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Environmental and social movements in India and Colombia

Black social movements in contemporary Colombia (2)

, by MENON Manju

Continuation of the First Part

The environmental discourse

The Choco is part of a biodiversity rich zone that extends over a 1000 kms from the state of Darien in Panama to Esmeraldas in Ecuador. From 1986 onwards, when Colombia collected about 4.5 billion dollars in terms of investments for the development of Choco through what is called the Plan Pacifico, several infrastructure projects have been undertaken. These included road construction, industrial logging, intensive gold mining, plantation agriculture and shrimp ponds. From then on, Choco, a region that had been ignored by Bogota, got much attention. President Uribe’s rule focussed on economic growth as the axis of development. Under his rule, all environment laws were pulled apart.

In the early 90s, the Colombian government also developed Biopacifico, a project for the conservation of the region’s biodiversity. It received a US$ 9 million grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to implement various schemes. Though the Proyecto BioPacifico spoke of environmental sustainability and natural resource management, it contradicted its own goals. Colombia was the fourth largest producer of palm oil and it sought to bring more and more land under these plantations as an alternative to illegal crops. Organisations such as WWF and Fundacion Natura promoted sustainable palm oil plantations, an oxymoron in Rosero’s view. The plan of the government to bring one million hectares under plantations would exacerbate the problems of displacement for the locals. Increasingly, biofuel plantations have been undertaken on the coasts and in other food producing areas of Colombia. Since the violence escalated, most organisations who had established offices in several parts of Choco during the period of the Proyecto Biopacifico, moved out. A new Ministry of Environment, Housing and Territorial Development was established in 2003 and it mainly works by entering into contracts with willing NGOs.

The environmental discourse in the 90s was critically linked to the demand for territory and the identification of black communities as an ethnic group with a certain kind of lifestyle that was linked to nature, land and agriculture. But Carlos Rosero reminisces “ The stewardship argument worked with Indigenous Peoples groups but not with black communities because we were a diverse group. We wanted different things”.

Libia Grueso, one of the PCN’s leaders and the recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004 says, “The activists who used to publically discuss environmental issues then now do it mostly through personal contacts because those who oppose projects on environmental grounds could be targetted and killed”. “We entered into the environmental discussions through biodiversity but now we remain in the fight through specific projects/themes”, says Rosero. At a short distance from his office is the proposed Acapulco project, an urban development project that will displace squatters who came to Buenaventura from the interior areas affected by violence. Tourism projects are promoted extensively by the government for economic development causing a new wave of displacement, says Diana Ojeda who has studied the effects of such projects on the black communities of the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Kiran Asher, the author of Black and Green: Afro-Colombians, Development and Nature in the Pacific Lowlands sums up the present situation with respect to the environment in Choco saying “The environment and social movements that had once formed alliances in the 1990s and managed to stop projects like the poliducto, are now fragmented. Now they have more legal rights but they are weaker vis-à-vis the other forces coming into the region. Many local communities support mining because they get 10 percent of the proceeds of the concessions. There is also a lot of illegal mining that they cannot stop. There are more retroextractodoras in the region than ever before. The institutionalization of movements has not helped them confront these situations.”

New roads and new goals

In the last two years, while the displacement and confinement of black communities has continued, the ‘epicenter’ of violent conflict seems to have moved away or abated/attenuated. Even today, the movement of people is restricted. The presence of the police is everywhere. While some of us were resting in a park in an upmarket area in Cali, a group of policemen and one policewoman came around asking us all to should our Ids. Peppa, who had been working with PCN for 14 years spoke about the difficulties of organising these days.

In earlier times, the human rights discourse would have been rejected by the black activists as too modern and eurocentric. But in the last few years it has become ‘the right’ to speak about, says Dr Asher. The importance of life, dignity and peace have replaced the discourse on cultural and ethnic rights. The Constitutional Court has had a major role in attempting to provide justice to those affected by the violent periods of the 90s. Since 2004, it has given over 200 orders on the non implementation of laws for the protection of rights of Afro-Colombians. It passed Auto No. 005 in 2009 urging the government to take action to assure the rights of black communities and address the issue of massive displacement and confinement of black peoples. Under it, there are assurances of community rights that include right to territory. Absalon, a young member of the PCN said that a lot of titling, of the order of a million hectare had already been done. However, the fact that there were no measures for community control over these lands, might make them worse off than when they didn’t have titles to land.

Several activists who used to be with PCN have now branched off to take up work with communities affected by violence, displacement, impoverishment and destitution. Some have chosen to work with rural communities, developing self help groups so that women and men can collectively regain their connections with work, grow crops and vegetables in their kitchen gardens and find niche markets for their products. Bahia Pacifico is a cultural centre and restaurant set up by Maije and her team of rural women in the Barrio Departmental, Cali. They are part of a larger group called Proceso de Jovenes y Mujeres Productoras del Pacifico Sur (Process of Youth and Women Producers of the Southern Pacific). Janet Rojas has been working in the Choco for over 35 years. Both Janet and Maije have continued their work in river basins with whoever was left there or whoever came to live there. Such work is critical to revitalise the psychological resources of communities left paralysed by violence. Their work also points to the importance of linking up the material lives of people to politics. Besides, such work also stands for itself when government policy threatens political mobilisation. They are attempting to realise the idea of politicised development from below.

Victor Guevara has built a team of youngsters who work on community development and gender-based violence or violencia basada en genero, more commonly known by its acronmym VBG. (Kiran Asher says she barely heard these terms during her fieldwork in this region in the 90s.) Their organisation called Corporacion Mamuncia y Cacumen has members with graduate degrees in different disciplines. Their goal is to have members of the black community take up positions of decision making in government and political parties. They have misgivings about their present political leadership that has done little for the community. Several names were mentioned of their politicians in the Community Councils of the local government, who were corrupt and were being counter productive to the welfare of their larger community. Many others envision better days for their community. Rolando Caicero is a member of the Polo Democratico party and has already served multiple terms as Consejal (Councillor). He was having a meeting with members of the PCN when we met him. Together, they develop projects for education projects in the areas of technical knowledge and human rights. Caicero believes that enterpreneurial skills are critical in altering economic relations of the black communities with others and opening up opportunities for their progress. The government is unable to create enough jobs. Unemployment levels are as high as 24% and the youth are particularly vulnerable to drug money or joining armed groups. In Caicero’s words, they have to be kept away from the “informal economy which is the formal economy here”.

Individuals like Cesar Obando and Haminton Valencia have joined NGOs that work on issues of human rights to development and livelihood security. The proyecto participar and projecto transformar funded by CHF and USAID raise awareness about the significance of participatory development especially in light of the impacts of tourism and development projects in urban areas. Project Participar aims to promote and mobilize people to understand their rights and defend their collective rights especially in areas where they are under threat. All megaprojects are subject to the process of Consulta Previa. The new constitution guarenteed public participation through a law called the Law 70. Black communities had additional legal clauses that supported their right to participate in decisions that affected their lives and territories. The right to participate is granted as a collective right and not as an individual one. Further, the ILO accord 169 requires that the state seek the participation of ethnic communities in decisions and discussions about anything that affects them. The mechanism of participation involves the CCAN (Commission Consultiva de Alta Nivel) though this is not the only space for representation or participation of communities. The Consejos communitarios elect representatives (43 in total) to the Consultiva who then participate in a national roundtable (Mesa Nacional). These Consultivas or participatory bodies are set up at regional and local levels too. But since the formation, the bodies have become politicised and corrupted.

“Many Consultiva members use corrupt methods to get elected. They copy the style and approach of mainstream politicians. Eighteen thousand people of the Buenaventura river basins have formed 63 consejos communitarios based on veredas (rural blocks). Sometimes there are only a few hundred people per vereda. This makes it easier to buy the votes of some of the members of the consejos”, says Haminton. This problem is symptomatic of the crisis of representation that has faced the community for a long while. The Constitutional Court has been a decisive arena where many of the decisions of the Consultivas have been challenged and proven as being against the collective interests of the community. The new forestry law and the Second Development Plan of the Uribe government are examples of such successes. The groups are in the middle of finding ways by which the Consulta Privea can be made more transparent and successful by making the Consultivas more inclusive of community level organisations. But the democratic question will loom large on the Consultivas as the members are not elected representatives. The Consultivas are vulnerable to the criticism that they are extra democratic and many confrontations between the community and them take place.

Not all activists agree that this is the new way to go about reorganising the communities. Absalon reflects that the corporalization of the conflict puts the black agenda in a different direction. “Leaders are killed and that weakens communities and movements. The focus on conservation or sustainable use of natural resources rather than territoriality will not take us far. Many leaders have been coopted formal positions, projects and resources. The actions are not about politics but about projects causing the bureaucratization of the political processes. Those who resist this are getting fewer”.

The last few years has seen a proliferation of information on the internet about the Pacific region and on Afro-Colombian issues. This is also generally observed about the issues related to human rights issues in Colombia. Many of the consequences of the long war on drugs that were written off as ‘collateral damage’ are now being vigorously investigated by the media. Journalists in the print and television media have played a major role in communicating military excesses, the nexus of MNCs and paramilitary groups and corruption in the highest offices of the State. Some of them have collaborated with human rights groups to file criminal cases against corporate houses in Colombia as well as in the home countries of these companies such as the USA. The new media in particular, with both material and intellectual support from progressive organisations in other parts of the world has been able to unearth the networks of criminality and their human rights abuses in Colombia. Verdadabierta.com or Open Truth is one such popular channel of public information. The journalists I met during the course of my trip take their role as truth tellers very seriously. They do this at the cost of their lives. The statistics on the number of journalists who have been killed and who are constantly on the run is sobering. Since 1978, 198 of them have been killed on the job. And the number of deaths annually has been more or less a constant till now.

Bogota- the ‘bunker’ city

I returned to Bogota for the last leg of my trip only to realise that it literally and figuratively lived up to what a Colombian friend called it, the ‘bunker’ city. Not only did it seem insulated from the violence in the rest of the country, it was actually all dug up and left open, thanks to the corruption in the contracts given out for construction of the flyovers by the Mayor’s brother.

Towards the north of this capital district is the locality of Rafael Uribe Uribe. It is populated by large numbers of families from different communities who have been displaced from their homes due to the violence. Here, they are illegal occupants and they live dangerously. They build make-shift houses on the slopes of hills that are extremely fragile. Martha Bolivar, the local Mayor, was having a meeting with a large groups of families who had come to her office after their houses had collapsed in the rains the previous night. We saw Martha negotiating a difficult conversation with them as she has inadequate funds at her disposal to provide her constituency atleast the basic living conditions that they need. And the locality was only growing.

The violence has affected the social identities of the affected communities. Sometimes they are reduced to seeing themselves only as victims. At other times, they have to contend with the ever so prevalent racial biases and prejudices of being lazy and not interested in looking after the future of their families or communities. The battle within each person is yet to reveal its effects.

This article is available in French: Mouvements sociaux des Communautés Noires en Colombie (2)

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(@)gmail.com

Further reading:

Kiran ASHER, Black and Green: Afro-Colombians, Development and Nature in the Pacific Lowlands, Duke University Press Book, 2009

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