By Cruz Bonlarron Martínez & Yaira Matos, Colombia Program Co-Directors
Colombia stepped back into the spotlight with the recent #SOSBuenaventura campaign, a limited perspective has been shown to the public that doesn’t speak to the complexity and context behind these events. Just days before these protests, our Colombia team, along with FOR Peace Presence and ConPazCol, visited Buenaventura and the Naya River to stories, testimony, and insight into the various struggles To provide a deeper look, we will publish a series of three report backs from our trips to shine a light on the people and the movements restoring peace and dignity to the people.
The Pacific Coast of Colombia is largely composed of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, many of whom are working towards collective governance and peacebuilding in light of continual violence, record-high assassinations of social leaders, and abandonment of the state’s promises to deliver economic, educational, and social infrastructure. In 2017, the Civic Strike in Buenaventura demanded that the government respond to the increasingly dire situation and deliver on its promises.
ConPazCol, a key actor in the Civic Strike, is a network of community-led organizations in solidarity with their struggles against environmental injustice, ethnic discrimination, systemic racism, and armed violence while promoting the implementation of the Peace Accords.
After a brief check-in in Buenaventura, we took a boat up the Naya River, which serves as the border between the departments of Valle del Cauca and Cauca, and after an approximately four-hour-long trip through the rain, we arrived at La Concha. In La Concha, we met with various community members to hear their experiences.
The community members spoke of the autonomy that Black communities have built over 341 years in the Naya River region since arriving as enslaved peoples to the territory. Discussions of the geographic history of the land and its place in the economic development of the nation highlighted its risk to developers and wood multinational corporations. We also heard about the long-standing effects of the 2001 massacre that left the community traumatized and with continued threats against their livelihoods.
Some of the members of the delegation gathered interviews to submit to the Truth Commission about crimes that occurred against community members during the armed conflict. We heard about the deaths of family members at the hands of armed actors (FARC, ELN, and Paramilitaries) and documented data that may assist in a search process to recover remains in the future.
The community also conveyed to us the lack of opportunities, difficulties in accessing education (both economic and logistic), and the constant attempts of the state and multinationals to extract resources. These threats of displacement continue to create generational trauma and loss of cultural identity as youth flee to seek opportunities in the capital city or nearby towns. However, we also heard about a community that continues to resist and defend its autonomy despite the obstacles of violence. The community members spoke about their desire to maintain control and autonomy over the territory's richness and live in harmony with the environment. It was evident that the community held a deep understanding of the historical trends of exploitation that the Colombian state development has imposed.
San Francisco de Naya
Following our time in La Concha, we headed down the river to San Francisco. In San Francisco, we met with community members about the history of the communities in the Naya. There were various anecdotes about young adults leaving the communities for Buenaventura or Cali, something that was evident in the make-up of the community, with large numbers of young children and elderly adults. The community’s main concerns include educational opportunities, technology advancement, leadership development, and the migration of young people.
La Capilla de la Memoria (Buenaventura)
After our time in San Francisco, we headed back on the boat to Buenaventura where we visited La Capilla de la Memoria doing memory work through arts, culture, and community organizing. As we listened to stories of families fighting for investigations into their loved ones' disappearances and exchanged stories of what we saw, we received insight into the complex dynamics affecting daily life for citizens of Buenaventura. Issues of forced confinement, armed violence, youth recruitment, and poverty echoed throughout.
While media coverage highlights massacres, multinationals pushing displacement, and paramilitaries reigning supreme, our experiences in Buenaventura and the Naya River demonstrated that there is resilience, bravery, and powerful social movements in these communities. As COVID-19 and extreme climate conditions rage on, citizens in the U.S face troubling abandonment from the government. Buenaventura and the Naya River communities have an abundance of lessons to share across movements in the U.S. It is our hope that once travel and delegations resume, we can continue hosting in-person exchanges to learn from our partners. Buenaventura and the Naya River’s communities are certainly eager to share.