The Playa Morromico Hotel’s owners were waiting for us with freshly tapped coconuts, adorned with red and yellow flowers. They showed us to our rooms. Lily and I got the attic, with a view out to sea. A double bed faced a large open window. The sound of heavy surf hitting shale roared over the beach, passed coconut palms and into our bedroom. I willed the clouds to dissipate by evening, so we could see the sunset from bed.
The rooms were decorated with conch shells, they had bins, lights, sockets and hatch windows – we’d be happy. I was also happy to find out that they didn’t have internet there. In fact, their daughter runs their online presence from Medellín, relaying information to the family via What’s App, which they can only use if they walk up to the end of the beach to a particular spot.
The electricity to the hotel was provided by a generator that produces 1.5 kW year-round, powered by a nearby river. The river gave 24hr-a-day power and fresh, drinkable water out of every tap. But, when El Niño struck this year and the river dried up from lack of rain, they lived off a gas generator for three months.
Our hosts sat with us while lunch was prepared by their two live-in helpers. The dad, Javier, looked like an ageing surfer dude, sauntering around the house always in a T-shirt and shorts, sporting a white mullet and the gigantic and persistent smile of someone who has made great life choices. The mum, Gloria, was a broad shouldered, pleasantly imposing woman with curly dark hair sweeping around her shoulders. She was more serious than her husband, good at telling stories, and the head chef and manager of the hotel.
Once we’d settled, lunch was a giant spread of patacones (smushed plantains deep fried into crispy pancakes), coconut rice, homemade hot sauce, a simple green salad, fish soup and fried battered fish caught the previous day. We all sat down to eat together.
Pablo told us that the breeding grounds of the best shrimp in Colombia are nearby. The seas used to be bountiful with fish. Trawlers with drift nets had put an end to that. The government is pretty good with conservation, so they outlawed the use of the nets, and no commercial fishing is allowed at all during the four month shrimp mating season. A conservationist organisation called MarViva has also taught fishermen to use long lines with hooks on them that only catch the larger fish
But, nowadays the scarcity of the fish has made it harder than ever to make a living on the sea. “It has been working everywhere in the region apart from Nuqui,” Pablos said, “as the people there are stubborn.” Rogue trawlers come up the coast with their drift nets. Pablo’s family once reported a trawler, but its captain simply bribed his way out of arrest.
It’s not just the extinction of the shrimp that they’re worried about; the whales, too, are at risk. They only come to this coastline to mate, offering us the chance to catch a glimpse of them. But, thousands of tourists jetting up and down in speedboats somewhat kills the mood, putting them off mating. The rule is the tourist boats are supposed to float no closer than 100m away, so as not to disrupt the whale sex. But I don’t think any of the whale guides actually adhere to those rules though. Ours certainly didn’t.
We decided to do nothing in the afternoon but read, swim and relax. The Playa Morromico Hotel is so secluded there’s little else you can do. Simply idylic.
We didn’t all relax though; Lily took the chance to read through the terms of the 285 page peace agreement. She thought parts of it were too vague, but there were specifics she liked. 3,000,000 hectares of land would be redistributed to victims of displacement or extortion, and the agreement would legalise the ownership of people living on another 7,000,000 hectares (as long as they weren’t using the land for illegal purposes). FARC members would also be given land as a reward for putting down their guns.
To say why this is so important, you must understand that Latin America has the most unequal land distribution, and Colombia fares the worst of all:
Colombia, where two thirds of agricultural land is concentrated in just 0.4 percent of farmland holdings, fares the worst, with 84 percent of the smallest farms in Colombia controlling less than 4 percent of productive land.
Unequal land distribution was a key reason why the FARC took up arms back in 1964 as a Marxist-inspired agrarian movement that fought to defend the rights of landless peasants.
The Colombian government hopes to tackle unequal land ownership and bridge the urban-rural divide as part of a new peace accord it signed with the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end 52 years of war.
Under the accord, landless and displaced farmers, particularly women, will be entitled to credit and farmland through a land bank that aims to redistribute three million hectares of land over the next decade.
“The peace accord is a real opportunity to address unequal land distribution in Colombia,” said Simon Ticehurst, Oxfam’s Latin America and Caribbean director, “but we are not blind to the interests of big landowners and their ability to yield power over decisions about land reform – and resist changes to land ownership. The accord will be a real challenge to implement.”
Permit me a (really) lengthy aside. I hail from Britain, where this year rightwing anti-immigrants voted to leave the EU. But “Brexit”, as it was called, was just our small part of the larger rising tide of rightwing nationalism that’s also swelling in many “developed” countries – France, Germany, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands and the USA for example.
I believe that their misguided anger stems from stagnating wages, rising inequality, lack of political power and the demonisation of the working class. And I blame rich, corrupt, self-serving politicians for distracting them away from these real issues.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the elephant in the room is God.
Because these movements don’t just hate immigrants, they also hate feminists, scientists, humanists, proponents of “the gay liberal agenda”. They talk about the good old times, when nobody questioned the veracity of the sentiment that our values are better than theirs. Of course our values were the best; our values were Christian. And the bible says women are property, miracles happen, atheists are going to hell and sodomy is a capital offense.
All that is to say that the powerless, the poor, the deprived parts of society in rich countries hark back to the old days, when we were sure of ourselves.
The complete opposite is true in Colombia. Here, the “old days” were a time when brutal colonialist overlords using Catholicism to subjugate the natives. For many of the country’s most impoverished people, the values of their bible-wielding oppressors are the root of today’s inequalities.
So, the disenfranchised in Colombia (who, like in all ex-Spanish colonies, tend to have darker skin) don’t look backwards or to God for answers to today’s problems, they look forwards, to a time where every voice counts. They see progressive change as the only way to create a better life, a better country, and not to the teachings of an old religion.
That kind of thinking – progressive, humanist, secular – is written throughout the peace agreement. And although their message got lost among all the kidnappings, narco-trafficking and war crimes, this is what FARC were fighting for all along.
Put another way: FARC is what emerges from the wreckage of being conquered and controlled by Farages, Le Pens and Trumps for centuries. And the peace agreement is the insurgency’s best hope for making a positive change.
Lily said most of the terms in the agreement were things that the government should be doing anyway: universal access to health, education, infrastructure, water and food for citizens, especially in rural areas, plus a free and open press and equal rights for all. Reading them to me, she sounded not just okay with the terms, but excited.
Of course, the staunchest opponents of the agreement – Uribe’s Centro Democrático party – are ultra right wing Christians, led by a charismatic populist who’s one of Colombia’s wealthy businessmen. In that light, it’s easy to see Uribe and his supporters as light-skinned descendants of conquistadors, and FARC as the descendants of Bolivar’s revolutionary army.
Perhaps for city dwellers a peace deal with FARC will feel like the end of an age of violence. But if the government actually acts on the terms of the agreement as written, perhaps for the dwellers of Colombia’s disconnected and self-reliant coastal villages the peace deal will feel like the end of an age of political, economic and social oppression.
Our short time in the town of Nuquí, with their lack of running water, dilapidating infrastructure, kids with malnutrition… FARC soldiers returning home here; will they be satisfied with peace if nothing changes?
Anyway, the five of us walked along the beach at sunset, quietly enjoying tiny hermit crabs with their repurposed shells, our reflections in the wet sand, jungle so thick you couldn’t walk through it and pebbles dotted along the shore that the sea had tried to claim during its last swell, holding hands, hugging. It was such a romantic spot it was a shame we’d come here with the parents. But, another time perhaps.
Over dinner, Gloria told us that the Playa Morromico Hotel had been flooded twice, during two “red moons”, when the tide had come all the way up to the hammocks outside. Amazingly, they also experienced the effects of the devastating 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia in 2004. 15 hours and 20,000 km away, the rivers here emptied and the tide dropped.
Another time, there was a typhoon warning. Gloria heard it on the radio and panicked. She decided to haul the kids up to high ground. She found the kids’ boots, a machete, a couple of pots, some food, cookies, wrapped everything up in plastic and took it up the mountain. “You never really prepare for disaster”, she said, “so what do you bring?”