By Sandra Amolo, FOR Peace Presence accompanier. For the Spanish version click here.
In Colombia’s Pacific littoral, the struggle for land ownership recently took a positive turn. After 16 years of demanding collective ownership rights, the Colombian government granted 64 Afro-Colombian communities of the Rio Naya Basin title to 177,817 hectares of land. This historic ruling was an important step in recognizing the important role Afro-Colombians play in “preserving, maintaining and promoting the regeneration of protective vegetation, and ensuring the persistence of particularly fragile ecosystems such as mangroves and wetlands.”
The titling of these lands further legitimized the centuries-old Afro-Colombian tradition of resistance that gave birth to independent maroon communities. Commonly known as palenques, these communities have persisted in reclaiming their culture and traditions through the preservation of land.
FOR Peace Presence accompanied the Inter-Church Commission of Justice and Peace CIJP, and Communities Constructing Peace in the Territories (CONPAZ) to witness delivery of the titles to Rio Naya. We travelled from the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space in Buenaventura, amongst Afro-Colombians displaced by armed conflict in resource rich and biodiverse regions such as Rio Naya.
Visitors from Buenaventura to López de Micay filled the little fishing town of Puerto Merizalde with the music and dance of currulao, various flavors of a fermented sugarcane drink called viche, and oral histories traded between the young and the old. For three days the community members of Rio Naya celebrated a triumphant step in resisting violence and displacement. For many of the Afro-Colombians present, this day represented an important step in the realization of their right to self-determination that would allow conservation of the culture, tradition, and history of Afro-Colombians living in the Rio Naya Basin.
The Basin of the Naya River sits between the departments of Valle del Cauca and Cauca, bound to the east by the hills of San Vicente and Naya and to the west by the Pacific Ocean. Forced African labor was brought here in the 18th century to mine gold and platinum. After the abolition of slavery in 1851, black communities settled on the riversides of the Pacific Basin. These communities created autonomous political and economic formations out of necessity, as the state implicitly ignored their existence.
In the 1980s the Colombian economic policy of apertura (opening) led to the exploitation of many resource rich regions far from the reach and protection of the State, including the Pacific coastal region. This incursion of multinational corporations reduced access to already limited resources for the communities settled there.
Black and indigenous communities affected by the increased exploitation began building partnerships that recognized both groups’ historical oppression by colonial settlers and armed actors. Afro-Colombians in the region began to pressure the government to recognize their collective identity. These efforts led to the passage of Law 70 of 1993, which initiated a process of recognizing Afro-Colombians as an ethnic group with collective land rights.
This recognition gained importance in Rio Naya when a 2001 paramilitary massacre left 100 people dead in one of the most violent cases of displacement in Colombia. Many Rio Naya residents left their community, seeking refuge in cities such as Buenaventura. In the years following the massacre, a community council of 64 Afro-Colombian communities in the Pacific Basin began to pursue the titling of the lands as an effort to defend the community’s human, economic, and cultural rights.
During this process, the University of Cauca disputed the council’s claim to the land, asserting itself as historical proprietor. However, the Colombian Institute of Rural Development (INCODER) accepted the council’s collective petition in 2015, citing that the University could not prove that it was actively using the territories in dispute.
Land has been at the center of the Colombian conflict for more than 50 years. Within that time period, millions of Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, and subsistence farmers have been violently dispossessed only to have huge sums of their land bought for drug trafficking, money laundering, or extractive industries.
For the more than 6 million displaced Colombians, the process of returning to the lands from which armed actors forcibly evicted them is mired in bureaucracy. A recent Forging Futures Foundation study shows that in the five years since the Colombian Congress passed the Victims’ Law, a process for land redistribution to victims of violent displacement in the Colombian civil conflict, only 3.4% of claimants have received a ruling in favor of land restitution.
Many claimants face continued threats of violence, limited government support for collective claims, and a micro-focus policy that limits where in the country the process can be applied.
Although Law 70 grants Afro-Colombians access to collective land titles from Buenaventura to the Pacific Basin, Afro-Colombians are one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world. Those displaced to the port of Buenaventura struggle against the loss of connection to their traditional territories and harassment from so-called “criminal gangs,”which some residents of Buenaventura recognize as paramilitary groups seeking to control the ports for drug trafficking.
Even though we were in the midst of celebration, the assemblies in Rio Naya’s looming church echoed resistance. Many of the leaders we spoke with were already organizing: a young woman approached the international and national organizations present to promote initiatives that engage more women in decision making processes; council members spoke against encroaching extractive industries; young people discussed how to maintain their ancestral practices.
There are many challenges ahead for the communities in the Rio Naya Basin, but their collective ownership of land serves as a tool to face these challenges. Instead of a means for violence, these lands signify a foundation for life that rejects the systemic violation of Afro-Colombian rights. These lands mean economic power, cultural heritage, and political participation for the community members of Rio Naya.