North of Nowhere

by Lydia Moran | Dispatches | Fall 2017

Print by Julia Schrecengost

I have this very distinct memory from when I was thirteen. It lasts about ten seconds—the first ten seconds after waking up one morning. I am exhausted, but my body wakes itself up with the sun as it has done for the past three days. The first thing I see is the patterned red and orange fabric of someone else’s sleeping bag. I feel a cool breeze sift its way through the thin nylon of the tent wall and brush against my cheek. I hear… I hear the sound of something howling in the distance. I think for a brief moment that it is the highway, and that the sound I hear is cars speeding past one another. I think of the highways that I pass by back home in the suburbs of Minneapolis—the subdued brown of the noise barriers that flank them on either side, the way rain or snow amplifies the sound tires make against pavement.

But a couple seconds later, I blink and become aware of the fact that what I am hearing is not the highway: It is the wind howling over a lake. I am not in the suburbs or anywhere remotely near a road—I am on an island inside a tent. The island has no name.

When I think back on this moment, the feelings attached to it are muddled. First is the panic one feels waking up in a strange place. On top of that is a layer of shock produced by the realization that this unfamiliar place contains familiar stimuli—the howling noise—but these stimuli are caused by a different phenomenon—the wind. Realizing this in a brief instant jolts me back, all at once, to where I am without the ease of context. I can point precisely to where I am on a map, but beyond that I have no idea what surrounds this area. I have no idea how to leave this place if I wanted to. I am at the mercy of it. The wind howling. Wilderness.


I grew up near Minneapolis, Minnesota. I like to think I’m more Minnesotan than most, though, because no member of my extended family on either side has ever lived outside the state for more than a couple years, and they’ve always come back.

My mother’s family lives north of us in Duluth and some small towns outside of it. The journey north to see them is guided by a slowly shifting landscape on either side of the highway. Prairie and wetland give way to dense boreal forest. The air saturates with a cool sweetness blown off the enormous lake we hurtle towards and, driving at night, stars twinkle and slowly become more visible overhead.

Perhaps because of this I’ve always felt that my life is oriented north. It’s a strange and deep longing. Especially when I was younger, I felt a sense of calm knowing we were driving north, even if it was just for a quick errand. I used to crane my neck in my car seat to observe the compass on the dashboard. On the occasions that we’d visit a cabin belonging to my aunt’s father-in-law on a lake somewhere near Isabella, Minnesota, I exclaimed with glee: This is the farthest north I have ever been!

Maybe there’s a sort of magnet inside of me like those inside of compasses. Maybe I was in need of a point of origin. I’ve heard of people who have never been to the desert before longing for that landscape with a kind of pre-nostalgia. When we’re young I think we long to return to places we’ve never experienced. For me, that place existed in the Northwoods. There seemed a sort of clarity unique to that area. Somewhere up there, humming softly, an ancient calm permeates everything in hues of deep green, misted white, and the bright purple of lupine in summer.


When I was thirteen, I went to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness for the first time with a camp my next-door-neighbor had introduced me to. We spent the first two days at base-camp preparing for our voyages: packing food, planning a route, choosing canoes, getting to know one another. After that short time was up, we embarked on a five-day journey through the ‘back-country,’ carrying our packs and canoes on our backs on the paths between lakes.

The Boundary Waters is a 1.1 million-acre region of protected forest that straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border just west of Lake Superior. It is located in the northern portion of a state that is eight percent water and has a combined shoreline of 45,000 miles—more than the sum of both the inland and ocean coasts of California. The BWCA is an interconnected series of waterways that is littered with boreal forest. Looking at a map, you can see what little green is visible there. Most of the surface is bespeckled in blue. Look closer and you realize that not all of the dots have been charted for depth, leaving a portion a deeper and smoother blue—elegantly and mysteriously free of topographical lines.

The BWCA occupies a smaller portion of this protected wilderness, for which camping licenses may be bought. The area makes up the northern third of the Superior National Forest and contains over 1,200 canoe routes, twelve hiking trails, and more than 2,000 Department of Natural Resources (DNR)-maintained campsites. The area was set aside initially in 1926 to preserve its “primitive” character, and in 1964 it became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.


In the tent again, I am at the mercy of the wilderness, but not entirely. I am here for the first time with four other young girls and two tough, older women—our guides. As I’m looking back on it now, I realize these women must not have been in their twenties yet, but to me they were ancient, and stronger than I ever imagined I would be. Technically we are at a summer camp, but the actual base-camp is far away from us. Now we are “on trail”—in the woods surrounded by an impossible vastness. There are no roads or motors anywhere near the island. There are no houses and there is nowhere to purchase firewood or food. Everything we have, including our five canoes, we’ve carried and paddled with for miles.

We find firewood near our campsite that is “dead and down” and no wider than our wrists. We burn it only in the designated fire grate. Food scraps must be carried out in our packs and not tossed down the latrine or burned. We wash our dishes at least 150 feet from the water’s edge. When we brush our teeth, we spray out the paste in little droplets. If we were to see a group of more than four more people—and we never do—we would not congregate on a portage, campsite, or lake.

While the Boundary Waters isn’t in another class of wilderness, perhaps it should be. In comparison to my experiences in various other wild places throughout the country, I’ve found the BWCA has a certain unmarked quality to it. In other protected areas, the paths are somehow more well worn: There are signs, and the trails on the maps are named. In the Boundary Waters there are no signs. There are no rangers gliding by on motorboats, there is no evidence of human life outside of your own and even that becomes somehow strange and alien, reduced to periods of intense movement and absolute stillness.

I kept a diligent and water-stained diary during this trip in 2009. The first entry reads:

We cook with lake water, we drink lake water, we swim in lake water. We can’t taste it but we know it’s there. The way the water moves, ripples and sways creates an intricate pattern. Decorating where the dense forest breaks sloping down to the bay.

Paddles break the surface creating whirlpools, disturbing the quiet peace. Then restored again. The wind paints the water and the moon pulls it towards the bays.

The canoe’s rhythm is a lullaby. No noise, wind slowly gliding over the water dancing on the waves. The whole arrangement is low haunting melody, playing harmonious with the cheerful singing of birds.


One night on that trip as we are nestled in our line of sleeping bags, thunder intensely reverberates around the lake and a few seconds later lightning strikes. We exit the tent in the pouring rain and retrieve the life vests we’ve stashed under the canoes. All seven of us, counselors included, then sit scattered throughout the forest on the vests. The logic behind lightning drills is quite simple: we scatter to lessen the likelihood that we are struck at once. If one of us is hit by lighting or crushed by a falling tree, the loss is numerically lesser than if all of us are struck huddled together in the tent.

We have adorned ourselves with protective layers of rain gear, but this barely helps. The wind howls and rain pours down into my lap, slicks my pants to my skin. I can hear my fellow campers around me loudly singing to distract themselves above the noise of the thunder and wind. I imagine what it would be like to get struck by lightning. The flash and the sharpness. I crane my head to watch the trees wobble ominously over my head.

At the age of thirteen, the self is a particularly nebulous concept. So sitting there in the forest absolutely vulnerable to the forces of the natural world I experienced a kind of fear that was so refreshing in its absolutism and rawness that I almost forgot who I was. To that storm, I was no different than any one of the boulders or stumps that surrounded our campsite. I was equally disposable and equally organic.


On trail we aren’t allowed to have watches. We move through the environment in the daylight hours and retreat at dusk. We eat when we are hungry, and sleep when the light fades. I lose track of the days, too. Dates are meaningless and years are equally irrelevant—July 12, 2009 becomes “Day Three.” I feel ancient and dirty. I no longer remember what I look like without access to mirrors, and this adds to my bodiless sensation. At first this is disorienting to me and I find myself trying to steal peeks at the highly guarded watches of the counselors. But eventually I lose interest and my body begins to merge with the surrounding elements. I am entirely alone with my mind and the minds of those around me. I find myself returning to my body as a kind of shelter unto itself.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture proclaims that the Boundary Waters “allows visitors to canoe, portage, and camp in the spirit of the French Voyageurs of 200 years ago.” But when I am in the Boundary Waters I don’t feel like I am hearkening back to any point in human history. When I am in the Boundary Waters, I feel as though the place I have immersed myself in has less to do with humanity than it does with eternity.

There is a difference between being humbled by wilderness and interpreting its emptiness as simply emptiness, or that which is capable of being conquered. Words like emptiness and nowhere connote a kind of hierarchy. If something is empty, then it is empty of something and can or should be filled. Nowhere implies a similar theme; if a place is nowhere then it must be outside of somewhere.


As I explained earlier, the Boundary Waters is a vast and interconnected series of waterways. No motorboats, no planes below 4,000 feet, even, are allowed to infiltrate its protected bubble. But something that I’ve been forced to come to terms with recently is that nothing, not even a wilderness as pristine and seemingly limitless as the Boundary Waters, is disconnected from outside influences. The earth resists our attempts to delineate it.

While mining within the BWCA is illegal due to its protected status, mining directly outside of it is not. Twin Metals, a mining corporation with offices in St. Paul and Ely, Minnesota, proposed a Sulfide-ore copper mine located a few miles from the BWCA in the Kawishiwi River watershed. In the frantic final days of his administration, Obama refused the renewal of mining leases owned by Twin Metals, Minnesota (a mining company owned by Antofagasta, the multi-billion dollar Chilean mining conglomerate). Before this can come into effect, though, the area must undergo (and is currently undergoing) a two-year environmental review to assess the economic, social and, of course, environmental impacts of this proposed mine.

But since Trump’s election, two Minnesotan senators, Tom Emmer and Rick Nolan, have been attempting to end the environmental review and reinstate the leases to Twin Metals. They drafted a bill, H.R. 3905, that is currently making its way through a series of votes. If it passes, it could have devastating environmental implications in the region as it would immediately end the environmental review, and reinstate Twin Metal’s leases, allowing them to mine in the region.

Print by Lya Finston


Waterways do not taper off where the U.S. government has drawn lines on a map. They continue onward and are connected with less protected areas outside of the preserve. I spoke with Scott Beauchamp for about an hour on the phone one evening as the days were beginning to shorten in late October. Beauchamp is the Director of Media Relations at Save the Boundary Waters, a national campaign that works to influence legislature and spread general awareness of environmental threats to the region. He told me, “The issue with this type of mining [is] it’s a very water-heavy area, and all the water of the Boundary Waters is very interconnected, and these proposed mines are on the Kawishiwi—which directly flows into the Boundary Waters—so the pollution from those mines would flow right into the Boundary Waters. Because [it] is so clean right now and so interconnected, it would cause devastating pollution throughout the wilderness.”

So the chemicals will more than likely flow from the somewhere, the outside world, into nowhere, and potentially destroy it. The earth shows us, through its infinite connection to itself, that you cannot protect a portion of it; you must protect it all.

One lake is entirely covered in yellow and orange lily pads. We stretch out our hands to feel their leathery surface. The bottoms are coated in a kind of green slime that we rub between our fingers. The canoe slowly glides forward, making the sound of an exhale: shhhhh


Toxic pollutants will affect aquatic ecosystems, and infiltrate the waterways, resulting in a decrease in biodiversity on land, too. Mercury levels in fish will rise, putting human health at risk.

Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) Congresswoman Betty McCollum pointed out in a statement condemning the mines that 92 percent of sulfide mines in the U.S. have experienced failures and directly impacted the water quality of surrounding areas.

The Forest Service cited the potential environmental impacts of sulfide-ore mining as rationale for their decision to deny the leases under Obama. “We’re concerned about the impacts of copper-nickel mining in sulfide deposits, because there is extensive research that shows that should impacts occur, it would be virtually impossible to mitigate those impacts,” said Kathleen Atkinson, a forester with the U.S. forest service who specializes in the region. Moreover, sulfide-ore mining is generally more toxic than taconite mining, which is more common in Minnesota.

Not to mention that Antofagasta, Twin Metals’ parent company, is no stranger to environmental violations. In 2009, a sulfide deposit site in Chile called Los Pelambres dumped 13,000 liters of copper contaminate into the Choapa River. In 2014, the Chilean Supreme Court found Antofagasta guilty of cutting off water to the village of Caimanes as a result of its waste dam upstream.


On trail we are constantly moving through different environments, and I come to realize that each lake has its own personality. Some are narrow and shallow with reeds and an abundance of dragonflies. Some are wide and twisting, surrounded by rocky outcroppings. The angle of the sun also affects how I perceive each new lake. In early afternoon, the water sparkles and becomes daunting as I struggle to force my arms into another paddle stroke. At dawn, the lakes are more serene. I come to find my physical and mental states reflected by the world around me. When I struggle with a canoe on my back, the sun reaches its highest point in the sky and the world is lit with a garish intensity. When we slide into a campsite in early evening, I feel calmer—nurtured by the deep purples and blue streaks of the clouds above.


In press releases, Twin Metals spokespeople framed the denial of their leases as a direct assault on hardworking Minnesotans, denying them of a mine that could provide 850 jobs and sustain itself for thirty years. Executive director of Mining Minnesota Frank Ongaro called the move “nothing but political B.S. All this does is chase investment away from the U.S., and makes us more dependent on foreign governments for our metals,” he said.

Up North Jobs, based in Ely, Minnesota, is one of the leading dissenters to the environmental review. It makes its position quite obvious: Denying mining companies the opportunity to develop federal land is akin to stealing jobs and resources from Minnesotans. In an open letter “To Repeal Federal Land Withdrawal,” Chairman Gerald Tyler writes: “The decision by the Obama administration and the USFS/BLM [United States Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management] to conduct a study and complete an environmental impact statement… is a shameless attempt by the anti-mining activists and their federal agency ‘friends’ to preemptively quash the development of Twin Metals Minnesota’s proposed project by delaying exploration until at least 2019, and perhaps for an additional twenty years if a moratorium on prospecting is imposed.”

Ely Mayor Chuck Novak is in support of mining as well. Ely, a town with historical and geographic ties to the BWCA, is no stranger to mining controversy nor, for that matter, wilderness conservation controversy. “It takes the hope out from all the people who looked for a brighter future with great paying jobs, family, living wages, a boost to the economy,” he said.

However, Beauchamp makes the case that, while mining would provide a certain number of jobs for northeastern Minnesotans, these jobs are ultimately temporary and the loss of the Boundary Waters would result in deeper economic loss. “Our position is, if you look at the size of this, it’s very, very, very likely that it will pollute the boundary waters. So you’re kind of forced into a bargain, or not necessarily a bargain, but a decision,” he says. “You know, is it going to be these mining jobs for twenty to thirty years? Or do we want to try to work with the clean, sustainable Boundary Waters that we have right now? Because you can’t have both. […] There’s over 17,000 jobs that depend on the boundary waters… why would we throw away that economy for a few hundred mining jobs?”

He adds, “We need to be focusing on the Boundary Waters as a resource. As long as we protect it, it’ll be around forever. How do we use that to create an economy that helps everyone become employed and not endanger the wilderness?”


One of the only people I see besides the members of my group on trail is an older man resting at the head of one of our portages. It is late morning, the sun dapples his face. As we unload our canoes I hear him softly explain to one of our guides that he’s been out here for months paddling his way around the area in a grand loop. He sports a rugged grey beard and smiles at us good-naturedly. Before we embark on the trail, he is off with a pack and canoe on his back, the veins in his calves bulge and he disappears around a bend.

Print by Julia Schrecengost


I wonder if wanting to save the Boundary Waters is a stance taken mainly by people who have the economic resources to make a visit to the wilderness. I asked Scott, “I’m just thinking about mining supporters who are pro-jobs up there… Do you think that they have access to the Boundary Waters in the same way that people who are pro-Boundary Waters? Does that somehow have an impact on their stance on it? Do you have to experience it in order to want to protect it?”

He answers, “It’s really difficult for me to say whether or not people have been there, because I think it really just depends on the specific person. But, you know, I think that a lot of people are looking at [mining] as a way for them to support their family, which is something… you know, it’s not like we’re against mining, we’re just against mining in this place. We don’t think we should sacrifice the Boundary Waters for it.”


On my last foray into the BWCA, as a camper at age fifteen, our group ran into some trouble. The route we had chosen appeared to have been abandoned for a number of years, and the portages were heavily overgrown and almost impossible to navigate. On top of that, many people in the group experienced injuries and we had to back-paddle an entire day’s distance to our drop-point after one member twisted her ankle on a tree root.

At one point, we mistook a dried-up waterfall for a portage and found ourselves on a small, unnamed lake with no connecting routes. How long has it been since someone experienced this lake? I thought as we aimlessly floated and our guide panicked with the map. Eventually we were forced to bushwhack our way out down the side of a cliff. Later that day, I got a concussion during a portage, and another member slipped on some wet rocks at our campsite, injuring her spine. No one had a phone and we were a day behind. We needed an ambulance, but were down three paddlers.

On the morning we were set to evacuate for the second time, our guide woke us up when it was still dark out. Our campsite was on a peninsula surrounded by hollow and barren trees—ravaged in a forest fire. We were tired and dirty. We hadn’t seen anyone outside of our group for five days. Suddenly, in the distance, a fleet of canoes emerged and we flagged them down. They were gracious—a troop of Boy Scouts from South Carolina—and helped us radio a nearby hospital while we ate their trail mix.

It is not so much the exhaustion or fear that I remember most clearly. Upon entering the ambulance I noticed among the bright white lights and oxygen tubes, an analog clock hung near the back door. This was so jarring to me that I began to cry with a mixture of relief and regret. For the first time in a week, I knew what time it was. Suddenly, all at once without the ease of context, I am jolted back into a space where time is meaningful. Yet now it feels unnatural in the same way the whiteness of the interior of the ambulance feels unnatural. In that moment, the only thing that felt real—natural—was the dirt ground deeply into my skin.


This is how I’d rather exit the Boundary Waters: through its rivers and lakes and bogs. Paddling silently from mid-morning until dusk. Meandering slowly until houses start to become visible and the low murmur of voices again is audible. Paddling some more until the hum of cars cannot be mistaken for the wind.

In November of 2017, I received an email from Save the Boundary Waters with the subject line: BREAKING. My stomach dropped as I opened it and read that H.R. 3905 had passed “in a close vote” by the House Natural Resource Committee on November 8, 2017. The bill is now cleared for a vote by the full U.S. House of Representatives. The Boundary Waters Need Your Help More Than Ever, it warned.

So this is how I fear I’ll only be able to enter the Boundary Waters from now on: in the first few moments after waking, hearing the sound of the highway, and mistaking it for the wind.


After the longest and hardest portage of my first trip through a place called “Howl Swamp,” we emerged at dusk to our surprise on a sandy beach. The portage was brutal, through mud and dense forest and the most mosquitoes I’d ever seen in my life. My arms shook with exhaustion as I attempted to keep my concentration away from the swarm of insects that had entered the hood of the canoe to bite my arms and face. The portage seemed to go on for miles, but all of a sudden my boots touched water and I flung the canoe off of my shoulders to see the expanse of a large, sparkling lake. We spent the next twenty minutes splashing in the shallows and rubbing sand on our muddy skin in the waning light.

Of course, this lake wasn’t our own discovery. Of course, hundreds, or even thousands, of people before us had come upon this very lake and paddled its water before us. Of course, long before the Boundary Waters was even categorized by the U.S. government, people had called this place home. Of course we knew this. But there is a difference between being awed and humbled by emptiness and wanting to conquer it.

When I threw off that canoe and witnessed the scene before me, my first thought wasn’t that this was all mine. My first thought was how big the clouds were and how their pink reflected off the water. My first thought was how clear it was, and how peacefully it lapped at the shore—the stillness and vastness of the scene before me. My first thought was, This is the farthest north I have ever been.


Radio Activity

by Jack Rockwell | Dispatches | Fall 2017

Drawings by Martina Hildreth

Historical memory in Columbia.

I’m standing on a roof in Tolima, Colombia, talking to a man in a red shirt named Juan Bermudez. We have both just attended a meeting with members of the Zona de Reserva Campesina Planadas, an organization that helps farmers secure titles to land that they’ve already been working for years. Their work is important, but the meeting room was hot, and the roof we are on has a cool breeze and a view that overlooks the city. Juan, who had mostly been observing in the meeting, has quick eyes and hands that move ever so slightly to the rhythm of his words.

Radio, he says to me, is the key. So many Colombians—especially out in the campo—get their news exclusively from the radio. Juan works for Marcha Patriotica, an organization dedicated to uniting pro-labor and human rights groups all over Colombia. He’s been developing a national framework to help collect and spread the stories of victims of state and military violence. Right now, he’s trying to convince me of the importance of the radio, and the power that it has to influence how millions of Colombians understand their nation’s history.


This past July, I spent ten days in Colombia travelling with an organization called the Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ), which—among other things—organizes delegations that facilitate networking between humanitarian and social justice groups throughout the Americas. From June 30 to July 10, we met with dozens of representatives from all sorts of groups. I learned about their work, which included advocating for the peace process, assisting labor organizations, supporting victims of political violence, advocating for political prisoners, providing legal support for the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP), and more.

Juan, like so many left-leaning political and human rights activists in Colombia, operates at a delicate intersection of personal secrecy and political broadcasting. He wants his ideas to reach as many people as possible, but would fear for his life if the wrong people were to learn his name. Political violence has been the modus operandi for powerful Colombian operatives since long before the formation of the nation as it exists today. During the Cold War, the U.S. provided funding, training, and weapons to the current Colombian government to exterminate communists. In response to a particularly brutal set of killings of unarmed left-wing populists from 1948 to 1958, the FARC-EP formed as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist party. For more than 50 years they waged guerrilla warfare from the mountains, in a conflict estimated by Al Jazeera and the Washington Post to have left more than 200,000 dead and seven million displaced.


On November 30, 2016, the Congress of the Colombian government unanimously ratified a peace treaty with the FARC-EP, officially ending the conflict. Surprisingly, the treaty that would end the war was rejected by the Colombian people in a popular plebiscite on October 2, with 50.2 percent voting against its ratification to 49.8 percent voting in favor. Though this rejection was overruled and the modified treaty passed a month later, it raises certain questions to those unfamiliar with the conflict: Why would so many Colombians vote against ending such a destructive war?

The answer lies within the deep divisions between how various Colombian actors and groups understand the history of their country, divisions that Juan is trying to cross with his radio campaign. Luis Fernando Lugo explained this discord to me. Luis, who is the Secretary of International Relations for the Federación de Estudiantes Universitarios (FEU) at the National University of Colombia’s Bógota campus, spoke to us clearly, with a confident smile, and he seemed optimistic, even if the content of his speech is grimly pragmatic. He told us, During the war, guerrilleros were not widely considered real people with dreams and aspirations. The only thing on people’s minds was killing them and winning the war.

Luis and others believe a significant number of Colombians hold this opinion, including members of the agrarian working class for whom the FARC-EP was specifically fighting for. It’s worth noting that, for the most part, I was exposed to only one side of the conversation—I was so busy meeting with left-leaning groups that I barely had time to talk to anyone else. However, on the very last day of my visit, members of the AfGJ and I staged a protest outside of the U.S. embassy in Bogotá. We were demanding that Simón Trinidad be allowed to return to Colombia. Trinidad, a once-commander in the FARC- EP, was extradited to the U.S. in 2004 and has been serving a 60-year sentence in solitary confinement in Colorado ever since. A friend and I left the protest directly in a taxi to the airport, and our driver, a middle-aged man, asked us what we had been doing outside of the embassy. Almost before we could finish telling him, he told us that our protest was unjust, and that Trinidad was a dangerous criminal who deserved to be killed. This peace is no peace, he said to us. Peace will be when those guerrilleros pay for their crimes.


As a journalist, I’d like to be impartial, but it’s impossible to talk about Colombian politics without taking a side. And yet, who am I, an outsider, to say that this man’s opinion is invalid? I’ve grappled with this question constantly since I began thinking about this article. The United Nations estimates that the FARC-EP are responsible for twelve percent of violent deaths during the conflict. Many of those who died were innocent victims, with families and friends whose anger is valid. My role as an outsider is to bring the stories of victims of violence to the U.S. I hope that by influencing people here I’ll make an impact, however indirect, on the lives of the victims in Colombia.

But how do I know that I’m representing the right victims? I’ve found that the best answer I have comes from scale. By the same UN estimates as above, rightwing paramilitary groups were responsible for 80 percent of the killings. Violence experienced at the hands of the FARC-EP is not less valid, but perhaps less significant.


The history of political violence in Colombia is as long as the history of Colombia itself. My understanding of it was greatly informed by two people that I spoke to: Alirio García, the Human Rights Director for la Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria (FENSUAGRO) and Imelda Daza Cotes, who is a Vocera in the Colombian House of Representatives. In Spanish, vocera literally means “speaker.” In the Colombian congress, Voceras are spokespeople from outside organizations, and do not have a vote. Both Alirio and Imelda trace the political violence back to the issue of land rights, which Alirio says began when Spaniards arrived in 1498.

We sat down with Alirio on a rainy Sunday morning to learn about his organization, FENSUAGRO, in our hotel’s meeting room. Alirio is much older than Luis or Juan, and the perspective conferred by his years encouraged him to deliver a lengthy oral history of Colombia, placing the country’s current struggles in the context of those past. He explained that the establishment of the Spanish colonies, and the corresponding massacres and displacement of indigenous peoples, were the beginnings of a long tradition of violence employed as a tool to control land and the wealth that arose from it. Though the names of the governments, people, and corporations that controlled Colombia’s land have changed with time, the regular pattern is the few wealthy and powefrful own, at least in title, vast tracts of land worked by campesinos, who control almost none of the wealth that the land produces.

Revolutionary movements in Colombia across centuries have frequently promised a redistribution of land ownership. Alirio told us that Simón Bolívar, the leader of the armies that liberated what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Panama, wanted to give back land to the campesinos and indigenous peoplesbut upon his death in 1830, all laws protecting el pueblo were destroyed. One hundred years later, after the proliferation of Marxism and a smattering of communist revolutions around the world, political actors began to rise within Colombia, who promised a redistribution of land along the lines of these new ideologies. The violence employed to silence these actors led to their militarization and the creation of the FARC-EP.

Decades after the rise of the FARC-EP, popular leftist movements continued to appear in Colombia, attempting to address systemic inequality legally and from within. One of these movements was the Unión Patriótica (UP), of which Imelda Daza Cotes was a founding member in the early eighties. It too was suppressed with violence. Imelda told us that when the assassinations began, members of the UP met and considered their options. Some fled the country; others joined the FARC-EP in the mountains. According to Imelda, every single member who remained as a civilian was killed.

We’re sitting around a plastic table under a tarp at a Zona Veredal, one of the transition zones built for demilitarized FARC-EP to live in before making the full return to civilian life. The camp is in full motion around us: Men and women are washing, building, cooking, digging, and performing various labors side by side. Imelda is a gifted speaker, with a rich voice and bright eyes. She manages to sound brave while telling us that she was not. I left because I was afraid. I’m not afraid to say that I’m afraid—I suffer from none of that masculine crap. When my kid was five months old, the paramilitaries started to threaten me. I knew they didn’t threaten idly, but followed up on their threats with death.

Imelda fled Colombia in 1988 and was granted political asylum in Switzerland, where she lived for twenty-six years before it was deemed safe for her to return. Switzerland is a marvelous country, and they treated me wonderfully. Nonetheless, it was dark, cold and very different over there. I’m from Valledupar, a city on the Caribbean—we are a people of warmth, of laughter and of dance! I hated that I was so far away, and it was very, very difficult. For twenty-six years, I dreamed every day of coming home.

With Colombia under close watch from the United Nations after the peace treaty’s signing, Imelda and other members of the UP are appearing from the shadows. One of the stipulations rewarded to the FARC-EP was the right to form a political party, around which many of their old allies who had been forced into hiding will most likely appear. This is a new era in Colombian politics: Agrarian reform and left-leaning populism are being given another chance, this time with an involved international community watching.

Will this be enough to make peace last? The greatest problems Colombia faces must be decided by the Colombian people alone. As Fernando said, Reintegrating the FARC is not only done by the state. We must make space for them culturally, and change the minds of so many people who grew up believing the FARC are monsters.


To that end, many of the activists we spoke to—especially students—are starting up alternative media corporations. These are mostly created on social media and the internet, and have been generally successful in communicating with the younger generation. However, there are millions of Colombians, especially in the campo, who do not have computers. They get their news from the radio and along with it, their political opinions about the entire outside world. Who and what they vote for will be decided by a form of media that has existed for decades. What makes things tricky for Juan is that radio has been controlled by many of the same people and groups for so long—people and groups who don’t necessarily share Juan’s passion for peace and justice based in agrarian reform.

With such stark divisions, it’s no wonder that many question whether the FARC-EP can be successfully reintegrated into mainstream Colombian society at all. Outsiders like myself can afford to ask this question from a distance, but Juan, Fernando, Imelda, Alirio, and many other Colombians cannot. For them, it’s a matter of life and death, of economic justice for their people, of honoring the memory of lost loved ones.


I put my hands on the railings, looking alternately back at Juan and out at the avenue below. There are mountains just behind the low skyline of the city, and the sky is beginning to grow gray around the corners. Space becomes a daunting obstacle in this moment: space soaked with history and the blood of generations imprinted on every mountain and street corner. There’s great space between Juan and the people he’s trying to reach. That’s why it’s so important for Juan to get his hands on the radio, so he can work toward reshaping the collective memory of his nation’s history, and pave the way for a more just and less violent future.