Indigenous / Latin America / Politics

Berenice Celeita: Honouring a life of Struggle

This story was originally written in June 2015, but was never published for various reasons. It’s about Berenice Celeita, an Indigenous land defender from Colombia fighting for the very same cause as Berta Caceres, the Indigenous activist who was killed in her home in Honduras on March 3, 2016. Though they are from two different/distinct nations, their work and struggle shares more than a common enemy; it shares history and blood. In honour of both of these women and all the other Indigenous land defenders of Mother Earth, I am re-posting this today.


Colombia talks peace in Cuba while bodies pile up at home. Stephen Harper turns a blind eye & Canadian investors join in the murderous Bonanza. Centuries-old violence against Indigenous Land Defenders rages on…But so does the Resistance


“The Colombian people are like the great Magdalena River: at nights, at the darkest hour, the tide ebbs; but in the morning, it pours and overflows. This is our Great Hope.” – Disappeared victim’s father

By Fernando Arce

TORONTO – A university freshman in Colombia in 1985, Berenice Celeita was part of the forensic anthropology team investigating the bloody aftermath of the Palace of Justice siege – a violent guerrilla takeover of Colombia’s Supreme Court that same year. After two days of fighting against the country’s armed forces, the stand-off culminated with deaths on all sides, but most notably with 12 justices dead and 11 other workers disappeared. Celeita had the difficult task of exhuming and identifying cadavers who had been tortured, disfigured and thrown into mass graves: victims caught in a web of violence among political factions, guerrilla fighters and paramilitary death squads fighting for control of Indigenous lands rich in coveted minerals and metals.

Though it was a gut-wrenching job, Celeita recognized its importance in a country marred by violence for centuries. It was then that she decided she’d live the rest of her days defending human rights.

But today, more than three decades later, bodies continue piling up.

“Not much has changed in the last 30 years,” Celeita, winner of the 1998 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, told a roomful of people at the Beit Zatoun, a cultural meeting place in Toronto, on June 8 (2015).

“What I’m describing is not a horror movie taking place in a peaceful country. It is the reality that we live today, in the middle of a peace process.”

Celeita is the founder and president of NOMADESC, a human rights advocacy organization based in Cali, Colombia, which derives its name from the unofficial “nomad” status into which Colombia’s displaced are forced. Over the last month, she toured across Ontario to spread awareness of Canada’s complacency in the plight of the Colombian people. The Toronto-wing was organized by Peace Brigades International-Canada, an international organization advocating for human rights defenders, and Common Frontiers, a multi-sectoral, anti-imperialist coalition opposing the environmental and economic effects of economic integration in the Americas.

Violence against human rights defenders, environmentalists and Indigenous Peoples protecting their ancestral territories in Colombia has taken a sinister turn since the recent signing of 17 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). In fact, according to an article on Semana magazine, since 2011 alone there have been more than 500,000 victims. That same year, massive protests and brutal state repression exploded in Colombia’s streets. This did not matter. Also that same year, the very first trade agreement, signed with Canada back in 2008, went into effect.

Death in numbers

As in Canada, many of the remote areas in Colombia which are rich in natural resources have been inhabited by Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities for centuries. In Cauca, a south-western province, organized Indigenous resistance dates back to the 1970s, when the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC) was first formed. Its main objective was – and still is – clear and simple: recover thousands of acres of ancestral lands which rest in the hands of a few so-called landowners through mass mobilization.

“By the 1990s and 2000s, it gained an impressive force,” said Jose Vicente Otero, CRIC’s cooperation and foreign relations coordinator and member of the Nasa Nation.“This has practically become the strategy for our survival, as the only option for our development.”

Also like in Canada, unhonoured treaties abound.

More than 250 of them, signed by the Colombian government over the years promising to return ancestral lands as a sign of good faith, as reparations for past massacres, as acknowledgement of their plight, are all yet to be honoured. To date, only about half of the lands have been returned.

This is the crux of the resistance.

Which also means that these communities are the main ones caught in the crossfire between guerrillas, the state, and paramilitary forces hell-bent on selling the country to multinationals, proclaiming national economic development.

The numbers speak for themselves.

To date, the state officially registers more than 7 million victims affected by all the violence. In fact, in 1948, Colombia entered what would become a dark decade appropriately known as “The Violence,” in which an estimated 180,000 people lost their lives during what was effectively a civil war between Liberal and Conservative parties vying for political power. Multiple sources, including NOMADESC, estimate there are more than 50,000 people disappeared, and over 6 million more displaced from their homes and ancestral lands.

In 2012 alone, more than 221,000 people were somehow affected by the armed conflict. Nearly 1 million people have been murdered. And there are countless other crimes such as theft, arson, death threats, forced disappearances, etc., which activists and land defenders endure every day.

Canadian investment in dismemberment

About two hours from Celeita’s home city of Cali is the province of the Valley of Cauca which is home to one of Colombia’s most important ports, Puerto de Buena Ventura.

According to Celeita, “Some of the most atrocious crimes known to humanity have happened there,” including slaughter-houses where bodies are dismembered and piled up.

“The houses have only one objective: to generate terror so that the black and Indigenous communities abandon their territories and clear the way for capital to enter and amplify the port,” she said.

One of the companies operating in the area is Anglo Gold Achanti. For years, as it forced thousands of people from ancestral lands where they’d been working in the artisanal mining industry for more than 400 years, the company passed off as South African. But many investigations have revealed that Anglo Gold Achanti actually registered in the London Stock Exchange, and has American, English and Canadian investors.

Puerto de Buena Ventura was also the site where Celeita, in her role as forensic anthropologist, helped unearth thousands of bodies from previous massacres. One such bloody event was the 2001 Naya Massacre, which left over 20 people dead and 4,000 more displaced, at the hands of paramilitary death squads and Colombia’s Armed Forces, according to the Colombia Journal.

“Most of the victims were killed this way (dismembered),” said Celeita. “To this day, not all bodies have been found in Naya, and not all the disappeared identified, because most of the victims are buried in mass graves which have been covered by a container built on the Port.”

It ain’t Canada’s problem

Canada is legally required to produce annual reports on the human rights violations happening in Colombia and the steps taken to ensure the Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCOFTA) doesn’t exacerbate them. In the 2013 report, the government posted the public call for submissions on human rights abuses in a government website without announcing it, and left it up for only six days. Consequently, wrote Raul Burbano, program director for Common Frontiers, they only received two submissions.

This year’s report includes only one mention of “human rights violations” which was brought up by union representatives. These included allegations of “unjustified stopping of citizens in the vicinity of a particular company by security forces.” However, the report finds that “because these latter complaints predate the entry into force of the CCOFTA, they cannot be linked to actions taken under CCOFTA in 2014.”

Interestingly, the report acknowledges that “no actions have been taken by Canada under the CCOFTA” other than reducing tariffs. Additionally, it boasts that “(n)o disputes have arisen to date and no dispute resolution or consultation mechanisms have been utilized” towards any of the allegations of human rights violations.

The report admits that allegations of rampant and crippling violence existed before Canada entered into an economic agreement with Colombia. At one point, the report even brags about the fact that Colombian officials “explained that exploration and extraction activities in the petroleum sector can only begin once companies have obtained the requisite environmental and social licenses.”

Yet, Celeita argued that the CCOFTA has increased the violence against Indigenous land defenders who get in the way of multinationals looking for a licence to covet the country’s gold, oil, platinum, copper and iron. Gifts and curses at the same time, these minerals are actually the “structural causes” of the violence, she said.

“We used to study the Canadian mining companies that arrived in Colombia, and we thought the government was different to its English and American counterparts,” she said. “But little by little we realized the government not only permits multinationals to arrive in Colombia, but it doesn’t monitor the issues surrounding human rights.”

In 2011, when workers of Canadian company Pacific Rubiales organized a strike against poor working conditions, the Colombian military violently squashed it. It then coerced employees back to work, sticking guns in their faces and forcing them to renounce union membership, according to a report by human rights group PASO Internacional.

Colombians live at war

Though Indigenous resistance to multinational companies and to local governments and paramilitary forces is indeed centuries old – Berenice boasted that “522 years have not been enough to strip Colombia of its wealth” – 2013 was explosive. According to an article on the World Bulletin, there were more protests in Colombia that year than in the preceding 38 years.

Colombia’s government, meanwhile, has been sitting beside leaders of the FARC guerrilla in Cuba since 2012, purportedly forging a peace deal – a cessation of the armed conflict which dates back to the mid-1960s.

But Celeita isn’t buying it.

“The world heard the truth about (former president) Alvaro Uribe, about the crimes he committed and his connections with paramilitary death squads,” she said. “But people think that (current president) Juan Manuel Santos is different…when all he’s done is change the name (of his political strategy)…So while he convinces the world Colombia is in a post-conflict era, criminal gangs and paramilitaries continue terrorizing the country.”

Indeed, according to Colombia’s trade union school, the Escuela Nacional Sindical, anti-union violence rose in 2013, with 26 members killed, 13 homicide attempts, and 149 death threats.

Celeita said there are many things Colombians have to be wary of.

Currently, 70% of the land is in the hands of multinationals through concessions. More than half of these are Canadian companies whose “only objective is to extract,” Celeita lamented.

“To take without knowing if tomorrow there will be a future for kids, not only in Colombia but around the world.”

But mostly, she said, people should worry that American, English and Canadian governments are turning a blind eye to the human rights violations and the muzzling of Colombian activists imploring the world to help.

“In Colombia we are at war,” she said. “There is no post-conflict – none! There may be a post-agreement, which is possible and something we want to see happen. But there is no post-conflict. We live in conflict.”

Colombians are like the Great Magdalena River

Earlier in her career, Celeita was at a mass grave just south of the Bolivar province, in the San Pablo municipality. For three days, she had been surviving purely on motor skills, incapable of emotion at the sight of the unrecognizable bodies of protesters who had demonstrated against paramilitary violence back in 1998, which she and her forensic anthropology team now dug out of mass graves.

When they finished, they walked toward the road where the father of one of the mutilated girls lived in a small hut. At their arrival, the man – a black peasant – invited them in and threw wood onto the fire to make some coffee. When he served her the coffee a few minutes later, Celeita recalled, she could no longer contain herself and burst into tears.

“He then hugged me, and told me not to worry,” she said poignantly. “He said, ‘The Colombian people are like the great Magdalena River: at nights, at the darkest hour, the tide ebbs; but in the morning, it pours and overflows. This is our great hope.”


  1. Celeita Speech at Beit Zatoun (include date and location)
  3. Peace Brigades International-Canada
  4. Common Frontiers
  5. Semana magazine
  6. Previous interview
  8. The Violence
  10. Raul Urbano, Common Frontiers, Communiqué on 2013 CCOFTA Human Rights Report

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