2021 Aurora Humanitarian Ruby Alba Castaño is a human rights activist and founder of ASOCATDAME (Meta Association for Peasants, Rural Workers and Defenders of the Environment) who works to protect the rights of Colombian peasants that are subjected to persecution, forced disappearances and displacement. We talked to Ruby about her family history and the great love that drives her mission.
A Peasant’s Life
I am the daughter of the victims of previous wars in my country, and that made me understand the situation that my family lived in, particularly my father, who was a peasant. I grew up almost in the mountains. Some organizations and organizational systems were created there by the peasants themselves for the needs that the communities had. I learned from that, and I fell in love.
In our territory, there were very rough roads, very damaged, and the peasants fixed them. When my father took me to the cities, I saw that there was another way of life. I began to want to be better, to organize, to transform. Why wasn't the road better? Why were there no schools? I wanted to study. Why were there no health centers? And that's how I started to get into the story.
I realized that many things were lacking in the region. We began to create collective social dynamics and with the work we did there, things improved. Understanding the conditions in which we lived made it easier at some point for me to get involved in that leadership, in wanting to think about how to change things so that they get better.
Building from the Ground Up
The state was not there. There were organizations of rice farmers, coffee growers, including my father and also some cattle farmers. They were the ones who were looking for action, using their small resources to improve the lives of the peasants. As we saw that it worked, we also used it. We began to support minority sectors that participated in the election of representatives to the institutions in the territories.
It's about construction and distribution. First, the construction of organizational strategies of the processes that we were establishing as internal policies that allowed the distribution of land in an equitable way from the peasants themselves. Those territories were the wastelands of the state. Health centers, schools, colleges, sports centers were built, and the routes accessing this region were improved. I saw that this really helped a lot.
In the meantime, I worked together with the organizations. When the war unfolded, we saw that the most visible leaders who were adults began to be assassinated. At that time, we were young. I kept moving forward and I took one of the flags that those who had been assassinated were carrying.
We started to voice our allegations. But I also had to prepare myself to see how those allegations were going to be made in order to avoid being prosecuted or falling into the intricacies of that complex justice that exists in favor of those who carry out the action of war. Among them, the same institutions and, at some point, also the judges and those who are linked to the investigation and the action.
The Love That Moves Mountains
It is true that I am afraid. The strength or the resistance that I may have to respond to this or to continue with this, is all that story of pain. It is a story full of injustices.
But I go on because of the need and the love I have for my territory, for my country, for my family, for life.
That makes me “sacrifice” myself in some way – in quotes because that is not a sacrifice for me. It's my job. I am happy to do so when I see that it prevented a death, an imprisonment, prevented a young man from being arrested and beaten, prevented the murder of a peasant or made life easier for other peasants or communities that live in these territories, in which I grew up, that I know, and I know how people suffer there. Exercising the defense of human rights for me is not a sacrifice. I think it has never been a sacrifice.
It is something that I like to do. It is something for which I try to pick up every tool that the law, the right and also the principles of humanity give me to protect life. I think all the defenders feel it because sometimes we expose ourselves to risks. We don't mind facing an armed person to go and tell him, “Why are you doing it? That should not be done. You are causing a lot of pain to the territory.”
The Shape of Things to Come
I see a very uncertain future for my country. It is a future where young people are requesting the need for a much more inclusive policy, much more beneficial for the population. For development, we need prepared young people. And they carry out a number of actions that make visible the need, or rather the problems and deficiencies that the country is experiencing.
And that is so that what we have lived is not repeated. That what has been happening in Colombia does not repeat or does not make each generation relive that pain. My generation, my colleagues, the young people who lived with me, who studied with me, with whom we walked together, with whom we worked in organizations, we were almost 800 students. If there are more or less 100 alive, that's a lot. We were persecuted, murdered, disappeared, prosecuted.
Now, there is an awakening. I think that the work of visibility, of allegations that we have done for many years on the platforms about what is happening, has also made young people look there. But the protests, marches and strikes are not done only by the youth. There is a large community of peasants, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, workers. And now, there are also young people, which is the phenomenon that is occurring nowadays.
More than 3,000 people benefited directly from Ruby Castaño’s ceaseless advocacy for their land rights.
To help fearless modern-day heroes like her continue their life-changing work, support Aurora at auroraprize.com/en/donate.