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COLOMBIA
Afro-Colombian population, the hardest hit by the war
Sandra López
7/18/2016
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The 75 percent of the nearly five million afro-descendants live in poverty, without access to public services, with more than 700,000 of them being displaced.

When there is talk about afro-descendants in Colombia, there is a an agreement between those organizations that represent them: that since 1504, the year in which the Spaniards brought the first group of slaves from Africa and despite the abolition of slavery by President José Hilario López in 1852, the Afro-Colombian community has always lacked the recognition as citizens with rights, to equal opportunities and to not be discriminated against.

According to the last census that took place in 1985 conducted by the National Administrative Department of Statistics, the Afro-Colombian population now surpasses 4.3 million, including the categories of Raizal (inhabitants of the San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina archipelago), palenqueros (descendants of runway slaves who fled to inaccessible areas and founded autonomous communities called palenques), black and mulattos, representing 10.4 percent of the national population.

Recent research by the National Planning Department (DNP) revealed that 75 percent of the population of African descent in Colombia earns salaries that are lower than the legal minimum of 800,000 pesos, equivalent to about US$276, and their life expectancy is 20 percent below the national average, which was 76 years in 2014. Also, approximately 85 percent of the afro-descendant population lives in poverty conditions; they are marginalized, without access to basic public services and experience a minimum quality of life.

The DNP points out that the quality of secondary education received by the Afro-Colombian community youth is 40 percent lower than the national average. In the departments of the Pacific region, with predominantly Afro-Colombian population, out of 100 young people who finish secondary school, only two go on to enter higher education.

But if there is something that has hit hard this community has been the armed conflict that has now lasted more than 50 years and is about to come to an end with the forthcoming signature of a peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), announced this past June 23 in Havana, where the negotiations have been taking place since November 2012.

The Unit for the Victims, a government entity that provides assistance, attention and comprehensive care to those people affected by the armed conflict, had registered some 7,762,840 victims as of May 1, 2016, of which 707,933 are Afro-Colombian and 1,000 are Palanqueros. According to the Afro-Colombian National Peace Council (CONPA), Colombia has now more than six million internally displaced, and three out of 10 displaced persons are Afro-Colombian.

Mass displacement
Daniel Gómez, a researcher at the Observatory of Racial Discrimination, which provides legal elements and academic research to influence discussions on racial discrimination, says to Latinamerica Press that the armed conflict has violated the rights of this community, “especially in what regards to massive displacement.” He explains that this not only deprives them of their territories but “as an ethnic group, the black communities have cultural practices related to fishing or agricultural production, which make the displacement the cause to lose their traditional subsistence.”

According to Ariel Palacios, of the National Conference of Afro-Colombian Organizations (CNOA), part of CONPA, “to the damage already caused by forced displacement must be added the assassination of leaders who develop a process of resistance.” The Ombudsman Office has registered 185 members of the afro-descendant communities, who in 2015 asked the Colombian government for protection because of threats from various illegal armed groups.

Palacios also warns about the lack of information regarding the reparation that the victims of this ethnic group are receiving by benefitting from Law 1448 passed on June 2011, which includes restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition to those who have suffered individually or collectively as a result of the war. “The reports do not include the number of afro-descendant victims who have already benefitted,” he says.

“Thanks to Law 70 of 1993 [which recognizes the right to collective ownership of the black communities], about 5 million hectares have been passed to the ownership of five community councils, but there are 30 other ancient communities whose land has no legal guarantees,” he says, adding that the process of collective titling is slow because “many of these lands are opposed to energy mining projects belonging to the state and of foreign companies.”

Clara Inés Valdez, of the Women and Gender area of CNOA, states that “afro-descendant women have been the most affected by the war, not only in the context of sexual abuse, but also because our husbands and our children have been killed.”

Palacios says that inexplicably “we as independent organizations have not had the possibility to hold conversations in Havana to address the different impacts brought on by the conflict, and what are the set of differentiated policies that are being addressed in the peace talks. Some independent Afro-Colombian victims have been there to talk about their cases, but it has not been done collectively.”

Window of opportunity
Despite all this, the possibility of signing a peace agreement brings hope to this population. “We believe that peace should be maintained in the territories, mainly for the benefit of our children, to prevent environmental degradation and for the impacts that it may have on community life. We hope that black women who do not own land will have the possibility of access to it individually or collectively and that peace brings us social development in terms of access to health, education, recreation, and habitat,” Valdez says.

“The peace process opens a window of opportunity in what has to do with the shaping of the State and these opportunities may influence the inclusion, participation and political decision-making spaces for this population,” Gómez says.

And while waiting for the final signing of the peace agreement, the organizations and political representatives at the political level are fighting to correct the inequalities and for this sector of the population to be included, with an ethnic differential focus in the national development plans.

From the Congress of the Republic, the Chamber representative Guillermina Bravo, who leads the group of 13 Afro-Colombian Congress members, argues that it is necessary to take advantage of the celebration of the International Decade for People of African Descent, proclaimed by the United Nations, to be observed between 2015 to 2024, to promote programs of activities in search of self-recognition, justice, equity and development.

We need “to have equal opportunities as any other Colombian for economic development,” she says to Latinamerica Press.

Bravo considers that it is important to monitor public policies that already exist to enforce them and above all “we need to have a true X-ray of our population in order to take assertive actions and not digress.”

The legislator reports that to achieve the latter, her group is pushing in Congress “a draft bill of characterization of our population. We propose that the next census will include more specific questions for the afro-descendant population because we need to know how many children are in the education system in order for us to take appropriate action; like how many Afro-Colombian women have opportunities in agriculture, or to have access to decent housing or employment.”

She also notes that they will present another project that will look to achieve the inclusion of afro-descendants in the upper branches of government and another project of equal opportunities with emphasis on education and work. —Latinamerica Press.


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Afro-descendant women denounce they have been those most affected by the war. / Conferencia Nacional de Organizaciones Afrocolombianas
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