Africa in the Midst of Latin America

by Barbara Gerlach


As our ecumenical delegation arrived July 3rd in Quibdo, the capital city of Choco, our hosts greeted us with, "Welcome to Africa in the middle of Latin America!" Afro-Colombians comprise 26% of the population of Colombia and about 90% of those living in Choco. They have been disproportionately hard hit by the violence and account for nearly half of the 2.7 million displaced over the past decade, and the 204,000 displaced in the first six months of 2002.


Our orientation to the beauty and tragedy of this region began with a presentation by the Center for Afro-Colombian Studies, which has been building an ethnic history of the region since 1985. Located on the border with Panama, crisscrossed by three large river basins and coastlines on both the Pacific and Atlantic, Choco has become a major transportation route for weapons and drug trafficking. Faculty members from the Polytechnic University told us that Choco is more endangered by the weapons trade from the United States than the trafficking of cocaine.


Increasingly, Choco is a battleground as the Colombian armed forces, guerrilla groups, and paramilitaries try to win control of one the most bio-diverse areas of the world. Many economic interests collide as national and international groups compete to develop transportation route, African palm plantations, oil and gold mining, water and hydro-electric resources, eco-tourism, and pharmaceutical research in this resource- rich land.


In the mid-1990's the Colombian government announced plans to develop a new inter-oceanic canal and to complete an unfinished segment of the Pan-American Highway through Choco. At the same time, more and more Afro-Colombians were gaining collective legal title to their lands through provisions of the 1991 Constitution. Suddenly, communities of indigenous peoples, living in their nationally-recognized territories, and Afro-Colombian, many who had settled along the rivers and coasts before and after the abolition of slavery in 1851, were the targets of massacres and massive forced displacements.


The delegation visited three displaced communities. First, we went to Villa Espana, a community that fled Rio Sucio along the upper Atrato River in 1996 and is now living in small wooden shacks in Quibdo. Over time the community has slowly developed a small primary school to serve its children and is seeking funds for economic projects to provide income for its members. A small group was preparing to return to Rio Sucio and rebuild that homes.


Then we went to Minecol, a large building that is now home to hundreds of the 6000 newly displaced by the massacre in Boyaja. On May 2, 2002, 140 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed by a bomb in a Catholic Church, where they had taken sanctuary from a battle between the FARC and paramilitaries. Many of those who survived the massacre, fled to Quibdo where they are now squeezed in tight quarters, sleeping on mattresses, and completely dependent on emergency humanitarian assistance for food and medical services.


  Finally, we visited OREWA, a center for five indigenous communities being displaced from

their lands. We heard about their efforts to join with national and international indigenous organizations to advocate for their territorial and cultural rights In each place, we saw extreme poverty, terrible living conditions, and the desire to return to their ancestral homes.


We met leaders of the Social Ministries of the Catholic Church and representative of the local Protestant ministers association who shared their work to care for those traumatized by the suffering, respond to the humanitarian crisis, and develop economic projects. Representatives of the Diocese of Quibdo spoke of their accompaniment of Afro Colombian and indigenous communities in the defense of human life, human rights, and cultures.


We talked with leaders of the Network of Women of Choco, who are working with women who are triply discriminated against because of their gender, the color of their skin, and poverty. One of the women said, "If we do nothing or do something the war comes to us....Women too are affected by the worst aspects of the war- our sons and daughters are forced to join the armed groups. When our men are killed or maimed, it becomes our responsibility alone to care for the family and fight for survival.


Paramilitaries now have a presence in 95% of Choco, where they control the cities, while the guerrilla still maintain a strong presence in rural area, where the mayors are being forced to resign. We met with cabinet members in the Governor's Office, and the regional Public Defender, who spoke of issuing unheeded early alerts to the Colombian government before the recent massacre in Boyaja, as the paramilitary in boats moved down the river past naval and military installations.


Many reported evidence of collaboration between the Colombian armed forces and the paramilitary that is resulting in the massive displacement of innocent civilians from rural areas, first to Quibdo, and then often to the largest cities, where they experience racial discrimination as black and indigenous communities. A regional official of the Colombian Red Cross compared the situation to a chess game saying, "We know the next moves and massacres can be predicted, but little is done to protect the civilian populations or prevent the violence."


The people of Choco expressed their need for immediate humanitarian assistance for the displaced and international accompaniment so that they can return safely to their homes. They described the neglect and discrimination by the Colombian government which has failed for years to provide basic security or public services to their region. They want socially sustainable economic development but in ways that respect their collective forms of social organization and include their communities in the process of planning and decision making. We were moved by the spiritual vitality of their culture, art, dance, music, and poetry. We were inspired by their courage as they resist the take-over of their lands and their commitment to seek a non-violent path to peace through dialogue and negotiation.


Barbara Gerlach coordinated an Ecumenical Delegation of 35 people representing 6 Protestant denominations to Colombia from June 26-July 8. It was co-sponsored by Witness for Peace, Justapaz/Colombia Mennonite Church and the United Church of Christ. Witness for Peace and the Colombian Human Rights Committee will sponsor a delegations focused on Afro-Colombians in July 2003. For more information contact