Afro-Colombian Issues Must Be Central to the Peace Process

Despite the major impacts of the internal conflict on Afro-Colombians’ lives and livelihoods, they have little representation in the peace process.

By Elijah C. Stevens

While the U.S. recently pledged $450 million annually over the next 10 years to “Paz Colombia,” it remains to be seen how the U.S.’s efforts will affect many of the most vulnerable Colombians in the post-conflict era – Afro-Colombians.
Afro-Colombians have been disproportionately affected by the country’s decades-long internal conflict and the war on drugs. Fighting between the government, guerrilla groups, and paramilitary organizations has concentrated in the coastal regions, and has taken a major toll on Afro-Colombians, who largely reside in these regions. They have been subject to forced recruitment to armed forces and have suffered casualties, displacement, and land exploitation. Afro-Colombians “have experienced disproportionate displacement and victimization” from the violence, says Carlos Rosero, co-founder of the  Process of Black Communities (Proceso de Comunidades Negros – PCN). And while Plan Colombia has helped in some ways to address violence and narcotrafficking, it has also helped fuel paramilitary operations among Afro-Colombian communities and mega-development initiatives that have further displaced Afro-Colombian peoples from their lands.

Afro-Colombians make up about a quarter of Colombia’s population, making Colombia the second largest Afro-descendant country in Latin America. Afro-Colombians are a historically impoverished and underrepresented minority in Colombia. Compared to under 50 percent for the general population of Colombia, 78.5 percent of Afro-Colombians live below the poverty line. And Afro-Colombians have only 3.2 percent direct identity-based representation in the Congress, based on 2014 elected officials.

Despite the major impacts of the internal conflict on Afro-Colombians’ lives and livelihoods, there has been little representation for Afro-descendant peoples in the peace process. The direct peace talks have involved government officials and FARC representatives, without inclusion of Afro-Colombian leaders and activists. According to Gimena Sánchez, the senior associate for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), this is reflective of a historical exclusion of Afro-Colombians in the political process.

“Afro-Colombians were not included in the Constitutional Assembly [in 1991]. Now, what was agreed upon for Afro-Colombians has not been followed through on,” said Sánchez. “If you don’t have all the main actors that have been affected by the violence, you will not address all of the issues.”

Rosero echoes these concerns, stating, “Afro-Colombians have not been included in the peace process … and have not had the mechanisms for participation.”

In the lead-up to President Barack Obama’s Feb. 4 meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Plan Colombia, activists and organizations, such as the labor union AFL-CIO and WOLA, have urged for recognition of Afro-Colombian rights and representation in the peace process. It seems uncertain whether there was direct acknowledgment of Afro-Colombian issues in the talks, though. As Marino Cordoba, representative of the Colombian group National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), pointed out, there were no Afro-Colombian representatives among the cadre of officials accompanying President Santos during his trip. When asked why, Santos allegedly responded, “Well we can’t include everyone,” said Gimena Sánchez. This is indicative of the way in which Afro-Colombians are not seen as their own category of people in Colombia, says Sanchez.“Socioeconomically they are not the same, culturally they are not the same, they are a different category,” she added.

There have been efforts by both Colombian activists and some U.S. politicians to push for more recognition of, and participation for, Afro-Colombian peoples in Colombia’s post-conflict peace process. Congressmen Jim McGovern Gregory Meeks have worked to further the cause of Afro-Colombians in the U.S.’s initiatives toward Colombia. Indeed, Gimena Sánchez states that the US has been “one of the biggest supporters of Afro-Colombians in terms of global governance.”

However, despite these efforts the talks focused on a Plan Colombia 2.0, or Paz Colombia. The joint initiative seeks to build on the legacy of the counerinsurgency, counternarcotics plan, but in post-conflict Colombia. There are fears that the continuation of aid will focus on the military.

Rosero is skeptical of the U.S.’s potential future involvement in the peace process under Paz Colombia, given the destructive effects of Plan Colombia. “We do not want to have initiatives that do not include Afro-Colombians in the decisions and agreements,” he said. Rosero is part of a group of activists who are working to gain participation for Afro-Colombian representatives in the peace talks in Havana.

“The post-conflict could provide resources for us and our efforts … but we have to make them a reality,” said Rosero. In order to do so, these groups are hoping to be directly involved in the talks and agreements about the terms of Colombia’s peace process.

As details of the U.S.’s promises in specific budget proposals have yet to emerge, it remains to be seen whether there will be direct financial support for Afro-Colombian-oriented initiatives. All the same, it seems clear that integration of Afro-Colombians into the peace process will be critical if this community will experience peace and justice moving forward.