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Dispatch from Colombia: Armed only with their Dignity

Gay McDougall is a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, and the former Independent Expert on Minority Issues. She recently returned from a visit to Colombia, where she met with communities concerned about land grabs and illegal mining. Below is a dispatch from her trip.

Armed only with their Dignity

By Gay McDougall

I have just returned home after a week in Colombia moving around to most of the Afro-Colombian areas, meeting with community leaders and lecturing at universities.  This was my fourth visit—my last was in 2010 in my capacity as the UN Independent Expert on Minorities.  That visit gave me an unparalleled access to Afro-Colombian communities living in otherwise isolated areas down the length of the Pacific Coast and across the Atlantic-Caribbean Coast.

What I found in 2010, and which remains today, is that Colombia is two different countries.  One is the country that is reality for the vast majority of “White” Colombians.  It is the First World of the bustling middle-income country of Bogota, the gleaming towers of Medellin and the quaint touristy old-town of Cartagena. This is a country that is sighing relief that the end of the long civil war is on the horizon and that there is no longer a need for tanks and soldiers on every corner.

But the African Descendant communities and the Indigenous Peoples live in a different country; a different world.  The legacies of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the era of conquest are still palpable.  And for them, the war has not ended, the objectives have simply morphed.

For centuries these communities were shielded by the nearly impenetrable terrain of the rain-forest which was their home and the source of their sustenance.  They respected and became part of the ecosystem.  They were ‘discovered’ when the search for hiding-places drove the rebel groups, the soldiers and para-militaries into the forest.

 Those armed interlopers not only stumbled on these isolated communities, they soon realized that they were sitting on some of the most resource-rich territories of the country: bountiful bio-diversity, gold and whatever else one could imagine.  The rebels imagined coca fields and cocaine trafficking to build their weapons caches.  The government started planning mega-development projects, South African gold mining companies started to make deals for mining rights.  

The only problem was that the Black people were in the way—they owned the land for centuries.  So you can guess what came next—Land Grabs.  Forced evictions—over 4 million so far.   Lies, deceit.  Intimidation, death threats, rapes, murders of community leaders.  Collusion and theft of land, theft of dreams and future possibilities. 

One story is about the community of La Toma.  It’s nestled in some of the most beautiful green hills near the Pacific Coast of Colombia. Many in the community have made their sparse living using artisanal gold mining practices that preserve the beauty of those hills and the physical integrity to prevent collapses.

Since my first visit there in 2010, the government has been trying to evict the entire community so that Anglo Ashanti Gold Mines (a South African company) can exercise a mining concession it got from the government without consultation or consent of the community.

When I met with leaders from that community last week they showed me photos of strip mining—a massive brown gouge in the green hillside.  They told me of a mining collapse—the first ever in their memory—that had killed 50 in San Antonio.  The leaders were outspoken in opposing the influx of “illegal mining.”  So the death threats started mounting.  When they asked for government protection, the response was to give them bullet-proof vests. One of the leaders lifted his shirt to show me.

At the same time, many of the women of LaToma and the larger Northern Cauca region—who actually do the artesian mining by hand—became fed-up with the government’s empty promises to protect their rights to their livelihood.  A few days before my arrival in Colombia, they had dropped their tools and decided to march immediately to Bogota to stage a protest in person to the Minister of the Interior.

It took them 10 days to march to Bogota.  These are ordinary women who were frustrated and despairing.  The march to Bogota was not a calculated tactic by a leadership group.  None of them had done anything like this.  When the march began they were scared of what would happen to them.  Maybe the paramilitaries would kill them on the road before they got far.  They started walking in their sandals and thin warm weather clothes.  It did not occur to them that Bogota was cold.

But along the way they gathered supporters, food from local communities, an international solidarity campaign has emerged, funds have been crowd-sourced over the internet and some celebrities welcomed them when they reached Bogota.

They are now sitting in the office of the Vice Minister of the Interior.  They have declared they will stay there until their demands are met or satisfied.

Read their statement: http://afrocolombian.org/2014/11/16/afro-descendant-women-march-in-defense-of-life-and-the-ancestral-territories/

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