Agrarian Hip-hop: urban agriculture as activism in Medellin

(written originally in Portuguese and published here: http://herbivora.com.br/hip-hop-agrario-agricultura-urbana-ativismo-medellin/)

Urban agriculture as a means of reappropriating territories taken over by violence and rescuing murdered and missing people’s memories is the purpose of project AgroArte at Comuna 13, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Medellin. The “agrarian hip-hop” project engages local community in cultural activities mediated by urban agriculture. “Hip-hop is an art from the asphalt; however, under the asphalt there is earth, and the earth is our territory and our fight,” said rapper AKA — who, after being taught by female elders from the community, started cultivating food crops in the sidewalks. Fifteen years have gone by since then: the “bright green paintings” take up the great wall of San Javier’s cemetery, and there is food growing in approximately fifteen blocks of Comuna 13.

AKA and the wall of memory. Photo Alessandra Nahra

Colombia is marked by a history of civil wars and land disputes. Due to the absence of governance from the state, the country has been dominated by the conflict between guerrillas and paramilitary groups. Comuna 13 — a neighborhood on the east side of Medellin with approximately 140 thousand inhabitants that was for many years under control of guerrillas and urban militia — was the target of one of the largest military operations ever seen in the country: Orion Operation, in 2002. The goal of the operation was to recover the neighborhood’s ownership, eradicating the militias. However, Orion Operation was led by paramilitaries who began a “cleanse” in the community. The result was the disappearance of hundreds of people, most of them teens. Even though this is a chapter in the city’s history that the population tries to forget — with urbanization initiatives, such as MetroCable, benefiting residents of comunas located on mountains surrounding Medellin — , there are those who guarantee that this story is not over. “Peace treaties enacted in Colombia do not reach Comuna 13,” says AKA. According to the rapper, there have been 348 murders in the city this year so far (August 2017).

In graffiti and flowerbeds, the history of the desplazados and murdered. Photo Alessandra Nahra

San Javier cemetery, at the entrance of Comuna 13, is filled with graffiti and has its walls covered by flowerbeds made of PET bottles and plastic packaging. Each flowerbed houses a plant and is named after an individual in the community that has been murdered or is missing — desplazado, in the local language. At the higher part of the neighborhood lies the Escombrera, a wound still not healed in the history of the country. The bodies of the Orion Operation victims have been disposed of in this open dump. In Colombia it is forbidden to cremate the bodies of murder victims, therefore many of the individuals buried in San Javier cemetery are former young residents of the community. To AKA “a cemetery tells the story of a territory.” The place also houses AgroArt’s greenhouse. The symbol of new life, and the memory of the murdered and missing people engraved on the walls of a cemetery reinforce the strategy of territory reappropriation proposed by AgroArte. The practice of planting does exactly this. “We are all desterrados in Latin America. Cultivating the earth connects us with historical struggles. AgroArt does pedagogy of the land, and the land is on the hands of the ones who control the country”, says AKA.

According to the rapper, conflicts in Colombia have always been connected to land ownership. “Only five families own the entire country,” he estimates. The paramilitaries, ever since the beginning of their actions, have focused on the expropriation of peasants’ lands (if you visit Medellin make sure to include the Memory Museum in your itinerary. Bring a tissue with you. It is impossible not to get emotional with Colombians sad history). Five years ago AKA was also a victim of desplazamiento. Up to today he is not allowed to return to the higher portion of the neighborhood. According to him, in 2017 seven families have been desplazadas from Comuna 13.

AgroArte’s focus in urban agriculture also promotes the construction of the social fabric, proposing community actions, and sets labor as rituals. “Planting is the process. As we plant, we understand that we are all alike. To plant reminds the person of what he or she used to cultivate before being desplazada.” Comuna 13 was a semi-rural area where people who came from the countryside still live. “Colombia was built by peasants. The State induces people to migrate to urban areas. So the memory of the countryside is lost.”

“Cement hides, covers, masks… But we are plantas callejeras (street plants): we resist the cement.” And we continue to cultivate and write a new history for Latin America.

"We are plantas callejeras". We resist. ❤ Photo Alessandra Nahra

Escrevo, planto, estudo, viajo. Falo com bichos, abraço árvores, e vice-versa.