Director: Sjoerd van Grootheest
Words – Joe H.
In 2016, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government signed a peace agreement that was to end the longest armed conflict in Latin America, with the substitution of illicit crops.
Across the region, many people depended on illicit crops, which financed the conflict for decades; the agreement promised rural reform, with the substitution of coca (the plant used in the production of cocaine) and marijuana, through a voluntary substitution program across indigenous territories, to “participate in alternative economies”, such as growing coffee beans and avocado trees.
The farming of coca in these communities is as normalised as growing coffee, except far more valuable in that these families are able to earn a living and sustain themselves. In one moment, we’re in the home of Briceida, as she sits at the kitchen table trimming a marijuana crop plant with a pair of scissors, just as casually as someone preparing a meal.
As the peace process agreed upon begins, the absence of the armed FARC group creates a power vacuum across the region, where various armed groups looking to take control of the territory then begin to move in, bringing threats to people in the community, as some start to arm themselves. As time passes and the promises of government support for the crops transition in the community are broken, tensions rise, and many people become displaced. The election of a new president brings more uncertainty, as new commitments are made, but then never delivered upon.
A union-like strike is organised with people across the region to block the Pan American Highway, to simply demand what was promised to them by the government, which is met with force from armed riot police, as these communities flee under the sound of gunfire.
The film is compelling, with the human cost of a failed peace process put front and centre, and the narrative of events as they unfold told by people from these affected communities. We’re shown how decades of coca farming had become so integral to an economy and a way of living, requiring people’s participation in a government scheme and subsidies to halt it, that simply cutting off production in the “war on drugs” would not solely bring a brighter future; a future which, even though many of these farmers reminisce on the stability of coca farming, still hope for.
The views of these communities are captured intimately, as they express feelings of hopelessness when viewing their government and thinking, that they will not be able to change this situation through democracy. Abandoned by successive political leaders, some even express regret in signing up to the substitution program, knowing what money would have been made through regular harvests, instead now left in limbo, feeling forced to go back to coca.
The promised transformation of these territories, to see new roads and have health clinics, to improve the situation with a fair distribution of land, years after the program was first agreed still shows no sign of starting rural reform. With the program suspended at the outbreak of Covid-19, the government began forced crop eradication, using military force, while not offering any alternative plans to sustain families.
The problems created by the transition process itself is what has hit the poorest the hardest, with still no solution or end in sight. Bajo Fuego is a vital film revealing the desperate situation faced by communities in rural areas of Colombia, uncovering the human cost of a failed peace process.
Details of Bajo Fuego screening at the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival can be found here: