Defending land in Colombia
4 December 2020
Thursday 10 December is International Day of Human Rights. In Colombia, CAFOD’s Jesuit partner - The Centre for Popular Research and Education (CINEP) - is supporting communities to stand up for their human rights and defend their land.
“When you demand your rights, people see you as a bad person and your life is always in danger. It’s not easy, but you do it because you are born with a fighting spirit,” says Pablo with a smile.
Pablo is a passionate human rights defender from the Chocó region of Colombia. He is a family man (with eight brothers and sisters and an 11 year old daughter) and a lover of music and singing. His songs are wistful and melancholic. He sings of the pain in his community, his people’s suffering and his yearning for peace across Colombia.
No más violencia
Que les quede claro
Porque los que mueren, son nuestros hermanos
Niños desamparados y madres solteras
Existen en Colombia por culpa de la guerra.
No more violence
Let's be clear
Because those who die are our brothers
Homeless children and single mothers
Exist in Colombia because of the war.
Download the lyrics to Pablo’s song about peace in Colombia.
Families forced to abandon their land
Pablo is softly spoken and playful, but when he speaks about his people you can instantly tell what a strong leader he is, and how proud he is of his Afro-Colombian roots.
As a result of Colombia’s armed conflict, which has lasted more than 50 years, many Afro-Colombian families have been forced to flee their homes and abandon their land. In many cases, this land was then taken over by outside economic interests linked to large-scale farming, illegal logging or mining, armed groups and the drug trade. The Chocó region of Colombia is no different.
Despite being rich in natural resources like gold, Chocó is the poorest department in Colombia. Its large Afro-Colombian population has endured a long history of neglect by the Colombian state.
Damage caused by multinational companies
“Our communities are very vulnerable,” explains Pablo. “The timber industry has been extracting on a massive scale, causing a huge environmental impact on communities. The large scale production of plantain, palm trees and bananas have all affected our territory.”
“Black culture and our way of surviving in the territory have also changed. Today, we do not rely on the forest because it is destroyed – and the river is polluted."
Most Afro-Colombian communities earn a living through farming plantain, corn and rice. The environmental damage caused by multinational companies is so severe that families are struggling to grow enough food to survive.
“Rivers have been diverted,” says Pablo. “This causes huge floods in places which didn’t use to flood. If it floods, the little we have sown dies.
“Black culture and our way of surviving in the territory have also changed. Today, we do not rely on the forest because it is destroyed – and the river is polluted. Today, we are hungry because there aren’t any fish to catch.
“Our communities have been affected culturally, economically and emotionally. There is a trauma among many families. It is very hard for this trauma to leave us.”
Standing up for their land
Responding to the challenges faced by the Afro-Colombian communities in Chocó, CAFOD is working alongside the Centre for Popular Research and Education (CINEP), to support communities to stand up for their rights – particularly rights to territory. Pablo is part of the La Larga and Tumaradó Afro-Colombian Community Council (COCOLATU) which is working hard to get their land back.
“We are in the process of collective reparations for victims of the armed conflict which involves returning plots of land which were abandoned due to the armed conflict. We have gone on the radio and television to raise awareness about the severe human rights violations we are experiencing as an ethnic population.
“We are writing reports on what is happening in the community and informing the Ombudsman of violations. CINEP is helping us to make this process more visible at local, national and international levels.”
This legal support is part of a three-year regional Human Rights Defenders project in Latin America, co-funded by the European Union and CAFOD supporters. Together, we are helping communities to defend their land, territory and the environment.
Committed to positive change
Despite the dangers and threats, Pablo remains deeply committed to serving his people and defending his territory. He is certain that his community’s efforts will bring about positive change.
“One of my dreams is that the phenomenon of violence which has existed no longer continues. I want local communities to live as we used to live – in freedom, confidence and love.
"I dream of going out fishing without someone telling me not to go out because something bad will happen to me. I dream of passing one another along the riverbank and living in communion."