This film was commissioned by The New Yorker and supported by The Pulitzer Center.
In this edition of WOLA’s podcast, Laffay discusses his new short film, Siona: Amazon’s Defenders Under Threat.The New Yorker featured it on its website on June 25, 2020. Laffay follows Siona Indigenous leader Adiela Mera Paz in Putumayo, Colombia, as she works to demine her ancestral territory to make it possible for her people displaced by the armed conflict to return. Though the armed conflict with the FARC may have officially ended, the Siona people not only face post-conflict risks, they also face threats from extractive companies. In the episode, Laffay describes the history of the Siona people and their territory, their relationship with yagé, and the courageous work undertaken by leaders like Adiela Mera Paz.
On June 2, 2020, EarthRights and 15 other international and Colombian civil society organizations, including WOLA, published a statement condemning the murder of Indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of the ancestal U’wa territory.
Joel Aguablanca Villamizar was murdered on May 31, 2020 in the Department of North Santander during a Colombian military operation against fronts of the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación, ELN). The Indigenous community has adamantly stated that their leader had no link to the armed group.
The militarization of the territory has had a detrimental impact on the indigenous U’wa population. The organizations demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future.
Below is the text of the statement:
Human rights organizations condemn the murder of indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of ancestral U’wa territory
Washington D.C, June 2, 2020: Last Sunday, indigenous leader Joel Aguablana Villamizer was murdered by the Colombian army in the Chitagá municipality of Norte Santander, Colombia. Joel was an indigenous leader and education coordinator for the U’wa Association of Traditional Authorities and Cabildos (ASOU’WA). The army murdered Joel as part of a mission to capture Darío Quiñonez, alias Marcial, third leader of the Efraín Pabón Pabón Front and commander of the Martha Cecilia Pabón Commission of the National Liberation Army (ELN). Earthrights Executive Director Ka Hsaw Wa issued the following statement in response:
“In carrying out this operation, the Colombian National Army and the ELN did not respect the basic principles of international humanitarian law, threatening the life and security of the U’wa civilian population, including five minors.
“The military operation that resulted in Joel’s murder was carried out in close proximity to the U’wa United Reservation, which is part of the U’wa Nation ancestral territory. This highlights the impacts that the Colombian government’s fight against armed forces still has on the indigenous U’wa population. The U’Wa have been declared an endangered group by the Constitutional Court of Colombia.
“The organizations below stand in solidarity with the U’wa voices who denounced this heinous act and who stated that ‘[they] are not going to allow this unfortunate situation to be considered a false positive for the Colombian State, since the murdered U’wa brother was never linked to the ELN insurgent group (A SOU’WA Communiqué).’
“We are concerned and outraged at the frequency of events such as this one. According to the Catatumbo Peasant Association (Ascamcat), with the death of Joel Aguablanca there have already been three cases of extrajudicial executions in the department of Norte Santander in 2020 (El Tiempo, 2020).
“We demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future. Likewise, we will bring the situation to the awareness of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Rapporteurship on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. EarthRights is currently supporting the U’Wa in a long-standing land rights case at the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights”
Alma y Corazon (USA)
Amazon Watch (USA)
Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA) (Regional-Americas)
Colombia Human Rights Committee (USA)
Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (Colombia)
EarthRights International (Amazon)
Indigenous Environmental Network (USA)
Mujer U’wa (USA)
Perifèries del món (Spanish State)
Rainforest Action Network (USA)
Rete Numeri Pari (Italy)
University of California Irvine Community Resilience Projects (USA)
As of early April 2020, Colombia has documented a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, and in cities at least, the country has taken on strict social distancing measures.
This has not meant that Colombia’s embattled social leaders and human rights defenders are any safer. WOLA’s latest urgent action memo, released on April 10, finds that “killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted. We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings.”
In this edition of the WOLA Podcast, that memo’s author, Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, explains the danger to social leaders, the shifting security situation, the ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas, the persistence of U.S.-backed coca eradication operations, and how communities are organizing to respond to all of this.
Colombia, along with the rest of the world, is dealing with the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. Similar to governments across the globe, it is adapting the best it can to this unprecedented public health threat. As of April 9, 69 Colombians have died, and another 2,223 are infected with the virus that has spread across 23 departments. In this update, we include information received from our partners with their view on how the pandemic is affecting their communities, along with concerning reports of on-going killings, attacks, and threats against social leaders; armed conflict; insecurity; and other abuses. Sadly, despite the national quarantine in Colombia, killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted.
We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings. Additional measures must be put in place to protect the health of these already marginalized communities. For this to be effective, consultation, coordination, and implementation are required with ethnic leaders in both rural and urban settings. On March 30, the Ethnic Commission sent President Duque a letter with medium and long-term requests to best help ethnic communities. In sum, they ask the government to coordinate with them; guarantee food supplies, seeds, and inputs for planting their crops; and to strengthen their organizations so they can sustain their national and regional team that attends daily to the situation of the peoples in the territories. At present, the National Organization for Indigenous Peoples (ONIC) has developed a national system of territorial monitoring of the COVID-19 virus in indigenous territories. They have organized territorial controls with indigenous guards to limit contagion in indigenous areas. AFRODES has circulated guidelines for displaced Afro-Colombians in urban settings.
Over 100 ethnic and rural organizations are calling for a two-week ceasefire in Colombia’s most conflict-ridden areas. They are asking for a cessation of hostilities to be added to measures taken by the Colombian government to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The signatories are overwhelmingly from the conflict-hit departments of Cauca, Chocó, Meta, Putumayo, and Valle del Cauca. Many communities have self-protection measures in place, like the Indigenous Guard, to peacefully work to defend their territories. Colombia must listen to vulnerable communities and meet their demands at this time.
Here is the English text of the letter that went to Colombian President Iván Duque. The letters to the illegal armed groups are closely similar.
Cessation of armed operations by COVID-19 to President Iván Duque Márquez
Our communities live in territories where violence persists in various forms.
We call upon you, combatants of all forces, to protect your own lives and the lives of we, the civilians, in our territories.
We call on you as the main commander of the Armed Forces and National Police to protect the lives of the official combatants and the lives of civilians in our territories with a cessation of hostilities. We make this call on all armed groups operating in our regions based on the WHO declaration of the pandemic called COVID–19, which is already causing irreparable loss of human life.
In particular, we propose:
Inform all personnel of the COVID–19 pandemic and the consequences for their lives and those of those who are in contact with them.
Train them in preventive mechanisms.
Only act in case of attacks and non-compliance by opponents of this proposal, which is implicit in the Global Humanitarian Agreement by the Pandemic. This request is also made explicitly to the Armed Forces and Police, security agencies, and eradicators. we have reports of the virus infection in armed forces personnel of the United States.
Remove your personnel from our environments or communities and place them at distances that prevent the virus from spreading.
Refrain from convening any kind of mandatory meeting.
Our communities in some regions are experiencing droughts, other regions are affected by heavy rains. Their lives and our lives are precious. The armed strategies, for reasons of humanity—of all humanity—must stop for at least two weeks, until 1 April, starting tomorrow with a possible extension until at least 30 May.
The pandemic has very severe social, environmental and economic effects that are calling us to take the path of a different society. Today no one is exempt from dying from this virus, not even the most powerful in weapons and wealth.
Let’s take advantage of COVID–19 to think about the life of each one of you, in the life of each of us, in the life of the country. Assume the reflection among your crews, fronts, brigades, battalions, commanders. Nothing remains of our arrogance, nor of our vain pride. It is the time of solidarity, and from it peace in a new democracy.
We invite you to listen to our request for a partial cessation of hostilities.
Life is teaching us. It is a time for everyone. The isolation experienced by the citizenry in the country must lead us, perhaps, to reflect on the confinement and lack of food for years that we have lived in the regions.
We need a social, environmental and legal state that consolidates a transversal and integral peace. With this crisis, the importance of an inclusive country without corruption, in cooperation with all of humanity, in which you can contribute, will be recognized.
In 2016, after various failed efforts with devastating human consequences, Colombia signed peace with guerrilla group the FARC, ending a protracted conflict that violently raged on for over half a century. In the end, the conflict resulted in more than 23,000 selective assassinations, 27,000 kidnappings, 260,000 deaths and 8 million registered victims.
The bulk of the fighting, displacement and abuses were related to armed groups vying for control of land in areas with weak or no state presence. For example, atrocities like the May 2002 Bojaya massacre—in which over 80 Afro-Colombian civilians were incinerated after FARC guerrillas threw a pipe bomb at the church where they were taking refuge from the fighting—were concentrated in rural Colombia.
Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations have long inhabited the most remote, geographically hard to access and biodiverse areas of the country. Yet it wasn’t until 1991—when Colombia’s constitution finally recognized the plural ethnicity of the country—that these populations were able to legally claim their collective land titles. Despite this formal protection, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities have been disproportionately victimized by special interests propping illegal armed groups’ thirst for land in order to carry out illegal economies and development projects without the consent of local communities.
Within this context, Colombia’s peace accord attempts to balance international standards of justice with a necessary demobilization of combatants in order to end the fighting. In pursuit of that balance, it is innovative in many respects: it transversally safeguards the rights of ethnic minorities, integrates women and gender rights, and includes commitments geared towards resolving the issue of illicit drugs.
The importance of the peace deal’s Ethnic Chapter
At its core, this innovative approach to peace is largely due to the fact that multiple delegations of victims, women’s groups, and ethnic minority representatives met multiple times with the negotiating parties. After listening to the voices of numerous victims and civil society, the negotiating parties integrated their priorities into the agreement.After the government changed from Santos to Duque, the relationship reverted back to one of mistrust and deprioritization of ethnic minority issues.
The result of these efforts was Chapter 6.2, or the Ethnic Chapter, which safeguards the rights of ethnic minorities transversally throughout the accord by guaranteeing their right to prior, free and informed consent on norms, laws, and plans that affect their communities.
Another victory was the creation of the Special High Instance for Ethnic Peoples (Instancia Especial de Alto Nivel con Pueblos Étnicos), the body ensuring that ethnic minorities have representation and a voice before the commission responsible for verifying the peace agreement is fully implemented.
However, post accords, ethnic communities had to once again fight for inclusion into the implementation planning process. During the special legislative procedure—known as the “fast track” process—which saw the development of an Implementation Framework Plan, ethnic communities were able to get 98 ethnic indicators into the framework for the peace agreement.
A former FARC rebel waves a white peace flag during an act to commemorate the completion of their disarmament process in Buenavista, Colombia, in June 2017 (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara).
While, in theory, all 43 measures that gave constitutional and legal standing to the peace accords in Congress should have gone through a consultation process with both Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups, the reality was different. The government did not use this legislative procedure for all of the projects that would result in national norms. Rather, while the government said it would submit 18 legislative measures in consultation with coalition the Indigenous Permanent Concertation Table (Mesa Permanente de Concertación Nacional, MPC), it only presented six measures and normative projects. Afro-Colombian communities, meanwhile, did not get a chance to go through a formal consultation process.
Despite these early victories, the change in government from Santos to Duque has presented new challenges for ethnic and indigenous communities.
The failure to fully implement the Ethnic Chapter
After the Ethnic Chapter was agreed upon, the Santos administration’s relationship with ethnic minorities deepened. It was the Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples who most campaigned in favor of the peace referendum. These interactions opened up a better working relationship between different Colombian authorities—including the Inspector General’s Office and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office. These two offices are now two of the biggest advocates for the rights of ethnic groups. After the government changed from Santos to Duque, the relationship reverted back to one of mistrust and deprioritization of ethnic minority issues.All the peace-related projects… require buy-in and leadership from indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities to work.
Problems also arose regarding the Ethnic Chapter, which is critical to the success of the peace accords for a number of reasons.
A new state institution, the Agency for Territorial Renewal (Agencia de Renovacion del Territorio, ART), was created in 2015 in order to bring infrastructure and other state services to rural Colombia. This agency selected 170 municipalities that the government is supposed to prioritize when implementing its rural development initiatives, known as the Development Programs with a Territorial Approach (Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial, PDETs).
Within these 170 municipalities are 452 indigenous reserves and 500 cabildos. Furthermore, in those areas, Afrodescendant, raizal and palenquero communities have 307 collective titles and 500 community councils. (It should be noted that the chapter of the peace accords that deals with rural land issues affects areas whereby 51 percent of indigenous and 81 percent of Afro Colombians are concentrated).The illicit crop substitution program was not designed with any input from ethnic leadership, making communities skeptical of the initiative.
While imperfect, the 300-page peace deal serves as a blueprint for extending civilian authority to areas that, for decades, were controlled by illegal armed groups. But in order to facilitate and guarantee that the state is effective and gains credibility in these areas, it must work hand in hand with the representatives of the ethnic communities. All the peace-related projects—from the PDETs to the illicit drug crop substitution program (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito, PNIS) meant to counter coca growing—require buy-in and leadership from indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities to work.
Sadly, the government has not complied with the safeguards in the Ethnic Chapter for advancing the legislative measures needed to more fully implement the accord. Neither has it advanced the work of the Special High Instance for Ethnic Peoples.
Residents of Puerto Conto, Chocó, who escaped their village due to fighting between leftist rebels and paramilitaries, disembark at the port of Quibdo in 2002 (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan).
In areas like Chocó, ethnic minorities have participated in the design of PDETs because they value its importance and see these as a mechanism of improving the situation for their people. But the illicit crop substitution program was not designed with any input from ethnic leadership, making communities skeptical of the initiative.
Statements by President Duque and his cabinet have also heightened concerns among ethnic leaders, particularly as it relates to restarting environmentally damaging aerial fumigation of glyphosate while at the same time attempting to implement crop substitution programs. A Constitutional Court decision has stalled fumigations, but leaves room for resumption down the road.
These challenges can be, in part, attributed to a lack of serious political will to advance peace. The government appears to be only interested in meeting UN and OAS measurements widely used to measure success of peace process by academics and the international community.
Essentially, the Colombian government is reducing the agreement to disarmament and integration of fighters, foregoing the structural changes needed to establish a durable stable peace. It appears as though the Colombian government is not looking to address the long term structural problems leading to conflict, nor the ethnic and gender issues.Reducing the budgets of these rural reform agencies is a direct way of cutting off support to ethnic communities.
Another major issue is that the Colombian government has attempted to fight every effort to allocate funds for the transitional justice system, known as the JEP. The JEP was notified in July that it should expect a budget cut of 30 percent by the Finance Ministry. However, push back from the international community—in particular the UN Security Council—made it politically untenable for the Ivan Duque administration to carry this out.
The final budget for 2020 ended up with a 13 percent increase for transitional justice, with the JEP only increasing its budget by 1 percent, the Truth Commission 18 percent (which, given that the Truth Commission’s budget was initially cut, only meets 56 percent of what they require) and the investigative unit responsible for searching for the disappeared 47 percent. There remains a general deficit of 8 billion pesos for these truth and justice initiatives.
A cursory look at budget allocations for 2019 is instructive in proving the point. The funding for the Agency for Territorial Renewal was also reduced by 63 percent, and the Rural Development Agency’s by 47 percent. These two agencies are essential to meeting the obligations of the rural reform chapter of the peace accord. Reducing the budgets of these rural reform agencies is a direct way of cutting off support to ethnic communities.
In particular, the JEP serves as a voice for the Afro-Colombian and indigenous victims of war crimes committed by the FARC, paramilitaries and the Colombian armed forces. It is the first court in the country’s history to include gender, ethnic, and regional diversity in its makeup, representing a new opportunity for these Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities to access a measure of justice.
Crucially, both the JEP and the Truth Commission underwent a previous consultation process with ethnic minorities in order to incorporate their recommendations so as to guarantee that truth, justice, and reparations integrates the perspectives of their communities. As a result of this, both the JEP and the Truth Commission integrated commissions dedicated to guaranteeing a differentiated response to ethnic minorities within the institutions’ mandates.
Since indigenous communities have their own autonomous juridical systems, coordination between the bodies is required. Beyond this, the aim is to guarantee that the patterns in the violations related to ethnic minority victims and damages caused to these cultures are addressed with mechanisms put in place that guarantee non-repetition of such events. Yet reducing the budget of both the JEP and the Truth Commission limits the impact they could achieve.
Even in situations of relative success, new challenges have arisen in the implementation of Colombia’s peace agreement.
The historic demobilization of around 7,000 FARC combatants successfully decreased violence in the country. It also opened the door for other illegal armed groups to fight for control over the areas they abandoned.
Paradoxically, this scenario has led to a multitude of legal and illegal actors feeling that they are at risk of losing their economic projects and power in those very territories. Since 2016, according to reports by Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, the lack of effective protection by the State and high levels of impunity has led to 479 social leaders killed—mainly in places like Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Choco.Once in office, Duque was confronted with the reality that completely undoing the accord was not possible.
In fact, according to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), in 2018, 56 percent of the social leaders killed in homicides belonged to ethnic groups. A different source, the think tank INDEPAZ, reports that from November, 2016 to July, 2019, 627 social leaders were killed, of whom 142 were indigenous, 55 afro descendant and 245 rural farmers defending the environment or attempting to implement the peace accord’s crop substitution program. Regardless of how you count it, the problem is alarming and poses a significant risk to sustained peace in Colombia.
Women perform during march against the murders of activists, in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, July 26, 2019. Colombians took to the streets to call for an end to a wave of killings of leftist activists in the wake of the nation’s peace deal (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia).
The security crisis is particularly acute in the Pacific region where Afro-Colombian and indigenous are experiencing new displacements and acute humanitarian crises. The state could very well detain much of this violence if it advanced the Commission for National Security Guarantees—an initiative set up in the peace agreement, meant to dismantle illegal armed groups. Furthermore, by advancing the obligations in the FARC accord, the government would send signals to the active guerrilla movement and the National Liberation Army (ELN) that it keeps its word in negotiations.
Compounding the situation, Colombia’s politically polarized climate led to the peace agreement being rejected in a subsequent referendum. Resistance from the entrenched political and economic elites to accept the terms of the peace deal paved the way for the election of right-wing Ivan Duque as president, who campaigned on the promise of making changes to the accord to appease their concerns.By starving key aspects of the accord of resources and trying to limit the work of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Duque is deferring to powerful interest groups who have rarely acted with the interests of vulnerable ethnic communities in mind.
Once in office, Duque was confronted with the reality that completely undoing the accord was not possible. A constitutional infrastructure was already in place and the international community had placed all its bets on peace.
In response, President Duque unsuccessfully attempted to remand crucial legislation required to establish the transitional justice system. He has proposed changes that would alter six of the 159 provisions of the peace deal legislation. A major sticking point for Duque and his supporters concerning the JEP is that the FARC rebels and the Colombian armed forces are not judged in the same manner for war crimes. By attempting to change the established provisions, the president all but assures that perpetrators of grave human rights crimes will lose any incentive to participate in the truth-telling process.
This could impact cases that the JEP has already advanced. According to the JEP’s latest report, 9,706 FARC ex-combatants and 2,156 members of the Colombian armed forces have agreed to testify before the tribunal. The political efforts to change and diminish the transitional justice infrastructure means that these cases could plunge into uncertainty.
The leaked internal documents from the Colombian armed forces revealed by the New York Times point to the military resorting to perverse tactics to gain military advantages and boost their death toll. The risk of peace crumbling and the cycle of war repeating itself in Colombia is high unless the country advances the transitional justice provisions of the accord, and in that way revealing the full truth of the past.
By starving key aspects of the accord of resources and trying to limit the work of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Duque is deferring to powerful interest groups who have rarely acted with the interests of vulnerable ethnic communities in mind. That said, the mechanisms to turn all of this around are there—what it requires is the political will of the government to work with ethnic minorities to advance the country forward.
Washington, D.C.—On October 29, a brazen attack by illegal armed groups in Cauca, Colombia left indigenous authority Ne’h Wesx Cristina Taquinas Bautista and four members of the Nasa Tacueyo indigenous reserve dead, with another six people wounded. The massacre took place while the indigenous guard was doing their scheduled rounds in the town of Luz. According to the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC, by its Spanish acronym), a black car containing armed members of a FARC dissident group ignored signals by the indigenous guard and proceeded to shoot everyone in sight. In defiance of humanitarian international law, the armed actors also shot at the ambulance that later arrived at the scene to transport the injured to a place where their wounds could be treated.
Yesterday’s attack should serve as an alarm for the Duque administration regarding the urgent need to protect the lives and rights of indigenous and ethnic minority groups. The massacre perpetrated in Cauca is a direct consequence of the Duque administration’s failure to fully implement the 2016 Colombian peace agreement in an integral manner. In particular, it reflects his neglect of the Ethnic Chapter in the accords, which transversally safeguards the rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, and enshrines autonomous self-protection measures for communities like the indigenous guard.
Colombian authorities must do everything in their power to promptly bring the perpetrators of this vicious attack to justice. Authorities should also heed calls by Colombian human rights and social organizations on the ground, who have long worked in partnership with WOLA, for an urgent investigation into this attack, alongside a high-level, internationally-backed verification mission that includes a visit to Tacueyo by President Duque’s office, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, and the Organization of American States (OAS) Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia. It is essential that President Duque forcefully condemn this attack, gather his ministers, and meet with indigenous authorities in Tacueyo to establish a strategy that protects indigenous communities by strengthening and providing support to the indigenous guard.
Critically, this massacre, along with the high number of killing of indigenous people since the start of the Duque administration, should ring alarm bells in the United States. The U.S. government must send a strong message to Colombia that these massacres are unacceptable, that Colombian authorities must act immediately to deter and prevent further atrocities of this nature from happening, and that the best mechanism to ensure the long-term safety of ethnic communities in vulnerable situations is the full implementation of the 2016 peace accords.
When nearly 7,000 combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) disarmed and abandoned their strongholds in remote areas of Colombia, the Colombian government saw the opportunity to secure and establish themselves in communities that had not seen the rule of law in over half a century. The people of Chocó—Colombia’s most under-resourced region, with 45.1 percent of its population living under multidimensional poverty—were expectant.
For the past four years, Chocóan civil society had undergone a transformation. Negotiations with the FARC in 2012 reduced combat operations and violence in the region, enabling leaders to organize and develop their activities with less fear of harm. This is important because during the 1990s-2000s, the civic space for these groups was decimated by violence and pressure exerted by illegal armed groups.
During the peace accord negotiations, ethnic leaders were forced to mobilize at the national level and advocate internationally so that the rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous people were integrated into the accord. In a historic effort, Afro-Colombian and indigenous grassroots organizations united to form the Ethnic Commission for Peace. On August 2015, they negotiated the historic inclusion of the Ethnic Chapter in the peace accords. This chapter recognizes that Colombia’s ethnic minorities were disproportionately victimized by the internal armed conflict, and remedies this by guaranteeing that peace is implemented in a differentiated manner that respects their rights. Concurrently, a united front of women and LGBTQ+ organizations mobilized and established the Gender Sub-commission at the Havana negotiating table in 2014, leading to an integration of women and gender rights into the accord.
As envisioned in the first point of the peace accord, the 16 most war-stricken regions around the country would build Development Plans with Territorial Focus (Planes de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial, PDETs), which would define the communities’ needs over the next 10 years of peace implementation. The ultimate goal of these development plans is to breach the socio-economic inequalities that have plagued these regions with violence. In the case of Chocó, more than 300 leaders worked to weave the Ethnic Chapter’s differential approach into their own Ethnic Territorial Development Plan.
As a longtime partner of these strengthened organizations, WOLA was part of a humanitarian observation mission to Chocó from July 2-5, 2019. Explored in more detail in an upcoming report, what we saw was bleak: about 11,300 people unable to move freely in the territory, 7,000 of which are indigenous people, more than 2,000 displaced, mostly indigenous, and a strategic dismantling of local civil society and closure of civic space by armed actors.
“After the signing of the peace accords in 2016, we had eight months of peace and quiet,” said a representative of the Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum of Chocó. “Then the paramilitaries came back, then the ELN.”
Although the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerillas and the paramilitary Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) were always present in Chocó, the FARC controlled the majority of the territory with little contestation. After their disarmament, the Colombian government saw these territories claimed by a fast advancing ELN who clashed with the AGC amongst the population. The ELN grew from 90 fighters limited to a few municipalities in the south of the region, to over 400 men in 75 percent of Chocó, all in less than two years. Within an eight-month period, communities saw themselves confined to their houses, unable to organize, fish, farm, or even escape as their territory had been littered with anti-personnel mines and sporadic firefights.
Nevertheless, 87 civil society organizations of all stripes met to draft theChoco Now! Humanitarian Agreement proposed on September 2018 to the ELN and Colombian government negotiating in Havana. One of the organizations that led this grassroots proposal was the Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum of Chocó (Foro Interétnico Solidaridad Chocó). A perfect example of how Chocóan civil society remains dynamic and integrative, it is conformed by 78 organizations and community councils, both Afro-Colombian and indigenous, from all of Chocó.
The Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum establishes a united front, representing extremely diverse and marginalized communities. Institutional and civic spaces of their own creation gave way to communication networks amongst isolated communities that now quickly alert local and international civil society the moment any violation occurs, instead of having to endure victimization in silence. Social media and linkage with international organizations means Chocó’s ethnic communities can report and mobilize like never before.
Unfortunately, a July 17, 2019 ELN terrorist attack on a police academy that left 21 casualties and 70 injured prompted President Ivan Duque to end negotiations with the ELN and order the immediate capture of the guerilla high command, who were negotiating in Cuba at the time. Since then, the unrestrained fighting between the government and illegal armed groups over territorial control and illicit economies has drastically deepened the humanitarian crisis in Chocó.
Chocó’s natural resource richness, inaccessibility, and connection to both oceans make it prime real estate of strategic geographical value for armed groups. The second largest producer of gold in the country, it is estimated 60 percent of Chocó’s gold leaves the Colombia illegally. By some estimates, this makes illegal gold exploitation more profitable than cocaine in Colombia’s Pacific region. An increase of coca crops, alongside the usage of Chocó’s coasts as shipping points, have armed actors fighting viciously over control of the department.
Armed groups have subjugated communities in places of strategic value for decades, placing them under complete social control. Nevertheless, a period of FARC hegemony over the region allowed some traditional authorities to retain their positions of leadership. Indeed, some leaders were able to negotiate effectively with the guerilla high command if FARC fighters overstepped boundaries with the community.
Now that the FARC has left Chocó, and the State has failed to establish control, armed actors seek to subjugate these populations once again.
The difference is that the multiplicity of armed actors, the long periods of active fighting, and the lack of clear territorial boundaries makes the approach of these armed groups more vicious and in no way conciliatory, leaving little space for these newfound, highly vulnerable civil society organizations to exercise their leadership..
Since local government is corrupted, infiltrated by illegal armed groups, and incapable of controlling the territory, Chocó’s civil society is the population’s first and only line of defense against renewed victimization. Likewise, Chocó’s civil society is the only thing standing in the way of control of these widely profitable and vulnerable areas by illegal armed groups.
However, armed groups are pursuing a strategy of confining and eroding civil society, by restricting the freedom of movement that would allow groups to meet, issuing threats and attacks against social leaders (in many cases forcing them to leave the region), and even infiltrating these same organizations and compromising their legitimacy. All of these serves to disempower the capacity of Chocó’s civil society to lobby and organize among themselves.
There are other abhorrent effects of the ongoing conflict in Chocó. Both confined and displaced communities cannot engage in cultural practices—a fundamental basis for their resilience— that are deeply rooted in their ties to the land they have inhabited for hundreds of years. Children cannot attend school, increasing their likelihood of recruitment by armed groups and potentially foregoing the passage of ancestral knowledge to a new generation.
During WOLA’s field trip to the region, multiple sources reported the cohabitation and collaboration of the Colombian army and the paramilitaries, positioned in the Atrato River just a few miles ahead of each other.
One particularly sinister practice of the ELN is the recruiting of indigenous teenagers to spy and report on Afro-Colombian communities, and vice versa, to sow mistrust between them. Many asserted that the army would handpick those thought to be ELN sympathizers for the paramilitaries to kill. Usually, individuals are forced to collaborate or be killed, and afterwards they are immediately branded as enemy sympathizers by the competing armed group—helplessly forced between a rock and a hard place.
Colombian ethnic civil society has increasingly become more vibrant and active, as seen when various groups came together to negotiate the historic inclusion of an Ethnic Chapter in the 2016 peace accords, or when ethnic communities organized to formulate transformative development plans for their regions, or when they helped craft a humanitarian accord based on international humanitarian law standards— these are achievements showcasing the momentum and capacity developed by Colombia’s ethnic civil society. Chocó—Colombia’s department with the highest concentration of ethnic populations— serves as an example for the rest of the country in terms of how an active, engaged civil society can bring about positive change. However, old patterns of violence seek to drag Chocóan communities back into a history of subjugation. The Ethnic Chapter, along with the totality of the peace accord, must be fully implemented now more than ever in order to prevent this.
Indigenous and Afro-Colombian civil society leaders denounced the assassination crisis which has claimed the lives of 58 minority social leaders during a historic hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) on February 15.
The hearing, jointly requested by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), the National Association of Displaced Afro-descendants (AFRODES), the Consultancy for Human Rights (CODHES), WOLA, and the Center for Justice and International Law, allowed indigenous leaders to raise their concerns about enhanced environments of violence in their communities.
Indigenous civil society representatives from the departments of Amazonas, Putumayo, and others called on the Colombian government to enhance security in their communities. Andro Pieguaje, a representative of the Siona people in the Putumayo Department, reminded IACHR that indigenous and Afro-Colombian security has only worsened after the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC.
“The post-conflict situation has left [indigenous] territories abandoned,” Pieguaje said. “We’re left with paramilitaries and narco-paramilitaries who fight to control our territories and their resources, as well as the illicit crops.”
Identifying the Problem Becomes Difficult with Two Stories and Two Sets of Facts
Civil society and Colombian government representatives disputed the number of social leaders assassinated and threatened since 2016.
According to ONIC data presented by Patricia Suárez, 206 indigenous people have been murdered and 6,580 displaced since 2016. Twenty minutes later, the Colombian General Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General) identified just 38 murders during the same period. During questioning, the Colombian state justified their statistics by noting that they came from the United Nations.
Both civil society and the government agreed on the location of the crisis. The regions registering the greatest threats to indigenous leaders were listed as Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Chocó, La Guajira, Nariño, Antioquia, Putumayo, and Norte del Santander.
“The map of the affected areas and damage directly corresponds to an ethnic map [of Colombia],” said one of the lawyers representing civil society.
The humanitarian crisis in Colombia’s indigenous communities extends beyond the assassination of social leaders. “I’m here to bring the voice ofthe 102 indigenous nations of Colombia,” said one representative of the Naza people in Cauca. “The majority of us are living through the disappearance and extermination of our cultural identity.”
The Government’s Response
Government representatives rejected the accusations from civil society that their protection efforts were insufficient.
Referring to a government report, one Colombian state representative identified five factors that correlated with the assassinations. Four of the five factors blamed competition between armed extra-governmental actors, while one pointed to the “slow stabilization” of former FARC territory.
Pablo Elías González defended the government’s protection record. As the head of the National Protection Unit (UNP), he stated that 441 Afro-Colombian and 536 indigenous leaders had received protection. He also described the UNP practice as a dialogue with each individual in order to maximize their applicability to each culture.
Indigenous civil society representatives consistently cited the government’s slow response to protection as the deciding factor behind the violence. They also noted that the National Protection Unit (UNP) process was slowed by excessive bureaucratic hurdles and, when it was granted at all, often worsened the surrounding community’s security.
“The state lacks political will, because the process is slow enough that many leaders are killed before receiving protection,” Suárez said.
Súarez also pushed back against the government’s claim that it was implementing consultation-based policies. “We’ve showed up, and we’ve added our voices, but in practice there aren’t any advances [in indigenous security,” she said.
Indigenous leaders proposed 10 mandates for both the IACHR and the Colombian government.
The recommendations focused on rapid investigations and response to murders and threats, prior consultation with indigenous communities about their protection, implementation of the Ethnic Chapters of both the 2016 peace accord and the 2018 National Development Plan, and a request that the CIDH visit the affected territories and hold the Colombian government accountable for implementing enhanced protection.
The hearing was intended to bring international pressure to bear on a Colombian government that has historically neglected ethnic minorities. The alarming number of social leaders killed in Colombia represents, as Súarez noted, a “lack of political will.”
Written by Julia Friedmann, Colombia Program Intern
Mass demonstrations led by indigenous communities are taking place in Colombia’s capital of Bogotá in defense of the country’s historic peace accord. On Aug. 24, the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced an end to the 52-year brutal internal armed conflict that killed over 220,000 people and generated over 8 million victims. The world applauded when the peace accord was signed in the historic city of Cartagena on Sept. 26. Surprisingly, voters rejected the peace referendum by a narrow margin of less than 1 percent on Oct. 2. Multiple factors—Hurricane Mathew; a high level of abstention; an effective campaign by peace opponents to manipulate, misinform, and mislead voters into voting No; and overconfidence that the Yes vote was a given—led to this unfortunate outcome. Currently, Colombia’s peace with the FARC is in limbo with the parties attempting to salvage the peace process by trying to address concerns of the No voters.
Looking at a map of the votes, what is most evident is a tremendous difference of opinion between rural Colombians directly affected by the conflict and the mostly urban Colombians whose relationship with the war consists of viewing it on TV. Areas where conflict, violence, and displacement run rampant voted in favor of the peace accord, as did the majority of the zones where victims, indigenous peoples, and Afro-Colombians live. In other words, Afro-Colombians and indigenous, who make up a disproportionate number of the conflict’s victims, are the strongest proponents of the peace accord. Therefore, it is no surprise that they are now organizing to tell the world that Colombia should not delay implementation of the agreed-upon accord.
When the peace process began, ethnic minorities were not part of the agenda. The points to be negotiated included agrarian reform, political participation, victims, drugs, and verification/implementation of the agreement, but the process did not include these populations or consider their rights. When they realized this was the case, Afro-Colombian national and regional groups including territorial authorities, displaced people, women, youth, trade unionists, and religious sectors formed the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) in 2014. A year later, CONPA joined forces with major indigenous groups to speak with one voice as the Ethnic Commission for Peace and Defense of Territorial Rights.
The Ethnic Commission proceeded to run a global campaign to get their opinions heard at the peace table. After multiple advocacy efforts that gained support from the Obama administration, the U.S. Congress, and the U.N., on June 26-27 the parties to the negotiations held formal discussions with afro-descendant and indigenous representatives in Cuba. The outcome of this engagement was the inclusion of the “Ethnic Chapter” in the final peace accord. This Chapter includes principles applicable to the entire accord that guarantee that Afro-Colombians’ and indigenous peoples’ rights are safeguarded. It establishes a High Level Ethnic Commission to help guide implementation in a manner that guarantees their participation in the process. This is a historic achievement for a sector of Colombian society that is often excluded and acutely suffers from the legacies of colonialism and slavery.
In the post-referendum debates, former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, one of the leaders of the No campaign, flatly stated on national television that “Colombia is not an African tribe but a country of institutions” when asked for his opinion regarding the Ethnic Chapter. The Ethnic Commission is therefore taking to the streets and engaging in advocacy to guarantee that their ethnic rights victory does not get watered down by the parties who are trying to appease the opponents of peace and calm the turmoil they generated.
In another shocking twist, President Juan Manuel Santos was announced as the 2016 Nobel Prize winner and has stated that he will be donating the funds to the victims of the conflict, including Afro-Colombians who survived the horrific Bojayá massacre of 2002. Shortly after, he also revealed that formal peace talks between his government and the country’s second guerilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), will begin on Oct. 27 in Ecuador. While analysts project that the ELN will be more inclusive of civil society in its talks with the state, it will be necessary for all parties to ensure that ethnic minorities are involved in these discussions.
The international community must do its utmost to guarantee that the impasse in Colombia’s peace process is quickly overcome. Support for a speedy resolution on the FARC accord is required, as is political support for the complementary ELN peace process. It should not cave to those who wish to sabotage Colombia’s progress and deny victims and rural Colombians the right to live in peace. The United States, Colombia’s number one ally and donor, and fellow Latin American countries should send a clear message to the parties involved that the Ethnic Chapter is essential to constructing peace on the ground.
Marcia Mejía Chirimia, of the Sia indigenous community in the southwestern Pacific region of Colombia, is visiting the U.S. on a mission to garner support for Colombia’s peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). She forms part of CONPAZ (Communities Building Peace in their Territories), a coalition of 150 war affected communities throughout Colombia that advocate non-violence and peaceful resolution to conflict. Marcia and her CONPAZ colleagues argue that for the victims of the conflict peace is essential. She asks that the international community to increase its efforts to guarantee that the accord is implemented without changes and without any further delays.
According to Ms. Chirimia, victims’ voices were integrated into the accords. The final accord reflects what CONPAZ and many other victims recommended to the negotiating parties. The accord prioritizes truth and reconciliation over extended jail time. For victims, like herself, jail time would just lead to further suffering of not knowing the full truth of the dynamics that generated horrific massacres in the communities. She believes that victims can only begin to heal when they know the full truth and the perpetrators ask for forgiveness.
Ms. Chirimia debunks the notion perpetrated by former President Alvaro Uribe that the accord would foster impunity because prison time is not expressed. She thinks that jail time for perpetrators of abuses would only breed more resentment and vengeance towards the victims by the prisoners. Also that by placing them in jail it would guarantee that they would continue their criminal activities. CONPAZ argues that persons who committed crimes should be rehabilitated so they can become productive members of society. She adds that the FARC are not the sole causes of distress in ethnic communities. Paramilitaries, ELN, businessmen with economic megaprojects, and even some politicians, were also involved in abuses in these territories, and they should be held accountable. The accord would guarantee that all perpetrators are held to account.
She notes that many of the “No” voters did not suffer the worst consequences of the war and that many made a decision based on misinformation. As such, she thinks that all efforts to end this situation must include victims’ representatives especially indigenous and afro descendants who are hardest hit by violence. As victims, what comes next will affect their lives more than the lives of those voicing their distant opinions from cities like Bogotá. Areas with the largest numbers of victims voted a booming “Yes” for peace in the October 2 plebiscite.
Ms. Chirimia is also proud of the inclusion of an Ethnic Chapter in the final accord. She explains that this chapter was written by the Ethnic Commission that represents a good number of ethnic communities. It reflects their proposals constructed by the communities themselves– not the opinions of the government or the FARC. By denying advancement of the peace accord, the No proponents are ignoring the pressing needs of rural women, indigenous and Afro-Colombians peoples.
In sum, Ms. Chirimia is advocating for continued international support for Colombia’s peace process. The U.S. should redirect its military aid to Colombia towards social programs that help to construct peace on the ground. In her view, money should go towards effective crop substitution programs, the construction of viable roads to markets, demining project and land restitution. Any further negotiations between the government and the FARC and ELN guerrillas must guarantee victims’ rights to the truth, reparations, and peace. Beyond international authorities, she thinks that NGOs play a critical role in guaranteeing inclusion of ethnic communities’ minorities’ rights by pressuring the U.S. and Colombian authorities to monitor the process.
Ms. Chirimia, who has suffered death threats due to her activism in favor of her community, emphasizes that “the voices of those on the ground are strong, but often not loud enough to reach the right people. It is difficult, and often dangerous, to be a leader in this context – which is why they need international support.”
Despite new obstacles in the way, the triumph of the “No” has certainly not defeated her. She promised to continue fighting for the peace they dream of.
After more than 50 years the Colombian government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are finally engaging in peace negotiations. Beyond the signing of a potential agreement, ensuring peace will require incorporating into the process those communities that have been the hardest hit during the conflict and where tensions can rise to violence during the post-conflict era. Precisely because indigenous and Afro-Colombian persons make up a disproportionate number of the victims and displaced communities of the conflict, their voices are especially essential for ensuring a just and lasting peace.
President Santos recently traveled to Washington and, alongside President Obama, announced that the United States and Colombia were entering a new era of relations. Yet President Santos’ large entourage at the White House did not include any Afro-Colombians, until U.S. officials noted their absence. At the last minute, the Colombian Embassy scrambled to invite Afro-Colombians residing in the United States to appear racially inclusive. This was contradictory to both countries’ priorities, considering that Colombia and the United States signed a ‘Racial Action Plan’ (CAPREE) to combat discrimination and promote human rights conditions in U.S. military aid.
In this context, last week President Juan Manuel Santos invited a handful of Afro-Colombian celebrities and personalities to the presidential residence, the Casa de Nariño. At this event, Santos announced that he was appointing Colombia’s first Afro-descendant Congresswoman, Zulia Mena, to the post of Vice Minister of Culture. The meeting at Casa Nariño included the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA), a respected coalition of ethno-territorial authorities, the displaced, women, and civil rights leaders. However, the meeting did nothing to address these communities’ request that they be invited to form an ethnic commission in Cuba to discuss real issues at stake in the peace process. These include the demobilization of guerilla fighters, reconciliation, victims’ rights, collective land rights, the needs of Afro-Colombian women, and the political participation of Afro-Colombians. Naming a leader with the caliber of experience and prominence of Zulia Mena to a post with little political influence does nothing to advance these issues.
In order to ensure the consolidation of peace in areas where these populations hold collective land titles, the parties to the conflict must sit down with the ethnic-territorial authorities before finalizing the peace agreement. These ethnic minorities have a constitutional right to be previously consulted on matters affecting their land. In addition to the legal, historical, moral, and reparative reasons to consult with these groups, there are practical realities to take into consideration. Due to inexistent or weak state presence, the ongoing presence of illegal armed groups, corruption and geographical isolation, these will be the areas where consolidating peace will be hardest. These are also areas, especially along the Pacific Coast and mountains of Cauca, where new conflicts are likely to arise in a post-conflict scenario and where the risk to peace is highest. Coordinated and well-planned efforts that fully include these leaders will be required for the accords to yield results. Bogota’s centralized, top-down approach to governance without real inclusion of the beneficiaries has failed in the past. This time Colombia should take advantage of the opportunities at hand and do things right.
Since 2014, organized ethnic minorities under the umbrella of CONPA and The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) have advocated for inclusion at the peace table. These organizations have stressed that despite the invitation of ethnic leaders to present their cases of victimization in Havana, a more collective-rights view on how to construct peace should be discussed with them. Colombia has ignored this plea by offering superficial meetings such as the one that took place last week.
Colombia may not be including ethnic minorities in the process, but these groupings have decided to include themselves. On March 8, these communities joined forces and launched a non-governmental ethnic commission on the peace process of their own. The Ethnic Commission for Peace and the Defense of Territorial Rights, as it is called, will work to defend their collective territorial rights and address conflicts that may arise in post-conflict scenarios. It behooves both negotiating parties in Havana to listen to them, and make them active partners in the construction of peace and a sustainable post-conflict era.
On May 20, 2014, indigenous groups from throughout Colombia published a declaration on the grave situation their communities face. They called attention to their risk of extinction; the importance of land to their cultural survival; their position as symbols of harmony with the environment; unity through cultural diversity; the wisdom indigenous peoples offer to achieve peace; and that dialogue and harmony are necessary for peace. Peace is the foundation of harmony, life, governability and more.
They also identify the need for a bilateral ceasefire to guarantee the safety of their respective peoples. Participation of indigenous groups will also be essential for a lasting peace.
As such, the groups propose:
• Use the National Indigenous Council for Peace with the goal of guaranteeing the active participation of indigenous communities in the peace process.
• Develop programs that draw on indigenous wisdom and traditions to teach peace in Colombia
• Ensure the full implementation of protection and reparation plans.
• Review the existing trade agreements to ensure they protect these groups sovereignty and food security.
• Guarantee Free, Prior and Informed Consent programs with indigenous communities.
• Ensure proper reparation for lands destroyed by fumigation.
• Ensure the implementation of the Constitutional Court Decision 092, among others, to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.
The Indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC)
The Tayrona Indigenous Confederation (CIT)
The Indigenous Authorities of Colombia
The Traditional Indigenous Authorities of Colombia