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"We want to live without fear and distress"

Lukasz Firla

Wounaan communities in Buenaventura demand guarantees for life in peace and dignity.

Through a series of articles, we would like to share and amplify the struggles of three Indigenous Wounaan communities that build refuges of peace, protect ancestral ways of life, and reclaim their homes, land, and rights in the midst of violence perpetrated by warring armed groups, humanitarian crises, and forced displacements in Buenaventura and the Lower Calima River Basin.

As a Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective, we worry profoundly about the deepening crisis that the three communities are currently facing, in distinct and yet interconnected forms. We are concerned that the community members’ voices continue to be ignored by those who carry responsibility to respond. It has become evident that concrete and serious responsive actions need to be taken now.    

A large wooden building with a white banner "Mision Paz" - Mission Peace
The community hall of Biodiverse Humanitarian Reserve of Santa Rosa de Guayacán

Part 1: Santa Rosa de Guayacán

“The day of our return was filled with joy,” shared with our team one of the leaders of the Indigenous Wounaan community of the Biodiverse humanitarian reserve of Santa Rosa de Guayacán. After surviving for 25 months in dire conditions of forced displacement in the nearest city of Buenaventura, and exhausting negotiations with various institutions, 31 Wounaan Nonam families had finally received a green light from the government and returned collectively to their homes on 20 December 2023.

However, four months since their return, the situation for the 154 members of the community, of which 94 haven’t even reached the age of 18, is far from what the community was promised. Water-borne diseases have spread among children, the community is facing a food crisis, and the presence of the armed groups continues to threaten the restoration and preservation of civilian life in the territory.

Biodiverse humanitarian reserve (in Spanish: Resguardo humanitario biodiverso)  Santa Rosa de Guayacán is located on the left banks of the Calima river, a few miles before it disembarks into the San Juan river, which soon after forms a massive delta for its waters to reach the Pacific Ocean. The area near the meeting of the two rivers has been home to dozens of Black and Indigenous Wounaan communities, whose traditional livelihoods are based on fishing, hunting, agriculture and artisanal production. The operations of armed groups, such as the paramilitary, guerilla and state forces have not only gravely disrupted the lives of the communities, but forced them into repeated cycles of displacement.

Map hanging on a wooden wall showing the location of the community in  the Buenaventura region and the delta of San Juan river
Location of the community on the map of the Lower Calima river mouth and the Buenaventura region

The families of Santa Rosa de Guayacán were forced to leave their territory four times in the last two decades: in 2004, 2011, 2017 and in November 2021. The most recent displacement was the result of intensifying threats and repeated incursions of armed men, members of the biggest paramilitary group in Colombia, the Gaitanista Self-defense Forces (AGC), into the community, and erupting clashes with the members of the guerilla group National Liberation Army (ELN), followed by the entry of the Colombian Marines into the community, as reported here by the Comision Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz and by Comunidades Costruyendo Paz en Colombia (Conpazcol) here.

The community of Santa Rosa de Guayacán was far from being the only one to flee the area for protection. The intensifying war for the control of the territory between the AGC and the Colombian Marines on one side and the ELN on the other has forced most of the civilian population into the situation of displacement in the cities of Buenaventura and Cali. According to a report the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA),

...between August 2021 and January 2022, fourteen mass displacements (affecting 2,128 families, 6,523 people) and four confinements of Afro-descendant and indigenous communities (affecting 1,181 families, 3,863 people) have been registered in the municipality of Buenaventura, with the aggravating factor of communities in the Lower Calima River Basin and the Wounaan indigenous community, which have been displaced and confined on more than one occasion in this period of time.

In April 2022, the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective team witnessed firsthand the situation of the emptied territory of the Lower Calima region during an accompaniment of leaders of the Community Council of the Lower Calima River Basin, which unites nine Black communities of the region, on an exploratory visit to discern a possibility of return. Despite repeated attempts and cycles of negotiations that had taken place between the Black communities and the Wounaan people with the government officials and institutional representatives, by today, only the community of Santa Rosa de Guayacán was able to return to their homes, while others continue to discern and negotiate their options for a safe return.

The community’s return was filled with joy, hope and expectations, and reported as a great “success” (i.e. here and here) by several institutions of the government. However, as the weeks went by, and the institutions disappeared, the community’s joy began to turn into worries and eventually, fear and desperation. When a WFPSC delegation visited Santa Rosa de Guayacán in mid-March 2024, the leaders spoke of serious concerns with the lack of food, the ever-present fear and insecurity, deteriorating health situation, especially among children, due to lack of drinking water, and the failure of the government to follow-up on what the community was promised. The community members can not grow or collect food or hunt because of the ongoing presence of the armed actors in the area, they can not buy food as the primary way to bring in small income would be a sale of elaborate handicrafts made by women, and there is no one to buy them.

a group of people sit on wooden floor, some are standing. A member of the Wounaan community speaks, two delegates wearing blue vests are taking notes.
Delegates from the U.S. meet with Santa Rosa de Guayacán community members in March 2024

Enrique Ortiz, the general secretary of Santa Rosa de Guayacán and a primary school teacher, told members of WFPSC delegation, “We demand that the national government fulfills its promises and follows up on the commitments they gave us for our return (...) We want to live in peace. We want to be able to go to our fields and our hunting grounds without fear and distress.”  

By the end of April, the community’s concerns had turned into a serious humanitarian crisis. The community is currently in a desperate need of humanitarian assistance and calling on the government and various institutions to fulfill their promises and obligations. If concrete and appropriate actions are not implemented soon, the community might not have another option than to leave their homes and land again. 

As a Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective we are profoundly worried about the humanitarian crisis that the Biodiverse Reserve of Santa Rosa de Guayacán is living through right now. It is becoming more clear that the time to take concrete actions has to be now or it might be too late.  

1 Comment

Sood Rooteaw
Sood Rooteaw
2 days ago


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