El Chocó: The African Heart of Colombia

by Luis Gilberto Murillo, former Governor of Chocó and CHRC member


The author is the former Governor of the department (state or province) of El Chocó in Colombia. He was forced to abandon his political career and seek refuge in the United States following his kidnaping by paramilitaries and threats on his family. He was the youngest person to ever win a gubernatorial election in his country. Now in exile in the U.S., he is an outspoken Afro-Colombian advocate for the environment, the rights of ethnic minority groups, and peace in Colombia. The following is excerpted from a speech given at The American Museum of Natural History in New York, on February 23, 2001.


First of all, I want to thank the American Museum of Natural History, the Colombia Media Project and The Caribbean Cultural Center for this opportunity to share will all of you some Afro-Colombian experiences, to learn about the Chocó, and to become more aware of the current conditions and challenges that the Afro-Colombian community is facing.

Chocó, like the rest of the Pacific Coast, is a land of great contrast between immense poverty and enormous wealth; between economic exploitation and cultural development, between Bogotá's historical neglect and Chocó's autonomous development efforts. Colombia's Black minority comprises about 36% to 40 % of the nation's population, but officially is only recognized as 26%. This means that our population is about 11 million of the total 42 million population. This is the second largest population of people of African descent in all of Latin America, after Brazil.

Africans slavery in Colombia began in the first decade of the 16th century. By the 1520s, Africans were being imported into Colombia steadily to replace the rapidly declining native American population. Africans were forced to work in gold mines, on sugar cane plantations, cattle ranches, and large haciendas. African labor was essential in all the regions of Colombia, even until modern times. African workers pioneered the extracting of alluvial gold deposits and the growing of sugar cane in the states of Chocó, Antioquia, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Nariño in western Colombia.

In eastern Colombia, near the cities of Vélez, Cúcuta, Socorro, and Tunja, Africans manufactured textiles in commercial mills. Emerald mines, outside Bogotá, were wholly dependent upon African laborers. Also, other sectors of the Colombian economy like tobacco, cotton, artisanry and domestic work would have been impossible without African sweat. Slavery in Colombia was as unjust and cruel as in other places in the Americas. In pre-abolition Colombian society, many Afro-Colombian slaves fought for their freedom as soon as they arrived in Colombia. It is clear that there were strong free African towns called palenques, where Africans could live as cimarrones, that is, Africans who escaped from their oppressors. Some historians consider that Chocó was a very big palenque, with a large population of cimarrones, especially in the areas of the Baudó River. Very popular cimarrón leaders like Benkos Biojo and Barule fought for freedom. Black people played key roles in the independence struggle against Spain. Historians note that three of every five soldiers in Simon Bolívar's army were African. Not only that, we also participated at all levels of military and political life.

Slavery was not abolished until 1851, and even after emancipation, the life of the Afro-Colombians was very difficult. Afro-Colombians were forced to live in jungle areas as a mechanism of self-protection. There, we learned to have a harmonious relationship with the jungle environment and to share the territory with Colombia's indigenous communities.

From 1851, the Colombian State promoted the ideology of mestizaje, or miscegenation. This whitening of the African population was an attempt by the Colombian government to minimize or, if possible, totally eliminate any traces of African or indigenous descent among the Spaniards. So in order to maintain their cultural traditions, many Africans and indigenous peoples went deep into the isolated jungles. Afro-Colombians and indigenous people were, and continue to be, the targets of the armed actors who want to displace them in order to take their lands for sugar cane plantations, for coffee and banana plantations, for mining and wood exploitation, and so forth.

In 1945 the department of El Chocó was created; it was the first predominantly Black political-administrative division. El Chocó gave Black people the possibility of building a Black territorial identity and some autonomous decision-making power. Very powerful people in the national government, though, were determined to see the destruction of the new political-administrative unit. Therefore, El Chocó was not given very much attention by the national government, and was instead characterized by a constant pattern of displacement and natural resource exploitation, which continues to this day.

In the 1970s, there was a major influx of Afro-Colombians into the urban areas in search of greater economic and social opportunities for their children. This led to an even larger group of urban poor in the marginal areas of the big cities like Cali, Medellín and Bogotá. Right now, most Afro-Colombians are living in the urban areas. Only around 25%, or 3 million people, are based in rural areas, compared to 75%, or 9 million people in the urban zones. Not until 1991, after a very strong popular struggle, did the new Colombian Constitution give us the right to collective ownership of traditional Pacific coastal lands, and special cultural development protections. But this important legal instrument has not been enough to completely address our social and developmental needs.

Access to education, health care, and countless other basic human needs continues to be extremely limited due to governmental neglect and discrimination. In addition to those serious social problems, the cruelty of the armed conflict has now reached our region, making this situation even more unbearable. We are now the military targets of the armed actors, especially the paramilitaries, who are committing most of the massacres against our population and are displacing them from their traditional ancestral lands in rural and urban areas, to defend their economic interests. The massacres have become a common occurrence in El Chocó and the Pacific Region. There many examples of this situation. We can see what is happening in Juradó, Río Sucio, Bojaya Quibdó, the San Juan River, the Naya River, Raposo River, Buenaventura, Tumaco, Barbacoas, and elsewhere.

In Colombia right now, there are 1.9 million people internally displaced by the violence, the majority Afro-Colombians. El Chocó in particular and the Pacific region generally are suffering the militarization and paramilitarization of their lands, accompanied by a strong process of deculturation. The armed actors are not permitting the traditional right to active neutrality, and are threatening our cultural identity, and our historical social structure of peace and solidarity.

I think the most important challenge for Afro-Colombians today is to build a strong alternative movement, one that strives for the inclusion of all Colombians, allowing all cultural expressions to have the same opportunities for self-development without violence, and without any kind of discrimination, is vital. Territorial autonomy, and the possibility for indigenous and Black people to think and plan our futures by ourselves, is absolutely necessary . We the people of Chocó and the Pacific coast consider ourselves the African heart of Colombia. Colombia and all of Latin America cannot deny their African roots. To the contrary, they should be proud of those roots!


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