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Afro-Colombians details plight of its leaders

KAREN JUANITA CARRILLO | 10/31/2013, 1:54 p.m.

Marino Córdoba, legal representative of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) was in Washington, D.C., this past week. Córdoba flew in from the Colombian capital of Bogotá to give testimony about some of the threats members of his organization are facing and about the progress Afro-Colombians are making in their nation.

In 1999, Afro-Colombians who were forced to leave their ancestral homes due to their nations’ 50-year civil war created AFRODES, a network with some 96 chapters across Colombia. The AFRODES network was designed to promote the concerns of displaced Afro-Colombians.

“Because of the large number of displaced [Afro-Columbians], we have chapters in various cities,” Córdoba noted. “We have various objectives. Territory, youth, gender, cultural identity and economic development are major ones.” However, AFRODES members have been threatened—and some of them killed—because of their work. “This is one of the greatest challenges we are having now as an organization. We need greater security and protection for our leaders and for the work they are doing in the organization.”

AFRODES leaders are often threatened for speaking up against encroachment on Black community lands along the Pacific coast. Many of these areas have mineral deposits that can be mined for medicinal purposes or as precious metals. Multinational companies want access to these locations, as do local guerrilla groups—both of which can turn a profit by working the lands. But before companies can gain access to the lands, they are required to negotiate with local Black and indigenous community councils and explain how their mining will affect locals as well as what benefits it will bring.

These negotiations with local community councils do not always lead to companies moving forward: “The government is often not satisfied because many times the community councils can’t agree on how the development should move forward,” Córdoba said. And because there is so much funding dependent upon the results of these community council negotiations, it puts the leaders who speak out against overreaching development at risk. “Armed sectors in the area look at the local leaders as a problem. And this is where the attacks, the threats and the disappearances against some leaders comes from.”

AFRODES has given the federal government a list of 110 leaders who have been threatened. Likewise, Córdoba was in the United States to speak about this issue with members of the U.S. Congress and human rights organizations because, he said, it’s important that U.S. residents know what’s going on in Colombia. When the U.S. gives military funds to Colombia’s government, they have to ensure that those funds are not used to threaten or hurt Black communities.

Outside of the problems Afro-Colombians face, there is still room for hope: Córdoba spoke about how Colombia’s Black movement is progressing by noting that this past Aug. 22-27, the First National Autonomous Congress of Afro-Colombians, Palenqueros and Raizales took place in Quibdó, the capital of Chocó. With 68 delegates from groups across the nation, the congress looked at subjects that affect Black Colombians, like autonomy, government negotiations with Black community councils, government programs directed at the Black community, the civil war and land.

Following these discussions, the congress concluded that there needs to be a review and even some changes made to sections of Law 70 (“Law of the Blacks”), which was signed by the Colombian government on Aug. 27, 1993. Law 70 officially recognized Afro-Colombian communities as a distinct ethnicity and was also designed to protect Pacific coast-based Afro-Colombian communities and grant them rights to ancestral lands. Yet since the granting of collective land titles, Afro-Colombian villages have been victimized by armed battles between left- and right-wing forces in the country.

Because the law was designed to aid development in Afro-Colombian areas, the congress decided that the consultations with government representatives authorized by Law 70 need to be redesigned. The congress elected eight delegates to meet with government officials and push forward with a new method for future negotiations.

“We are going to be speaking with the government about how we can move forward with the development agenda the government has suggested and make it fit within the agenda that Black communities want and need,” Córdoba said.