Saturday morning dawned clear and hot on May 19th in Puerto Merizalde, the largest town on the Naya River, near the Pacific coast of Colombia. The morning also brought the presence of Colombian Marines with their automatic weapons, stationed on the streets and around the outside of the landmark church on a hill.
The ostentatious military presence, on that day particularly, typified a key part of what is going wrong these days on the Río Naya.
Inside the church, some 700 people from dozens of communities along the Río Naya and elsewhere in the region were gathering in an extraordinary Assembly for Life and for Remaining in their Territory.
The immediate crisis was the apparently forced disappearance of three local leaders in April, followed by the displacement because of threats of a community of over 50 people, and the kidnapping of a fourth leader who had tried to find out what happened to his three colleagues, all at the hands of unidentified armed men – who also threatened the wife of one of the disappeared men.
The Consejo Comunitario del Río Naya, the self-governance body of 64 Afro-Colombian communities in the river basin, had called the assembly to demand answers and action.
The area has been caught in the crossfire of Colombia’s armed conflicts for decades. In 2001, a massacre by paramilitaries marked the start of an era of forced displacement, when many people fled to city of Buenaventura, the largest in the region. In consequence, at the beginning of 2002, Río Naya communities were granted protective measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Those measures, recognized as binding by the Colombian state and still in force, call for:
– “unarmed civil protection and effective perimeter control by law enforcement;”
– “having a law enforcement presence at the mouths of the Yurumangui and El Naya [rivers] as a control measure to prevent illegal actors from entering;”
– “strengthen[ing] its early warning system by implementing effective communication systems;” and
– “to launch an investigation into the acts of violence alleged in the request and to try to punish the perpetrators.”
Instead of unarmed civil protection, communities along the Río Naya have experienced a heightened and intrusive military presence since February. Instead of effective perimeter control, the armed group that kidnapped a community leader in April was able to enter the river in a high-powered speedboat, and in fact seized the man from the boat of the Defensoría del Pueblo, the government entity that was attempting to move him to safety.
And instead of effective communication and investigation, the Consejo Comunitario del Río Naya is still waiting for definitive answers from the government about who is culpable for the recent disappearances and displacement.
And at a time when the 2016 Peace Accords between the Colombian state and the largest former guerrilla army, the FARC, are supposed to be promoting sustainable rural development, the reincorporation of former combatants into civilian society, and the dismantling of paramilitary groups, small-scale farmers still face extortion along with logistical challenges when they try to bring their produce to market, growers who accept voluntary substitution of licit crops for coca lack the promised support, and paramilitary forces (thought to be aligned with extractive commercial interests) continue to menace the Pacific coast region of Colombia, even though it supposedly is the site of the pilot projects to dismantle them.
What can we do from the U.S.?
– Pay attention to the menaces facing the communities of the Río Naya, and to how those menaces reflect broader phenomena of militarization, official neglect of sustainable local economies in favor of corporate interests, and lack of respect for community leadership, especially when the community involved has suffered centuries of exploitation.
– Urge members of the U.S. Congress to shift foreign aid funding for Colombia away from military purposes and toward civilian ones, specifically sustainable local economies and full implementation of the Peace Accords.
– Emphasize the urgency of implementing the commitment in the Peace Accords to dismantle paramilitary structures, especially in the priority regions on the Pacific coast.
The Assembly granted us a few minutes to stand before them, introduce ourselves, and promise solidarity. Please help fulfill that promise.