Fault Lines: On the Ground in Colombia

View from the author’s apartment window (Source: Author)

By Paula Ungar

I spend the quarantine days in my old, quiet apartment. From the window, I can see the shape of the Andean mountains that embrace the Eastern part of Bogotá. Groups of little houses are embroidered into that mountainside, like honeycombs, forming one of the numerous self-built quarters in this city inhabited by seven-million. Since the 1950s, more than half the city’s growth corresponds to what were initially illegal barrios, made of self-made, multi-family houses. Most of the people living there fled to the city from the countryside at some point during the last 60 years of this country’s painful and war-ridden history. They, or their parents, or their grandparents, were violently uprooted from their lands, which they had cultivated and cared for, which in turn had nourished them. Those distant neighbors, like half of the Bogotanos, are probably informal workers, depending exclusively on their individual abilities to make ends meet on a daily basis—cleaning houses, participating in the black markets (of almost anything), selling home-made food on the sidewalks. They are now confined to their houses, strictly patrolled by a police force that is now especially efficient. As in other poor countries in which the healthcare systems have been collapsed for decades, the blow on people’s lives—by both the pandemic and the extreme measures to counter it—is brutal.

From my confinement here, I can view the world through another window: the screen of my cell phone. I am able to participate in networks of enthusiastic naturalists, committed environmentalists, and organized peasants from this same country. I get to enjoy the watercolors of artists who are painting the unique diversity of Colombian birds, see delicate photographs of moths on jasmine flowers, look at an anteater walking along an otherwise noisy road, and listen to the conversations of the moved citizens recording her. Through their phones or computers, people are also asking each other where they can get seedlings for growing vegetables at home; they are exchanging seeds, recovering old recipes for cooking tubers, teaching each other how to tell edible from non-edible mushrooms.

There are also people who are paying witness to the terrors in their own communities—they are outraged by a continued killing spree that has targeted local social leaders (eight in the first two weeks of the quarantine)—and denounce the unstitching of carefully weaved networks of solidarity and care for the land. There are people who are supporting the food production and fair distribution networks of peasants and former guerrilleros and sharing pictures of the hand-painted signs indigenous communities are putting across rural roads willing for the protection of their territories against the contagion. They are proud of their flowering trees, of their rooting vines, of their growing grafts.

Photos reproduced with permission © César Marín

In an interview, environmental historian Gregg Mitman recently said, “Epidemics always expose the fault lines in society; they make visible the deep fissures in our social safety nets, or lack thereof.” The fault lines in this profoundly unfair country are terrifying. It is difficult to keep one’s imagination alive. However, while I look through both of my windows, some very blurry thoughts appear—some dreams. Maybe there is a way in which the multiple entanglements, the affective alliances between different groups of people and nature—the ones that have been broken for generations, the ones that survived, the ones that are being invented—might somehow come together through the subtle undercurrents and the startling eruptions of horror, and thrive through the system’s fissures, fracture it, and weave a new, radically different safety net.

A version of this post was originally published on the website of the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program (University of Wisconsin-Madison).

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