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Colombia: Wide-ranging threats to Indigenous Peoples and African-descendents

Maurice Bryan

Despite legal protections, these populations struggle to access rights, and their leaders' lives are on the line.

The battle to retain or reclaim ancestral lands and cultures and protect basic rights continues to be a major focus of many Indigenous Peoples and African-descendent communities in the Americas. These groups face historically-rooted social, economic and political challenges as well as ongoing threats of territorial dispossession often involving intimidation and forced removal.

The Peoples Under Threat 2011 report by the London-based Minority Rights Group International (MRG) lists Colombia along with Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, Guatemala and Venezuela as places where minority populations are most vulnerable in the Americas.

Colombia has a population of almost 45 million, of which approximately 27 million self-identify as Afro-Colombian —although many NGOs claim the number is much higher. In addition, 3.5 per cent of the population is regarded as indigenous, comprising 84 peoples who speak 75 languages and extend from the Andean highlands to the lowland rainforests of the Amazon.

Much of the threat to these populations in Colombia is connected with the long-running conflict in that country. Since 1985 rebels, paramilitaries and traffickers have forced millions of people from their homes.

According to the Colombian relief agency Acción Social, the conflict has produced more than four million internally displaced people (IDP), one of the largest displacement rates in the world. However, a February 2011 report issued by the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) puts the figure closer to 5.2 million people, almost half of which seem to have been displaced during the presidency of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010).

It is estimated that nearly 30 per cent of all IDPs are Afro-Colombians. Moreover, although Indigenous Colombians constitute only 3.5 per cent of the population, Acción Social indicates they make up 15 per cent of the nearly five million IDPs. Rights groups such as the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) also warn that some 27 indigenous groups are facing “extinction.”

In February 2010, following her first official visit to the country, United Nations (UN) Independent Expert on Minority Issues Gay McDougall called on the Colombian government to do more to improve the situation for these marginalized groups, in particular with regard to the territorial dispossession, internal displacement, poverty and violence against minorities that has affected Afro-Colombians disproportionately.

Colombia’s legislative framework recognizes many rights for Afro-Colombians, including collective titles to roughly 90 per cent of their ancestral territory. However McDougall pointed out that consultations with Afro-Colombian communities and organizations had revealed a pattern of sporadic implementation, limited observance and a lack of follow-up and enforcement.

Prior to McDougall’s visit, a UN Human Rights Council envoy had already noted that large-scale economic operations, often involving powerful national and multinational companies, had contributed significantly to the dispossession and displacement that prevents people from returning to live and work on their lands. Earlier, in 2009, Colombia’s Constitutional Court had ordered the government to implement a range of measures to protect Afro-Colombian communities from forced internal displacement, to no effect.

Violence against women

The MRG State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 released July 6, which focuses on indigenous and minority women worldwide, mentions displacement in Colombia as having a particularly negative gender-linked effect. Indeed the civil society Commission for the Follow-up of Public Policy on Forced Displacement found that the majority of displaced Afro-Colombians are women, and many are heads of households with children. Further, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only 5.3 per cent of displaced Afro-Colombian women earn the minimum wage. Thus these women face multiple discriminations, being African-descendant, displaced and impoverished.

Activists point out that all parties in the conflict zones —the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla groups as well as paramilitaries and government forces— are involved in the abuse of human rights, especially those of women. Afro-Colombian women frequently report enduring traumatic acts of physical aggression and sexual violence during their displacement. This included forced labour, violence and rape committed by illegal armed groups. Few victims register complaints due to fear or ignorance of complaint channels. Rape continues to result in many unwanted pregnancies and the birth of children of mixed ethnicity. These children and their mothers are frequently ostracized and re-victimized within their communities. 

Afro-Colombian women have complained to the UN independent expert about persecutions linked to membership in women’s organizations. Despite the urgency of threats against Afro-Colombian female leaders and community organizations, they said these were not regarded with the same gravity as those against male leaders, hinting to ethnicity and gender-linked discrimination by government agencies.

These issues also have a serious impact on indigenous women whose peoples have been forcefully displaced. According to UNHCR, this means that the related issues of violence, threats, systematic aggression and rape also directly affect many indigenous women.

Protection in the face of lethal risks

In April 2011 Colombia’s Senate approved a Victims’ Rights and Land Restitution bill to compensate victims of the country's civil conflict and facilitate the return of IDPs. However, despite the noteworthy intentions, it will probably not improve conditions significantly in the short term as officials estimate it may take up to a decade to restore land. To make matters worse, the land restoration process is continually being undermined by illegal armed groups.

In recent months, several local leaders who campaigned for land return for their communities have been killed. According to Reiniciar, an NGO that represents a number of victims in a case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, over 18 human rights defenders have been murdered in Colombia so far this year, bringing the total to 103 for the past four years.

As recently as June 7, 2011, Ana Fabricia Córdoba, a well-known Afro-Colombian leader in displaced communities and a member of Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres (Women's Peaceful Route), was assassinated by a lone gunman while riding on a bus in Medellín. According to local human rights organizations, Córdoba had repeatedly told authorities about receiving death threats but she was unsuccessful in receiving protection.

Activists have long complained about the impunity which often surrounds such crimes, while in contrast, human rights defenders frequently end up on trial facing unsubstantiated charges. In protest, human rights defenders, social activists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders called off their dialogue with the government in the Mesa Nacional de Garantías (National Roundtable on Guarantees).

This body brings together government representatives, hundreds of civil society organizations, as well as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the governments of Sweden and Spain. It was set up in April 2009 to provide protection for human rights defenders.

Nevertheless, despite the repeated threats Colombia's Vice-President Angelino Garzón has urged civil society representatives to continue the dialogue with the government. However, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders know too well that they remain at high risk, and have amplified their call to state authorities for guarantees of better protection, and publication of the investigations into murders and threats to activists.

Maurice Bryan is a Central America-based communications consultant who currently works with the Minority Rights Group community communicators’ regional training project. The State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 report launched July 6, 2011 is available in English, French and Spanish.

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