The Struggle of Afro-Colombian Communities

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Translated from French by Internationalist 360°

The history of the Afro-Colombian communities is a succession of persecutions, forced displacements, human rights violations and permanent struggle for dignity. To better understand this struggle, especially in this context of (non) implementation of the peace agreements in Colombia, we exchanged with Luis Armando Ortiz, one of the leaders of the Black Communities Process (PCN).

What is the Black Communities Process?

The Black Communities Process is the national organization that brings together the majority of Black community organizations in Colombia. There are others, but the NCP is the one that is the most important and the most relevant on the national and international scene.

Can you give us a more historical perspective of the struggle of Afro-Colombian communities in your country?

Well, the struggle is historic since the process of colonization, in a search for freedom led by some major people, our ancestors who fled from a process known as marronnage of minority groups. These people were in the most remote forests at that time, and they were then what were called quilombos, who were a kind of “nation” in the colonial and later Republican nation, in order to protect slave hunters who wanted to capture them and take them back to mining areas. They were spaces built by our ancestors as a defense strategy with barricades made of wooden sticks ( palos in Spanish, hence the name of palenque designating the quilombos of the Spanish-speaking countries of the region), in order to protect themselves from those which posed this threat.

Then, the process of abolishing slavery began in 1851, a process that did not provide for minimum conditions of dignity for the emancipated, but these communities have mainly settled on the shores of the basins of the Colombian Pacific coast and in other parts of the country. other regions with similar conditions on the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts. Colombia is therefore a country with a large population of Afro-descendants or black communities who are settled mainly in these territories and in the chief towns of the communes of this region and in the capitals of their department, such as: Cali (Valle del Cauca), Medellín (Antioquia), Quibdó (Chocó). They are also based in Bogotá, following a process of migration and displacement, where there is a large colony of black communities. We represent 20% of the total population in Colombia.

Civic Strike in Colombia, October 2017 (Photo: jjcaicedo96)

And these population movements, these migrations, precisely, at what times were they realized and for what reasons?

There has been a historical migration that has mainly found its causes in the labor supply of the Valle del Cauca haciendas in particular. Many Pacific Islanders went to work as wage earners in these haciendas who used cane for sugar production. Others have also started with the development of capital cities, as unskilled labor for the construction of roads and railways as well as ports. Let’s say that the workforce emigrated before these labor supply processes started, partly developing the infrastructure that historically failed us in our territories. These first migratory processes mainly emerged between the beginning and the middle of the 20th century.

But even so, it was not a major problem. The problems came with forced displacements of the inhabitants of our communities, mainly around some very negative productive practices that had to do with the projects of this so-called “development” or with the establishment of coca cultures. most of them arrived in the mid-1990s in the Colombian Pacific. These processes also brought with them the entry of big capital into the territory for the exploitation of minerals (gold, silver, etc.). Another example of an event that has led to forced displacement, torture, murder, disappearances, sexual violence, forced recruitment of adolescents and young people leaders whose children have not been spared in the context of the armed conflict.

So the processes of forced displacement have increased in correlation with the adoption of the famous free trade treaties …

Exactly, around all that means in the first instance the economic model that we wanted to implement in Colombia with the economic opening that then provoked what are the free trade treaties. These generated an aggressive dynamic against the ancestral territories. On the one hand, the expansion of ports, bearing in mind that Buenaventura, for example, sees more than 60% of Colombia’s foreign trade passing through. On the other hand, the Pacific lands are very rich in gold and silver. There are many deposits of coltan, oil, a rich biodiversity of fauna and flora, and the tentacles of the liberal economy in our territories.

From our point of view, an economy that destroys territories and nature should be considered illegal. However, this economy has been legalized by the national government, and it is now taking place in a violent and aggressive manner, causing an impact on the violation of human rights, violating our legitimate right to own a proper economy, the right to choose a model of development that corresponds to the ethnic vision of the communities that are here. We call these plans “ethno-development” or life plans, which are the name that some communities use, or PEDRIN for rural development plan. These proposals are opposed to national government development plans that simply obey this hegemonic plan of neoliberal economics around the world.

So there is this kind of counterpoint, as we say in very popular language, namely that we are fighting for our model of development while we see a massive interest in tearing our people out of their territory by any means. On the one hand, through violence in the midst of armed conflict, a struggle for the territorial control of an illicit economy around coca. On the other side, through the megaprojects that are being developed on the Pacific side.

Cranes in the port of Buenaventura (Photo: National Agency of Infrastructure)

What is the state’s position on the forced displacement of your communities?

Victims of displacement are recognized as such when they are in conflict zones or in economic areas where megaprojects develop, forcing the inhabitants to flee or forcing them to leave. We denounce this to the Colombian Ombudsman so that such situations are noted since they are often obscured by the official registers. We have made progress in this regard, thanks to the dissemination of documentation on this problem. 94% of the displaced in Colombia are black, peasant and indigenous. Of these, blacks are overwhelmingly.

Today, the locomotive of development, hydroelectric dams, planned hydrocarbon operations, port infrastructure, mining projects, etc. are always more sources of displacement of our territories. In some cases, communities are not displaced, but live on farms whose impacts are very harmful to health.

By bringing together all these demands of Afro-Colombian populations, what is the objective of your visit, of your European tour?

The purpose of the visit is mainly to denounce before the international community the systemic form in which the government, through different strategies, has caused chaos in our population, the armed protagonists in these territories, outside the law and who of the In the same way, our leaders and members of their families are continuously and systematically murdering us for having opposed such attacks from armed actors outside the law, but also from the same institutions of the national government. Our members are being murdered, our young people are recruited to serve illegal structures, drug trafficking and paramilitarism, which intervene on the territory in the exercise of an illegal economy.

Not long ago, an incident in Tumaco also highlighted responsibilities attributable to the government, specifically the police, in the killing of seven peasant farmers and coca growers in the Alto Mira. There is a context of terror, expulsion and displacement in which the government has responsibilities that we want to denounce. Many do not have the courage to say it, we know the risks that we incur, but someone has to bring this to the attention of the international community.

We call on the international community, alternative media, left-wing social movements, alternative political movements to join our struggle, to draw the attention of the world’s citizens, to the places where they meet in different ways, so that this reality is known.

Juan Manuel Santos receiving the Nobel Peace Prize (Photo: TeleSur / EFE)

How do you define the contrast between this message and the image that the Colombian government wishes to convey abroad?

The national government has not given to know this reality that takes place in this other Colombia, this Colombia forgotten, marginalized and excluded, Colombia which has the highest rates of poverty and misery, this Colombia is never mentioned . However, President Santos continues to spread propaganda according to which Colombia, following the peace agreement and the cessation of clashes with the FARC, is a country at peace. In addition, he has asked the United Nations for recognition of a human rights certification for the month of May. The visit also aims to deny the official version of Mr. President of the Republic, which is an integral lie.

We are confronted with an enemy who denies our rights, who denies the conquests of the black people in the framework of the law 70, within the framework of the agreements which concluded with the national government and the FARC in Havana with the table of the victims , to which black communities were also present. The inclusion of the ethnic chapter was proposed and it is always present. We are very frightened because, in the context of all these chapters, we are witnessing systematic planning by the national government, there is a systematic attack on the rights of the black people.

How is the NCP positioned in relation to the peace process and its implementation? And to what extent does this process affect (positively or negatively) the living conditions of Afro-Colombian communities?

First, it must be said that the black community has been in favor of this agreement, precisely because we have been victims of many abuses, and we have supported the yes with confidence, like all Colombians, and with the hope of to have a country in peace. We have a lot of challenges and it is precisely to deal with the fierce way the government opposes our interests, dismantling our rights.

We are in the process of planning a national mobilization, on the one hand to require the application of many agreements because we have passed the bar of 100 historic agreements with the national government that have never been respected. And that is what justifies our skepticism about what will be the new agreement between the government and the FARC.

In the same way, we are developing proposals such as those we have always made, alternatives, in order to overcome the social, economic, cultural and environmental crisis of our territory. We do not believe that repression or force is the solution to the conflictual problems that exist on the territory, but we believe that the plans of ethno-development are the best formula in order to be able to solve a problem anchored in a territory, characterized historically as the peaceful territory from which we come, we blacks of Colombia, in majority. And this work is related to the calls we are making to the international community, so that it becomes aware that the problems occurring in these far-off places, where we come from, will have an impact elsewhere as well.

NCP march for the defense of human rights (Photo: Renacientes.net)

We have seen that after the peace agreement and the abandonment of arms by the FARC, paramilitary groups are growing. How is the NCP positioned to deal with this problem? And what will be the government’s response?

Paramilitaries go to our territories to control drug trafficking. Since the FARC laid down arms, new groups and structures are actually appearing on our territories. There are dozens of organizations operating in the rural areas of the Pacific and in the urban periphery. A few weeks ago, they murdered a leader, a woman who did social work with young people so that they did not fall into crime. Yesterday, I learned that the son of a community council leader was murdered for refusing to join a paramilitary group. Social movements are attacked incessantly.

On these facts, the government does not manifest itself. His responsibilities are simply to evade them. Undeniably, there is a complicity between the government and these groups. The latter do not attack the government forces and the question is: who provides the raw material (weapons) to these groups? According to the results of the investigations conducted in Colombia, it has been proved that paramilitary arms came from the police, armed forces or intelligence services (Security Administrative Department, DAS). The police, the army, the judges, and even the prosecution do not protect us. We need to use other bodies to protect ourselves, so that effective investigations of violations against our communities are conducted.

A few months ago, there was a big strike in Buenaventura, and in November a national strike took place. How do you evaluate this type of mobilization and how do you think that it can evolve in the future, not only as an instrument to defend your rights, but also as an instrument to demand from the government a real application of the peace agreements? ?

Let’s say that the strike is the most positive tool we have found to require the government’s attention to meet the basic unmet needs that we know, to reduce the inequality gap. We define ourselves as people of peace. Mobilization as a means of action is the tool we have used and it is from this scenario that we can open the dialogues, which are dialogues of the deaf, insofar as these strategies and situations are known at the national level and it is to obtain support and solidarity internationally that we mobilize.

Protest actions in Buenaventura (Photo: PopularResistance.org)

We are especially vocal about the economic war that is being fought against our territories, which is led by the capitalist international trading system whose agents enter into a competition to seize the natural wealth of our country through mega extraction projects. This situation aggravates the political and social crisis of the country. These megaprojects have an impact on the climate, they destroy forests, fields, sources of water. These projects are part of the Santos government’s plan, the “locomotive of development” that shaves everything it finds in its path. Our communities are being expelled from their ancestral lands to urban areas where they experience acute poverty, delinquency, and prostitution. These are areas where there is no infrastructure needed for integration.

What types of convergences or strategic alliances exist between the NCP and other progressive movements or organizations or political parties?

With regard to mobilization, for example, there are convergences, of course. With parties like the Democratic Pole, for example, which supports us in the fight for the defense of the ancestral rights of Afro-Colombian communities. With the peasant and indigenous communities also, of course, under the Minga. The latter was a space where all the victims of this system, the true people , came together to gather their forces and build a stronger unity, in order to counteract from a social perspective the injustices of the system that oppresses us.

Luis Armando Ortiz is the legal representative of the ACAPA Community Council (Tumaco, Nariño) and one of the leaders of the PCN, a national organization for the defense of the rights of black communities in Colombia.

Cover photo : NCP Walk during their fifth meeting (Photo: Renacientes.net)
Translated from Spanish by Rémi Gromelle