'Symbolically defining space: Cacarica's "Wire of Life"'

In the late 1990s, Afro - Colombians living in Bajo Atrato were displaced by military and paramilitary groups, who had the dual objective of establishing military control and exploi- ting the land. The displaced population initially lived in refuges, but with the support of local and interna- tional organisations, they began a campaign to return to their lands. Regrouping, they established CAVIDA - the 'Communities of Self-Determination, Life and Dignity' - and lived in two settlements together.

CAVIDA nurtured a pro- longed process of resistance. One of their objectives was to avoid military and paramilitary access to the settlements. The community built a fence surrounding them, with small wooden posts and three single strands of barbed wire, little more than a meter high. They called it the malla de vida (wire of life). It sounds like a frail obstacle, in an armed conflict in the jungle with hundreds of soldiers surrounding them. But the fence, despite its structural weakness, became a point of reference for the army, who frequently alluded to it, saying that when ordered to do so, they would enter and remove it. All this from outside the fence.

The fence was perceived as a reality and a problem, not an insignificant detail. The control of access it provided was symbolic, yet it was representative of the space for resistance the community had acquired. The fence acquired meaning on being recognised by those outside it, and in turn, fed the notion of a community space, for those inside and outside the fence.

The people remained the target of pressure and attacks, and the risk of a new displacement persisted. Yet, as one tactic in an ambitious strategy, the malla de vida offered a symbol of the safe space for which the community was struggling.

(from People Power, edited by Howard Clark, chapter by Luis Enrique Eguren)