works in the dense jungle of Curvaradó in the north of the country, the threat of violent death is a daily fact of life. Working among indigenous and poor farming communities – many of whom have been violently forced off their land by paramilitaries - Claudia and her team often find themselves in the midst of violence. Four of her colleagues recently had to leave because of death-threats. And then someone she was working with was killed: Gonzalez tells the traumatic story of the murder of a community leader, Walberto Ollos, one of the hardest things she has had to face as a humanitarian worker.

“They killed him in the humanitarian zone. Two men on motorbikes – paramilitaries – rode in and shot him in front of the whole community, including women and children. A rich rancher with close ties to the paramilitaries wanted the land for cattle, and they did the deed on his behalf: they executed [Walberto] so that the rancher could put cattle on the land. After they killed him they took everyone’s mobile phones, beating people and pushing them face down to the ground. I didn’t know them, but they knew exactly who I worked for - they knew my organisation. People were hiding, terrified. I arrived in time to pick up his body".

“Later on, the authorities arrived with people in civilian clothes who weren’t identified. The burial was very difficult. There are still lots of threats to people in that community, to anyone who plants anything. That’s the way it is now.”

Claudia Gonzalez signed up to study agronomy, hoping to help communities support their food production and protect their environment.

Her work among indigenous and poor farming communities that have been dispossessed of their land often entails helping them to reclaim their stolen land. Big businesses in the area carry out vicious land-grabs in a bid to run mega-projects - such as vast plantations of African palm for use in bio-fuels.

Gonzalez's support of local people's claim to their land means that she has been denied access to communities by the paramilitaries. “There are high risks; everything is militarised and the paramilitaries are not interested in people’s security.”

In the last week, an Afro-Colombian and an Embera indigenous person disappeared from communities that Claudia works with in Chocó. Reports say they have been killed by paramilitaries, within areas controlled by the Colombian Army.

In some place people can’t plant because crops are burned and cattle put out to eat young banana plants. People are scared. The culture of impunity scares people. “They accuse us of being guerrillas. They even accuse old people of being guerrillas. People are killed and tortured. The State is not in favour of justice, of truth: in practice it is in favour of impunity.”

Much of Claudia Gonzalez’s work is about listening to people’s stories - their histories, how they’ve suffered, how they continue to suffer, the violence, humiliations, and the pain. It is all part of her work with the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, a partner of ACT member Christian Aid.

Building up people’s dignity

Building communities, demonstrating better food production techniques, providing drinking water, strengthening people’s legal rights and right to their own land renews her hope. Her team’s work includes psychosocial work. “Everyone is traumatised by the violence.” Building up people’s dignity and preserving traditions are also important components of the work.

Claudia Gonzalez’s move into humanitarian work started as she began her studies. “I already knew I enjoyed interacting with people, learning from people. And I wanted to work with respect for the earth, the earth and the people. I wanted to contribute towards a different model of living on earth, sustainably, in harmony. So, I studied agronomy.”

Her grandmother, who was Afro-Colombian, knew a lot about traditions and about nature. “I value that sort of knowledge, I feel close to it. I have found that there are many things that can’t be taught in universities, in classrooms, that you can only learn in the countryside".

“I do this work because justice and dignity are important. I believe in them. In helping people resist violence and displacement and to claim their rights, we can learn a lot ourselves.”

She says that a humanitarian worker should recognise people’s values and needs, be a good listener, and be sensitive to help people propose solutions to their own problems - “solutions that are based on the reality that the people are living in”.

The greatest rewards from the job have been meeting communities. “Honest communities, people who are full of hope, who have only hope, who share their hope with you. When they share their happiness, their hopes, it is a big reward. We feel that we are contributing our grain of sand to a big project.”

Being part of ACT makes her confident that more people will be willing to take Colombia’s struggles forward - to affirm truth and justice and life.

Completing projects, and seeing their effects, strengthens her will to stay and do more. “Recently we finished a bee-keeping project. It meant that the people had honey, the children were being fed properly, and people were on their land after nearly 20 years of forced exile. We were seeing people gaining their independence again, seeing their dreams come true.”

She said it is hard to turn off at the end of the working day. “Generally we say we should rest. However, it is not easy. When you are living in the communities it is nearly impossible.”

She is inspired by the hope she finds in various situations: in the communities that have returned to their land, in the women who say they can stand up for their rights, in the few court decisions in favour of the farming communities, and in seeing alternatives to war and violence. “That gives me hope: hope that we will eventually be able to reconstruct this country.”