Landscapes of Suspicion: Minefields and Cleared-Lands in Rural Colombia
From the Series: Ecologies of War
From the Series: Ecologies of War
In November 2015, Ismael was guiding a demining multitask team of seven, including myself, on a field visit to Alto del Oso, a mine-suspected mountain in the village of El Orejón. According to Ismael, the safe-but-overgrown path we were traversing was once a bridle path. Locals used it to bring groceries across the mountain, until armed conflict began in the late 1990s. Ismael recalled how the army, FARC-EP guerrillas (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia- Ejército del Pueblo; in English, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People's Army), and paramilitaries transformed Alto del Oso into a battlefield, using it as a campsite and a connector between their troops and fronts. Then, improvised mines came along: the presence and movements of these armed actors led to the increase in mine-contamination and mine-related accidents.
An hour into our excursion, Ismael observed: “This is the most mined part. The army used to camp here and over there.” He gestured to the “contaminated” areas, creating the impression that we were surrounded by improvised landmines, that a vast area of the mountain was a minefield. For some demining technicians in the team, Ismael “overstated” the war contamination; this was perhaps because he was influenced by Mine Risk Education workshops. These workshops teach locals to suspect everything and to assume many rural spaces are mined, from infrastructure such as pipelines, bridges, and electrical towers to trails and sources of water and shade.
Although familiar with these strategies that kept suspicion alive as a measure of protection and care (Pardo Pedraza 2020), I came to understand that Ismael’s statement, like those of many locals who insist on landmines’ pervasiveness, speaks of more than the widespread circulation of prevention messages. They also are a commentary on landmines’ capacity to affectively reconfigure rural landscapes (see Henig 2019; Kim 2016).
Landscapes of suspicion is a characterization I adopt to think through the topographies created by landmines amid the sixty-year Colombian war. Informed by corporeal and affective descriptions from local interlocutors like Ismael, it names the elusive mine-contaminated rural realities that are made and lived as unbounded geographies of anxiety and mistrust. Although an “explosive event” may mark the hot spot around which suspicion spreads, these landscapes are delineated by the threat of explosion, the unconfirmed possibility and anticipation of “stepping into a mine.” As indicated by Ismael’s gestures, the boundaries of these landscapes are unclear, diffuse, and difficult to determine.
Landscapes of suspicion exist in and through the ecological entanglements of militarization: soldiers walking through rural trails, army troops camping on peasant farms, forests and grasslands that become battlefields, villages under heavy military and surveillance, city entrances turned into checkpoints, tanks by the side of the road, rural soundscapes punctuated by thumps. Because of this enmeshment of bodies, technologies, and infrastructures, these landscapes emerge as an expansive and, at the same time, ordinary reality.
Consequently, suspicion and uncertainty sown by landmines trigger multiple types of displacement. Experiencing an incapacitating fear that prevents them from working their lands or caring for their livestock, many peasants sell or rent their farms, moving to smaller houses on the urban side of their villages or in other towns. Peasants are also displaced when they “decide” to remain in their territory, living in and enduring suspicious landscapes. As they were considered risky, certain areas were gradually removed from daily use. “The presence of mines prevented us from touching the land,” Ismael once told me. His words suggest a form of affective-material displacement that is not recognized as such, and that usually does not find a place in the official/legal narratives of damage.
Though the suspicious landscapes I describe are a product of the armed conflict in Colombia, they are not limited to wartime. Nor were they easily undone by peacemaking efforts. As I learned while following a one-off demining initiative, suspicion can be recast through political experimentation and humanitarian interventions. Hence, in my extended work, the concept of landscapes of suspicion also refers to the burgeoning ecologies of political suspicion emerging in and from areas that are now the target of mine-clearance.
“For whom and for what are these lands being cleared and released?” This was a frequent and poignant question from local peasants, the alleged beneficiaries of a humanitarian demining project. This question illustrated their skepticism about the prioritization of mine-affected areas and the political and economic motives behind their clearance. It also framed their concern about the permanent demarcation of areas they wanted to be demined, such as Alto del Oso Mountain. Rather than technically intervening in this area, this demining project permanently enclosed it with wire and red danger signs, citing high costs, lack of accurate information, and low socioeconomic impact.
In contrast, other suspicious landscapes that did not belong to the local community were cleared, including those of the multiutility group in charge of building the largest hydroelectric plant in Colombia. Facing this poor process of prioritization, Octavio, a farmer and local organizer, bitterly concluded: “The paths we walk have not been completely cleared.”
Thus, landscapes of suspicion also refer to the local population’s intuition that the absence of landmines—and the liberal discourses and practices of peace that frame this reality—would not remove the ecologies of the troubles that continue to plague their ways of life. It also speaks to locals’ suspicion that mine-clearance would open their regions to harsher forms of occupation and state-driven territorial agendas (e.g., water privatization, environmental licenses to corporations, coca-eradication policies). Subject to postwar processes of land restitution, ecological reconciliation, and socioeconomic development (see Berman‐Arévalo and Ojeda 2020; Morris 2019), lands in the process of being demined are poisoned by the anxiety of future forms of violence.
I propose a dual connotation of landscapes of suspicion: rural territories marked by the threat of explosion and growing scenarios of mistrust around the liberation of mine-contaminated lands. These two definitions highlight the persistence and ever-changing capacity of the affective geographies produced during the decades-long civil war. They also provide a framing of the country’s current ambivalent experiences of armed conflict, violence-laden postwar, and peace.
Berman‐Arévalo, Eloísa, and Diana Ojeda. 2020. “Ordinary Geographies: Care, Violence, and Agrarian Extractivism in ‘Post‐Conflict’ Colombia.” Antipode 52 (6): 1583–602.
Henig, David. 2019. “Living on the Frontline: Indeterminacy, Value, and Military Waste in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Anthropological Quarterly 92 (1): 85–110.
Kim, Eleana. 2016. “Toward an Anthropology of Landmines: Rogue Infrastructure and Military Waste in the Korean DMZ.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (2): 162–87.
Morris, Meghan L. 2019. “Speculative Fields: Property in the Shadow of Post-Conflict Colombia.” Cultural Anthropology 34 (4): 580–606.
Pardo Pedraza, Diana. 2020. “On Landmines and Suspicion: How (Not) to Walk Explosive Fields.” Society and Space, March 9.