The Colombian human-rights group CODHES has posted to its website four remarkable letters from a November 10-14 gathering of indigenous and afro-Colombian leaders in Colombiaâ€™s poorest province. The 7th Assembly of the ChocÃ³ Inter-Ethnic Solidarity Forum gathered 300 leaders of indigenous reserves and afro-Colombian communities in QuibdÃ³, the capital of the northwestern department of ChocÃ³, to discuss solutions to the numerous common problems and threats that their communities face.
ChocÃ³, the only Colombian department (province) with coasts on two oceans, covers a vast area stretching from Panama along the Pacific halfway to Ecuador. It is one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world, with enormous freshwater resources. It is also a very strategic region, offering armed groups many corridors for getting drugs out and arms into the country, extensive natural resources, and the potential for an Atlantic-Pacific shipping route to rival the Panama Canal. Despite all of that, ChocÃ³â€™s largely afro-Colombian and indigenous population is one of Colombiaâ€™s most neglected, ignored by the central government and largely forced to fend for itself amid a lack of infrastructure and basic services â€“ including security.
Due to its strategic importance and the governmentâ€™s absence, ChocÃ³ â€“ especially the Atrato River leading to the Caribbean and the banana-producing UrabÃ¡ region near Panama â€“ is one of Colombiaâ€™s most violent departments. Clashes between guerrillas and paramilitaries are common (such as the horrific battle that killed 120 civilians in BojayÃ¡ in May 2002), and the security forces have either been absent or accused of collaborating with local paramilitaries.
The ChocÃ³ community leaders who met in QuibdÃ³ ten days ago are justifiably angry about their departmentâ€™s worsening violence, poverty and neglect. At the end of their recent meeting, they made public four strongly worded letters: one to the Colombian government, one to the AUC paramilitaries, and one each to the FARC and ELN guerrillas. The letters make clear that none of the four has come close to winning the populationâ€™s â€œhearts and minds.â€ To the contrary: to all three illegal armed groups, their message is: â€œwe do not want you in our territories.â€ To the government, they say, â€œwe need you in our territories, but in a much different way.â€
Too often, Colombian authorities shrug off critical statements like these, claiming (usually mistakenly) that they are the result of manipulations by guerrillas. The ChocÃ³ leaders, however, reserve some of their strongest criticisms for the guerrillas. This cry for help should not be so readily dismissed. It demands a response.
Here are some excerpts from the letters:
To the paramilitaries, especially the Ã‰lmer CÃ¡rdenas Bloc, which dominates much of ChocÃ³ and is not participating in negotiations, the communities ask:
That demobilization and reintegration not take place on their lands, and that it really do away with paramilitary structures, a result that still is not certain.
- We support the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration into civilian life of irregular armed actors, within a framework of respect for truth, justice, reparations and non-repetition. But in honor of our autonomy, we demand that this concentration and demobilization process not take place in our territories. More importantly, we demand that reinsertion not become a mechanism for the expropriation of our ancestral lands. Meanwhile, we express our concern that behind this reinsertion there may arise new forms of paramilitary structures in the region.
To stop appropriating land for vast plantations of African Palm (an exotic species introduced to produce palm oil).
- We reject the monoculture of African Palm, which endangers our collective land titles, affects the fragility of our ecosystem, damages our agrarian culture, affects traditional cultivations, creates an enclave economy, worsens the existing nutrition crisis, and brings with it a long process of capital accumulation that only benefits large investors, to the detriment of our own communities (making us peones of our own misfortune). African Palm crops, far from being an alternative for prosperity, represent a component of a counter-insurgency strategy that worsens the conflict in the department of ChocÃ³.
- We do not support the â€œdevelopment proposalâ€ of the â€œÃ‰lmer CÃ¡rdenas Blocâ€ called PASO, because, after invading our territory and killing and displacing our people, they intend to impose a model that does not respond to our culture or our concept of ethno-development or our â€œlife plans.â€
To the FARC:
- We reject the FARCâ€™s intrusion into our Community Councils and Indigenous Councils (Cabildos), which compromises our autonomy and our cultural identity; impedes the free exercise of our daily activities; serves as a pretext for the absence of the social investments that the state should make; impedes the application of internal rules and regulations; and affects our own security. You threaten and stigmatize our people with unfounded accusations that cannot be contradicted, and you create a cloak of suspicion over those who travel to and from rural zones to municipal capitals (county seats), alleging that they are Army informants. For all of these reasons, we reiterate that you must not be present either in black communities or in indigenous reserves.
To the ELN, which is barely present in the region, the communities â€œreiterate that you must not be present either in black communities or in indigenous reserves.â€
To the government of Ãlvaro Uribe, the communities ask:
To recognize the communal property model that has been the traditional form of property among afro-Colombian and some indigenous communities.
- Since the 1991 Constitution the ancestral right to possess our territories has been recognized, and Law 70 of 1993 guarantees the granting of collective land titles to Community Councils and reaffirms these landsâ€™ inalienable character.
- The expropriation of 10,162 hectares of collectively titled land in JiguamiadÃ³ and CurvaradÃ³ is a form of denying the existence of private property and violating these constitutional and legal measures. In addition, it is an aggression against the black communities of the department of ChocÃ³.
To break links that continue to exist between the military and paramilitary groups in ChocÃ³.
- We remind the president of the serious denunciations made since 2004 by the Inter-Ethnic Forum and the Dioceses of QuibdÃ³, Istmina-TadÃ³ and ApartadÃ³ about the collaboration between paramilitary groups and security forces that persists in the region.
To take a very different approach to the coca planted in the region, which reflects the governmentâ€™s failure to protect its citizens.
- Since 2003, we have warned about coca cultivation in the department, the result of armed pressure, but the state has done nothing to prevent this situation. As a consequence, we cannot accept that indigenous and black communities be held responsible for crops that were imposed through violence, and we reject using this as a pretext for expropriating our territories.
To use the security forces to protect people.
- A serious humanitarian and human-rights crisis persists in the region, manifesting itself through displaced or confined communities, or communities that cannot return to their territories. We understand that security is not a merely military problem, and that it is associated with social investment. However, the government has offered a precarious and insufficient response to its duty to attend to and protect the population, which worsens the humanitarian and social crisis in the region.
All of the letters end with the following call, with which we emphatically agree:
- We insist on a Humanitarian Accord in the department of ChocÃ³ that helps to overcome the serious humanitarian and human-rights crisis and clears the way for a negotiated, political solution to the armed conflict. The social and ethnic organizations in the territory feel that war is not the path and arms are not the solution, and we demand all parties involved in this conflict (the U.S. and Colombian governments, paramilitaries and guerrillas) to stop the confrontation, to begin serious peace talks, and to respect the civilian population.