Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Colombia has one of the largest Afro-Colombian populations in Latin America. According to the census of 2005, the government estimates that Afro-Colombians constitute 10.6 per cent of the total population. This was 16 per cent down from the government’s previous estimations in 2002, which put the total Afro-Colombian population at 26 per cent and which is the figure still currently used by the United Nations. Census figures also continue to be disputed by Afro-Colombian leaders such as Luis Giraldo Murillo Urritia, former Governor of the department of Chocó, who claims that the Afro-Colombian population is as high as 36-40 per cent.
Afro–Colombians are present in every major city in the country. It is thought that there are one million living in the capital of 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 Chocó is the most populous Afro-Colombian state, followed by Magdalena, Bolivar and Sucre. Southern Valle, northern Cauca and Uraba have majority black populations.
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 the indigenous Emberá, 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-Colombian groups in the country and that two of these speak their own distinct languages. ‘Bande‘ is spoken by Afro-Colombian communities who live on the islands of the archipelago of San Andres, 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 Simon Bolivar 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.
The relative autonomy of Afro-Colombians in the northern region of Chocó came to a violent end in the 1970s when their lands were usurped for cultivation of soya beans. Since then there has been a steady flow of migration by these communities towards the urban city centres as they attempt to escape poverty and the violence generated by the war.
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 nation in which they had been traditionally 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 Cordoba and Congressman Edgar Torres. In the 2002 elections for an Afro-Colombian representative, 150,000 people voted for prominent sports figures Maria Isabel Urrutria and Wellington Ortiz. In 2007, then President Uribe appointed 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 nation. 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.
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 or mega-projects. The implementation of such projects has 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 ACCU 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 the violation of human rights have both been a distinct feature 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 the 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 Auto-Determinación, Vida y Dignidad of Cacarica (CAVIDA), formed in response to ‘Operation Genesis’ 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 forward government and private capital’s interests to gain control and exploit the resources found within their communal lands. 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.
Afro-Colombians are among the most marginalized communities in the country. Data from the 2005 Census suggested that Afro-Colombians living in urban areas are almost three times more likely to be based in slums than their non-Afro-Colombian counterparts. Significant disparities are also evident in their access to essential services compared to the non-Afro-Colombian population, including water (72 per cent compared to 85 per cent), and lower levels of access to other services. 2015 data shows that poverty levels among Afro-Colombians are approximately 41 per cent compared to 27 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 permeate Colombian society. This is characterized by the absence of the state and the lack of infrastructural or 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 Andres 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 tempted 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 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 the most violent city in the country, with the local population were 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.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in