During my official visit this month to Colombia (flag at left), I had an opportunity to meet with both President Álvaro Uribe and numerous senior government officials and to consult with persons from Afro-Colombian communities. This dialogue was in keeping with my mandate on minority issues, and helped to promote implementation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic minorities.
Focusing on communities who identify as Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal and Palenquero, I visited cities and regions where these communities are prominent.
This post summarizes the preliminary views I set forward here; my findings and recommendations will be fully developed in my report to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The story of Afro-Colombians begins with slavery and the massive and gross violations of the rights of African descendants that terrible chapter in history entailed. In Colombia, as slaves escaped, they were forced to find refuge in nearly uninhabitable, geographically remote regions of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, shown in the darkest color at right. (map credit) There they built communities and livelihoods under conditions of extreme isolation, harsh climate, and often extreme poverty.
As in many other countries, the legacy of slavery endures and is manifested in communities that are socially and economically marginalized, facing racist attitudes and structural discrimination. The Colombian government has made efforts to address certain aspects of the disparities faced by Afro-Colombians, but the legacy of slavery continues to have a profound impact.
New challenges also have emerged.
Afro-Colombian settlements, in rural areas and town ghettos, rival only the reservations for Indigenous peoples as the very poorest in Colombia, with extreme poverty rates of over 60%. Surveys suggest that 80% of Afro-Colombians do not have basic needs met. Infant mortality rates in Chocó and Cauca are 54 per 1,000 of the population. Life expectancy in Afro-Colombian regions is only 55. Illiteracy rates for Afro-Colombians are estimated to be twice the national average. The responses of the national Government and regional authorities have been inadequate and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
The recent census failed to capture the full demographic and socio-economic picture of the Afro-Colombians, estimated at between 10% and 25% of Colombia’s population. Additionally there is virtually no disaggregation of socio-economic data by race, so government policies are based on faulty data. I often heard from Afro-Colombians that they feel statistically "invisible", and that consequently their issues are ignored, their lives are less valued and that government policies dedicated to their needs are not achieving the desired improvements to their situations.
Colombia has an impressive and commendable legislative framework that recognises many rights of Afro-Colombians, starting with the Constitution of 1991 which recognizes not only the right to non-discrimination but also the right to equality for all citizens. It also pledges to protect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the country and it promotes the political participation of minorities by establishing two reserve seats in the House of Representatives for Afro-Colombians.
Law 70 of 1993 recognises the right of black Colombians to collectively own and occupy their ancestral lands, and also reinforces rights to education, health and political participation.
While such measures are praiseworthy, the vast majority of communities and organizations that I consulted complain that implementation remains woefully inadequate, limited and sporadic. And where steps have been taken, no real enforcement has followed. As one woman told me:
‘The laws say all the right things but still, nothing has happened.’
Displaced & dispossessed
Displacement was highlighted as the highest priority issue for many Afro-Colombians. Those lands onto which runaway slaves were forced to retreat, while isolated and neglected for centuries, have in recent years been identified as the most fertile and resource rich of Colombia’s territory. This has placed these once isolated, largely self-sufficient communities directly in harm’s way.
These are also some of the most strategically important regions for guerrillas, former paramilitaries and other armed groups currently involved in narcotics production and trafficking. While the government has adopted a political position that the armed conflict has ended and paramilitary groups have demobilized, in many rural black communities that I visited I heard emotional and credible stories of murders and threats to the lives of community leaders.
The number of internally displaced persons ranges from an official tally of 3.073 million to civil society estimates as high as 4 million -- constituting the world’s second largest internal displacement situation. Those few who returned have found that others have claimed ownership or rights of usage in their absence.
Victims and communities believe that there is complete impunity for all of those who commit crimes against them.
I was pleased to meet with the Vice Minister of Defense and representatives of the police and the military during my visit. I was told of important steps being taken to build armed services that are aware of and responsive to the rights of Afro-Colombian communities and to break with the pattern of past violations. These efforts are welcome. However, more must be done to protect vulnerable communities and their leaders.
I would like to commend the work of the Ombudsman’s office in establishing a system of early warning and risk assessment for communities and leaders under threat. But the office’s alerts must be assessed by a committee of the security forces and civil institutions at the national level, which has frequently discounted the credibility of the alerts.
Displacement has particularly affected women, who have been displaced to urban areas in greater numbers than black men, and who suffer extreme vulnerability when they are. Ancestral lands from which Afro-Colombians are displaced are not only the source of livelihood and survival for communities, they are also essential for the preservation of Afro-Colombian culture, livelihood, language, tradition and for maintaining the social fabric of communities. (credit for 2007 Fiesta Palenque photo) The effects of displacement require solutions for both rural and urban communities, as recognized in a landmark decision of the Constitutional Court, Order 005 of 2009. The Court concluded that Government must act comprehensively to address the rights and needs of Afro-Colombians who are displaced and ordered specific measures; to date these have not been effectively implemented.
I welcome the establishment of the Intersectoral Commission for the Advancement of the Afro-Colombian Population, and hope that its recommendations will quickly move from the planning phase to the phase of actually impacting the lives of those who are suffering.
Women & violence
Afro-Colombian women spoke to me of their experiences, the violence committed against them, including sexual violence, the fear and trauma that they have endured on a daily basis and the challenges of their lives as women and mothers living under conditions of conflict, displacement and poverty. The rights of women to return to their community lands in security must be considered a priority.
When men have been killed, disappeared or forced to flee, women have assumed leadership roles in their communities and have shown remarkable resilience and resistance. However they do not receive the necessary recognition as community leaders and are not afforded the protection measures that they require. Mothers also spoke of losing children to forced recruitment into guerrilla and illegal armed groups.
Economic interests & "inconvenient rights"
Many Afro-Colombians have been displaced by "megaprojects", large-scale economic operations, often involving national and multinational companies, promoted by the government as bringing development and economic gain to the whole of Colombia. The communities have grave concerns about encroachment on their land rights and adverse environmental impacts; however, in the face of such economic interests and megaprojects it appears that the rights of communities are "inconvenient rights" and that the laws put in place to protect them are equally inconvenient.
Decree 1320 of 1998 requires that "prior informed consultation" must take place with Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities for the exploitation of natural resources within their territories. However I was informed that projects have been implemented without consultation or with consultations held with people who do not legitimately represent communities. Consultations must be meaningful and effective; importantly, International Labour Organisation Convention No. 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, which this decree purports to incorporate into domestic law, requires that prior and informed consent of communities before projects are implemented on their lands.
Participation in decision-making
Despite the importance of political participation (prior post), Afro-Colombians are extremely poorly represented in political structures and institutions in Colombia and consequently the voices and issues of Afro-Colombians are not being sufficiently heard or given the attention that they deserve.