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diálogos, propuestas, historias para una Ciudadanía Mundial

Black social movements in contemporary Colombia (1)


10 / 2011

I was walking through a black neighbourhood called Bario Elfirme, a shanty ghetto made up of rows of little wooden houses that seemed to have been hammered up in a hurry. There were loads of people on the streets, children of all ages running around, elderly men and women playing dominoes or then chatting with each other. In some homes, there was loud reggae music playing from conspicously placed large, shiny stereo sets. At the ends of the streets stood armed men in uniform, watching the community living another ordinary day. I had wanted to take pictures but was warned not to by friends who were familiar with what was happening those days in the localities of Buenaventura, the principal port town of Colombia and one of the big cities of Choco, the department with a black population of over 80%.

I was walking towards the office of the PCN located in the heart of this neighbourhood. The Proceso de Comunidades Negras, a coalition of Afro-Colombian social movements rose to significance in the 1980s, when this region had witnessed a vibrant political and social mobilisation to demand collective territorial rights over the Choco. The black movements of that time, which included many activists and scholars, drew upon their collective history of being brought to the Choco as slaves of the Spanish colonisers over 500 years ago, the relationship of the black communities with nature and their subsistence mode of production, to make claims to cultural distinctness and ethnicity. The movements called Choco the only land of peace in a country that had an unending history of violent struggles for political power. Their demand to territory was articulated as their right over their homeland.

At a short distance from the PCN is the office of a network of organisations funded by the USAID. The network engages in issues of development, participatory processes of governance, rehabilitation of families affected by violence and criminality in the black neighbourhoods, domestic violence and education of children. The two groups of social actors are not entirely seperated, in fact several members of the PCN are part of this new network and they jointly organise and implement projects. But the vision and work programmes of the new organisations based on the discourse of humanitarian rights is very different from the identity and ethnicity based struggle of the 80s and 90s. These point to two very different moments in the social and political life of Afro-Colombians.

I had to opportunity to meet Carlos Rosero, an anthropologist by training and one of the leaders of PCN at his office in June this year. He spoke of the milestone for the black movements when the Law 70 was passed in 1993. The law lay down mechanisms for the protection of the cultural identity and the socio economic rights of Afro-Colombians as an ethnic group. Through the AT 55 in the new Constitution of 1991 popularly called the ‘Constitution for Angels’, further recognition of the community land rights of Afro-Colombians in the Choco was granted. For many of the groups that had worked towards making this law possible, the stage seemed set to embark on a process of alternative development that centred around their collective values of nature and economy. The plans of the national government to modernize the region through infrastructure development for improving international trade was known to them. Several scholars pointed to the contradiction between the law for community rights to land and the implementation of Plan Pacifico, a set of proposals for the exploitation of Choco’s natural resources such as minerals and timber to fuel Colombia’s economic growth. Nevertheless, the granting of new legal rights had been possible by the persistent advocacy by black activists and scholars who established black communities as the environmental and cultural guardians of their motherland, one that they nurtured and lived off.

While the Colombian State offered these progressive rights to the Afro-Colombian communities, in the neighbouring department of Putumayo, it was at war with its own people and a drug economy that was growing insidiously. Large areas controlled by the drug cartels with their paramilitary troops on the border of Ecuador and Peru were being converted to coca farms. The processed cocaine that had ready markets in the US marked the relations between the governments of Colombia and the US since the 60s. It was inevitable that Colombia had to take steps to curb the cocaine production within its territory to both improve its relations with the US and also find favour with the rest of the developed world. The then Colombian President Andres Pastrana offered to implement a set of schemes in an attempt to solve the problem of cocaine production by tackling the factors that led to poverty among the coca growers. This included destroying the coca crops manually. However, when the talks over the design of what came to be known as Plan Colombia were done, the Clinton government had turned it into a hardline military counternarcotic strategy. Many scholars also believe that the primary objective of Plan Colombia was to immobilise the armed leftist groups, mainly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who had a significant presence in the southern parts of the country. Evidently, when the money for Plan Colombia began to come in, it became clear to Colombians that it was mostly military aid in the form of equipment and training for the security forces. There was little that resembled development aid.

In the US, Plan Colombia is spoken of as part of the global war on drugs. As part of the Plan, the government of Colombia implemented an extensive deathly programme of aerial fumigation of coca growing areas with RoundUp, the brand of the chemical Glyphosate produced by Monsanto and cleared by the USEPA for general use in 1974. By the end of 2000, over 60,000 acres of fields had been sprayed on in Putumayo. Many hold this programme singly responsible for pushing the coca trade into the populated Afro-colombian dominated areas of the Pacific coast. The peaceful coastal region was now overrun with new groups of people; large number of farmers displaced from areas that had been fumigated and paramilitaries who moved with the coca farms. Together with the presence of the Revolutionary groups already in the region, the conditions in Choco were set for armed conflict that escalated into a phase of war with huge casualties.

Effects of a war

The last three decades have transformed the south Pacific coast of Colombia in profound ways. The community workers and activists who spoke about the violent decade from 2000 onwards showed no trace of agitation. They were either worn thin by the experience or they thought it better to maintain a calm veneer. All armed groups irrespective of their antecedents got into usurpation of land for growing coca and the capture of rivers and marine areas as waterways to transport their merchandise. They also engaged in illegal mining to launder the incomes from these activities. None of the armed groups could resist the money. This increased violence tremendously and more and more people got implicated in illegality.

Local farmers were forced to grow these illegal crops and often came in the line of fire between the guerillas, paramilitaries and the Colombian army. There were reports of the security forces turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the paramilitaries because of the latter’s role in fighting against the revolutionary groups, the criminals of the State. The enmeshing of the drug network with the guerrillas and paramilitaries gave the US government greater justification to increase military aid to deal with the armed actors. The violence spiraled as the efforts to curb it were intensified by the government. On the ground, this meant the death and disappearance of scores of Afro-Colombians. Some of their family members and friends refused to speak about these events in public. They narrated these horrific stories only in the privacy of their home. A young man, now engaged in community development said, “Though more and more people continue to disappear and are killed, the reporting of deaths or disappearance is reducing. People have been told that there is no point looking for bodies. But they do turn up. Just last year, over 100 deaths were reported from Buenaventura. Entire river basins have been emptied of people”.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable. Violence against women was mentioned by most people I spoke to. “There has been a continuous rise in the number of women headed households. They are targets of revenge in the war between armed groups. Young children whose parents have been killed, grow up without the protection of social and familial ties. Young boys have joined paramilitary groups and young girls are taking to prostitution. This has been the story of the last decade. The scope of the problem is far more complex now”. The challenge that lies ahead of the organisations and activists from the community is a very difficult one.

Scholars have pointed out that the effect of the intensification of conflict here has been perverse due to the consequences it has had for the black movements in Choco. Many movement leaders, the main community mobilisers, had to leave their areas of work as they were threatened. The processes of political dialogue between the black activists and the State was interrupted and so were their demands for their collective rights to land and to fashion a different path of development.

Their claims to territory have been affected by large scale deterritorialisation- the effect of forced, repeated displacement of the local communities, confinement, immobility and forced labour on coca fields, loss of control in terms of decisions that affect their relations with their surroundings. The sense of community, the basis of the demand for collective territorial rights, seems threatened both because of the extent of violence inflicted by the armed groups on the people of the region as well as by the community on itself. We heard several examples of local youth being part of these armed groups and ending up ‘killing their brothers’. This was unprecedented. The relationships that described the economic, social and cultural aspects of this community had been disrupted or weakened. The pillars of the movement- territory, identity and culture were shaken by the violence.


By 2002, violence on the streets had peaked and it was in this situation that Colombia elected Alvaro Uribe Velez, who promised to rule the nation with a firm hand, to the post of president. During his two terms as the head of State, he strengthened the role of the security forces to establish peace as a foremost requirement of future economic development. The intention was to demobilise the armed groups and bring them to the negotiating table at any cost. This only meant more violence. However these focussed battles were pushed more and more into the peripheral areas of cities and the forests. To television channels and human rights organisations Uribe maintained that the armed struggle and the presence of the paramilitaries in Colombia was a thing of the past. There were fewer massacres like before but more targeted, encounter killings which were reported as general urban crimes. The President invited foreign investments to Colombia, boosted domestic tourism projects and urged citizens to look forward to the future. His message to the world was ‘Colombia is passion. The only risk of visiting here is that you may never want to leave’.

The illegal economy from the massive drug trade had cast itself so wide that it was impossible to tell the difference between the criminal, the politician and the capitalist. The Parapoliticas became a common term to describe the merging of the cocaine merchants with the political elite, a nexus that only began in the 1980’s even though drug trade in these parts is much older. Corporate companies who came to Colombia to invest in minerals, oil and other profit making businesses have been known to employ armed militias to free land and to guard their investments. Corruption was rampant like in any State engaged in long term civil war.

The regional development boards and the local governments could do little by way of turning the tide. The new Constitution had offered decentralised governance to the departments but this was without any administrative or financial autonomy. The dependence on funds makes them incapable of critiqing the development policies of the national government. There are also no funds to start any new schemes that are radically different from what the region has seen until now. From the start these local institutions were rendered lacking in legitimacy and accountability.

Read the Second Part

Palabras claves

minoría étnica, droga, droga y violencia, movimiento social, gobernanza

, Colombia


Environmental and social movements in India and Colombia


This article is available in French: Mouvements sociaux des communautés noires en Colombie (1)

Manju Menon is a researcher who has been investigating and writing on the conflicts between environment and development in India. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. She can be contacted at: manjumenon1975(@)


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