Colombia has one of the largest Afro-descendant populations in Latin America. According to a post-census survey, the government estimates that Afro-Colombians constitute 10 per cent of the total population, which translates to approximately 4.67 million Afro descendants. This estimation was made in response to concerns about the 2018 census, which reduced the Afro-Colombian population by 30 per cent, compared to the previous census from 2005. Census figures also continue to be disputed by Afro-Colombian leaders such as Luis Gilberto Murillo Urrutia, former Governor of the department of Chocó, who states that the Afro-Colombian population is as high as 36-40 per cent. Similarly, Francia Márquez Mina, the first black woman Vice President of Colombia, argues that there are about 15 million Afro-descendants in Colombia.
Afro–Colombians are present in every major city in the country. It is thought that there are one million living in the capital Bogotá. Coastal regions of Colombia can have significant Afro-Colombian populations that are as high as 90 per cent in the case of the Pacific or 60 per cent on the Atlantic coast. The department of Valle del Cauca is the most populous Afro-Colombian state, followed by Bolívar, Antioquia, Nariño and Chocó. The combined total of the first three of these departments with the highest number of Afro-Colombians amounts to 59.2 per cent of the country’s Afro-descendant population.
The large majority of Afro-Colombians live in urban and peri-urban areas. In this fragile ecosystem Afro-Colombians are peasant farmers (campesinos) and see themselves as the natural custodians of the country’s biodiversity on which they depend for their subsistence and the maintenance of their cultural identity. Afro-Colombians practice crop diversity while delegating animal husbandry and other agricultural tasks to indigenous communities, a relationship which has led to tensions as pressure on available land increases.
The Colombian Department for National Statistics (DANE) has recognized that there are four distinct Afro-descendant groups in the country: Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Palenquero communities, and that two of these speak their own distinct languages. Criollo is spoken by Raizal communities who live on the islands of the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, and Palenquero, which is spoken by the communities of San Basilio de Palenque, recognized since 1603 as being the first free settlement of the Americas. In 2005 it was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage by UNESCO.
Enslaved Africans were first brought by Spanish colonists to Cartagena in the sixteenth century, to replace the lost labour on the plantations and mines which occurred as a result of the decimation of the indigenous population due partly to the harsh working conditions.
Afro-Colombian political consciousness is part of a strong culture of resistance waged by people of African descent in the face of colonial oppression and ethnic discrimination. An example of this culture of political resistance in Colombia traces its roots back to the experience of the Palenqueros, or the establishment of colonies of free Africans during slavery. During the anti-colonial war for liberation led by Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander, Afro-Colombian slaves and former slaves represented three out every five soldiers, although they still had to wait another 40 years after the war had been won before slavery was formally abolished in 1851. Modern formal political organization by Afro-Colombians based on ethnicity and the collective experience of racial discrimination, later evolved as a reaction to and inspired by the emergence of indigenous organizations.
From the beginning of the 19th century the Colombian government actively pursued a policy of blanqueamiento, or ‘whitening’ of society. This was based both on a white supremacist ideology which believed that to whiten the race was to improve it, and on a xenophobic policy which feared the eventual political empowerment and influence of black and indigenous peoples if their numbers were allowed to increase. The idea of mestizaje or the unified mestizo Colombian nation, which never experienced social tensions based on race or ethnicity evolved as an outcome of such policies, although increasingly Colombian and Latin American academics are re-evaluating or deconstructing this idea.
Afro-Colombian communities and collective territories are mostly concentrated in the resource rich and geopolitically strategic regions of the country that continue to be the scenes of fierce disputes between armed groups. Along the Pacific coast the fight for the control and exploitation of collective lands by armed actors has meant that such communities have found themselves caught up in the crossfire or continuously on the frontlines of the conflict. In response, Afro-Colombians organized themselves into peace communities or community councils, and created black-led processes aimed at working towards the autonomy/self-determination and empowerment of Afro-Colombian communities and propagating their active neutrality within the conflict.
The 1990s saw an increasing resurgence of black political consciousness, which in turn sparked internal debates among Afro-Colombians and intellectuals on what it meant to be black in the predominantly mestizo country in which they had traditionally been marginalized and discriminated against. Such debates led to the birth of movements which aspired toward black political, economic and social empowerment and which through its cultural focus aimed toward a redefinition of the Afro-Colombian identity. Afro-Colombians, both men and women, began to be elected and achieve prominent political positions, like Senator Piedad Córdoba and Congressman Edgar Torres. In the 2002 elections for an Afro-Colombian representative, 70,000 people voted for prominent sports figures Maria Isabel Urrutia and Willington Ortiz. In 2007, then President Uribe appointed Paula Moreno as the first black female minister in the history of Colombian politics. Some saw this as a positive demonstration of the government’s willingness to recognize the important cultural contributions that Afro-Colombians have made to the country. Others, however, viewed such moves as being strategic and political, especially in light of the government’s desire to gain the support of the US Congressional Black Caucus in Washington DC.
The 1991 Colombian Constitution marked a significant moment in the country’s history, as it officially recognized Afro-Colombian communities as part of the nation’s diverse ethnic and cultural heritage and treated all citizens as equal under the law. The transitory article 55 of the Constitution led to the creation of Law 70/93, which confirmed the Afro-Colombian Development Plan and established a special electoral district to ensure two seats in Congress for Afro-descendants. The law also recognized the right to collective property for black communities. The implementation of this legal framework, along with the ratification of international agreements, strengthened the legal protections for Afro-descendant communities.
Despite the passing of Law 70 in 1993 which granted collective land titles for black communities and their right to the management of the resources found within them, Afro-Colombian collective territories have increasingly been threatened by the arbitrary implementation of economic development including mega-projects. Such projects have been associated with brutal forced displacement, mass violence and selected killings of Afro-Colombians and their leaders by both legal and illegal armed groups usually at the behest of the government and international and private capital interests. In 2002 a small Afro-Colombian fishing village in Chocó lost 10 per cent of its population in the most violent massacre in Colombia’s civil conflict. This tragic battle between the FARC and the paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) took place at a rural church in Bellavista, Bojayá, where 119 people lost their lives, of which 45 were children, and another 108 people were injured. Many of the over 500 people huddled in the church of St. Paul the Apostle in Bellavista were seeking sanctuary and were displaced from other small towns in the region.
Environmental destruction and serious violations of human rights have both been distinct features of the conflict. This is illustrated by the devastation caused by the palm oil industry on the fragile ecosystems and rich biological diversity of the Pacific coast region. In the large majority of cases there have been massive irregularities in the ways in which companies had come to occupy and exploit the land, including the illegal expropriation of collective Afro-Colombian territories. A practical grass roots collective response to this dynamic has developed along the Pacific coast with the establishment of a number of highly effective and well–organized peaceful Afro-Colombian movements for resistance. Such movements include the Comunidad de Autodeterminación, Vida y Dignidad of Cacarica (CAVIDA), formed in response to ‘Operation Génesis’ of 1996 and 1997 which led to the murder of 85 people and the mass displacement of over 4,000, one of the largest mass displacements of the Colombian conflict. At that time a brutal military operation was unleashed on these communities as a means to promote government and private business interests to gain control and exploit the resources found within their communal lands. In 2013, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared the international legal responsibility of Colombia for the macabre violations perpetrated during ‘Operation Génesis’ in 1997 in the Cacarica river basin. Francisco Hurtado, who was assassinated in 1998, was one of the first Afro-Colombian leaders to advocate that Afro-Colombians struggle to regain titles to the lands where their ancestors had settled many centuries before. Since then many other Afro-Colombian leaders with similar visions have also been assassinated.
Although the struggle of Afro-Colombian communities for their ancestral lands has not been easy, there have been key moments that have resulted in victories for their cause. In 2016, the Constitutional Court of Colombia recognized the legal personhood of the Atrato River, which is Colombia’s largest river, located in the department of Chocó. The decision came as the ethnic communities sued to stop widespread illegal mining and logging practices, including the use of heavy machinery and hazardous substances like mercury. This resulted in the creation of ‘Guardianes del Atrato’, an alliance of Afro-Colombian organizations responsible for ensuring compliance with the Constitutional Court’s ruling in order to protect their fundamental rights to life, health, water, food security, a healthy environment, culture and territory. The judgement said that ‘only an attitude of profound respect and humility with nature and its beings makes it possible for us to relate with them in just and equitable terms, leaving aside every utilitarian, economic or efficient concept’.
Afro-Colombians are among the most marginalized communities in the country. Data from the 2018 post-census survey suggested that 39 per cent of Afro-Colombians are in a situation of multidimensional poverty. Significant disparities are also evident in their access to essential services compared to the non-Afro-Colombian population, including water (69,6 per cent compared to 89 per cent), and lower levels of access to other services. 2021 data shows that poverty levels among Afro-Colombians are approximately 45,5 per cent compared to 33,6 per cent among non-Afro-Colombians. Leading Afro-Colombian activists speak of the existence of a geographical apartheid and a structural and institutionalized racism that continues to characterize Colombian society. This is characterized by the absence of the state and the lack of infrastructure and other meaningful investment in areas with predominantly black populations.
The civil conflict has devastated many Afro-Colombian regions. Violence and trafficking are permeating the Pacific coast and Afro-Colombian communities as far away as the island territories of San Andrés and Providencia. Many young people in these communities have limited options beyond fighting, drug trafficking or being trafficked for prostitution. Some Afro-Colombians with limited opportunities for meaningful employment have reportedly been recruited by the guerrilla, paramilitary, drug trade, or accompanying forms of trafficking and prostitution that support the conflict. The paramilitary and guerrilla are extremely risky options, but in regions with extreme poverty, they may provide the only source of income and survival. Given the extremely low rates of social security benefits obtained by Afro-Colombian workers, a small pension or survivor benefits to family members may serve as an incentive to engage in illicit activities.
Along with the parts of the country with largely indigenous populations, the regions with the highest concentration of Afro-Colombian communities are the areas that have been worst affected by the violence of the conflict and continue to face serious insecurity despite the 2016 peace agreement. As a result, Afro-Colombian communities are some of those whose collective and individual human rights are abused and violated on a regular and increasing basis, often driven by the implementation of large-scale economic development and mega-projects without their consent. Activists argue that mega-projects such as those currently being implemented for the mass expansion of palm oil plantations endanger the territorial basis for maintaining the unique Afro-Colombian culture and social structure which has developed over the last 500 years.
Many mega-projects are financed by the Colombian government, international private capital, international financial institutions and Western governments with the aim of supporting the process of paramilitary demobilization through the creation of alternative agricultural projects to re-employ and re-integrate ex-combatants into civilian life. However, NGOs state that the demobilization process has not brought an end to the violence and the human rights abuses suffered by Afro-Colombian communities. Indeed, many projects have been responsible for the continued forced displacements of Afro-Colombians, as lands allocated for the implementation of such projects are often found in the collective territories legally granted to them under the Law 70 of 1993.
Most Afro-Colombians are based in urban areas: they are the majority population in towns in the North West, and also live in low-income settlements in the major cities, including the capital Bogotá. Widespread displacement from communal lands has contributed to the process. According to one estimate, more than 70 per cent of Bogotá’s sizeable Afro-Colombian community were born outside the city, a proportion that suggests the significant role that displacement has played in the urbanization of Afro-Colombians. In this context, reinforced by existing discrimination, many urban Afro-Colombians have been exposed to poverty, exclusion and physical insecurity.
Violence is a common problem in other urban areas, too, epitomized by Buenaventura, a coastal settlement of 400,000 people, of whom an estimated 84 per cent are Afro-Colombians. It was widely reported in the media in 2014 that this was one of the most violent cities in the country, where the local population was constantly terrorized by criminal gangs and extortion rings. Against a backdrop of social exclusion and poverty, with an unemployment rate of 40 per cent – around four times the average for the country as a whole – perpetrators were able to operate with total impunity. Of over 2,000 investigations opened on disappearances in the city over the previously two decades, reportedly not a single one had led to a conviction. Following these reports, local communities, civil society groups and religious leaders worked together to establish a ‘humanitarian space’ in the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods and mobilize resistance to the paramilitary gangs, despite the very high risks. Since then, while gang violence remains a challenge, security has nevertheless greatly improved – with activists fleeing persecution elsewhere in the country settling in the city.
Although the peace agreement signed by the Colombian government and the guerrilla of FARC-EP in 2016 included an ethnic chapter, which established a set of principles transversally applied throughout the accord and specific measures to safeguard ethnic communities’ rights by guaranteeing their right to free, prior and informed consultation on plans or projects that affect their communities, there have been very low levels of compliance with the ethnic chapter’s principles and safeguards. Thus, Afro-Colombian social leaders continue to be subject to assassinations and forced displacement, and the measures established in the peace accord to combat the illicit drug trade, which mainly affect ethnic territories, have a poor implementation rate.
The conflict over land rights remains the core of the problems faced by Afro-Colombian communities. Law 70 undoubtedly represented a step forward in the recognition of the right to land titling of Afro-descendant communities, but there are still great challenges in the implementation of this law due to the lack of regulation. To address this issue, President Gustavo Petro’s administration has attempted to advance agrarian reform by establishing an agrarian jurisdiction, as agreed in the 2016 peace accord. The creation of an agrarian jurisdiction is crucial to the resolution of land conflicts in Colombia because it will allow a specialized judge to decide who has title to a rural property. Among the measures adopted by Petro’s government to promote agrarian reform is, on the one hand, a historic agreement to purchase three million hectares of land from the Federación Colombiana de Ganaderos (FEDEGAN); and on the other, the use of assets seized from drug traffickers through the concept of extinction of domain carried out by the Sociedad de Activos Especiales, (SAE). In September 2022, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Cecilia López, announced that the agrarian reform of President Petro’s government had begun with the titling of 681,372 hectares of land that will benefit peasants, indigenous peoples, and Afro-descendants. Because the agrarian reform that Petro plans is the basis of several of his government promises, what happens with the long-awaited rural reform will define to a large extent the success or failure of his government.
Updated June 2023
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