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Colombia: Indigenous and Afro-Colombians flee their territory

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Thousands of indigenous and afro-Colombians living in the department of Chocó have found themselves fleeing for their lives as illegal armed groups fight for the control of territory, illegal mineral mining and lucrative drug-trafficking corridors. 

Newly arrived Afro-Colombians in the town of Boyoya  Credit: UNHCR/K. MariaWhilst the peace dialogues continue in Havana, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Peoples in Alto Baudó, Chocó are being forced to flee from their homes and land as armed combats between the post-demobilised paramilitary group Gaitanistasi and the Resistencia Cimarrón unit of the guerrilla group the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) develop in the area. 

According to the Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoria del Pueblo),ii since the middle of May 2014, 2,500 inhabitants in 17 Indigenous resguardos on the banks of the river Dubaza, in Alto Baudó have been forced to flee. Indigenous and afro-Colombian populations have also, at times, found themselves confined by the armed actors.

In mid-June 2014, 200 armed fighters from the Gaitanistas attacked the ELN in the river Baudó and then alighted in Chachajo. Then they refused to allow the local communities to move and cut all communication between them and the rest of the country by decommissioning their phones.iii

However, some of the inhabitants of this region managed to get information out to relatives in Quibdó. The Gaitanistas left Chachajo and headed into to the jungle to fight the ELN, before returning to Chachajo. 

As far back as 16 May 2014 the Ombudsman’s Office alerted the Interior Ministry to its urgent concerns for local communities within a 10 minute radius of Chachajo regarding the presence of the paramilitaries and the guerrilla in this region. Human rights defenders and the Diocese of Quibdó also alerted the Commander of the Joint Task Force Titán (Fuerza de Tarea  Conjunto Titán). As the situation evolved in Chachajo, Commander General Ruben Alzate reportedly ‘considered that there was no grave threat and continues to maintain that his forces have the region secured’.iv 

According to the Ombudsman’s Office,v since the middle of 2013 there has been an agreement in relation to the control of territory and drug-trafficking routes in the region between the paramilitary group the Rastrojos and the ELN. Combats erupted when another post-demobilised paramilitary group, the Gaitanistas,vi entered the river with 200 armed fighters in order to take over control. 

Afro-Colombians, forced off their land, live in Quibdo  Credit: UNHCR/M-H VerneyThis complex situation which violates the rights of the indigenous and afro-Colombian populations in Alto Baudó comes on top of the serious impacts the communities are suffering as a result of mineral extraction in Chocó. In July 2014 the Ombudsman’s Office issued an ‘Early Warning’ (Alerta Temprana)vii explaining that the armed conflicts were due to illegal groups fighting for control of illegal mining in the area. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, this illegal mining has been using mercury for the extraction of gold which has resulted in the contamination of at least eight major rivers: the Atrato, San Juan, Andágueda, Apartadó, Bebará, Bebaramá, Quitó and Dagua. 

This contamination is a high risk to the health of the local populations who use the water from the rivers for their daily lives; it provides water for drinking, cooking, fishing and washing for these communities. So far it has affected the health of more than 400 people.viii 

Chocó is extremely rich in biodiversity yet it remains the poorest department in Colombia. The poverty rate in Chocó increased in 2012, with 68 per cent of people living in poverty and 40.7 per cent in extreme poverty, compared to 64 and 34.3 per cent respectively in 2011.ix These indices show Chocó as having a poverty rate that is double the national rate of 32.7 per cent.

The situation is so concerning that the Bishops of the Dioceses of Quibdó, Apartadó and Istmina-Tadó have issued an alert regarding the serious humanitarian crisis in Chocó.           

They point out that the crisis goes beyond what the local populations are suffering at the moment with the conflict and draw attention to the ongoing suffering experienced in Chocó due to: hunger, which is compounded by the aerial fumigation intended for illicit crops falling on agricultural production and destroying staple food crops; lack of clean drinking water; the poor health system, resulting in the death of children from preventable diseases; poor education; and the environmental and health implications of mining in the region. In addition, they specifically warn of the dangers arising out of mining concessions granted to multinationals in the Chocó.x 

UN Human Rights High Commissioner Todd Howland also expressed his concern regarding the levels of ongoing violence in Chocó and the violations of the rights of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Peoples. Like the Bishops, he highlighted how the humanitarian crisis goes far beyond ending the conflict and requires changes regarding the economic activity in the area: “There is so much illegal activity in Chocó that the problem is not going to be resolved with the demobilization of the … [guerrilla groups], but rather the government must … make changes to the economic activity of the area”.xi 

Mining is expanding in Chocó and concessions have been granted without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous and afro-Colombians living there (as stated under ILO Convention 169 and required by law in Colombia). This situation puts at risk the communities’ own plans for development, known as Life Plans (Planes de Vida) and Ethnic Development Plans (Planes de Etno Desarollo). 

Recommendations 

That the Colombian State:

  •  Take emergency actions to address the needs of communities suffering the humanitarian crisis. 
  •  Take action to guarantee the protection and security of the communities and investigate the actions that have put at risk the lives of    community members.
  •  Ensure that the consultation guaranteed by law is undertaken, and that Indigenous and
  •   Afro-Colombian Ethnic Development Plans have sufficient support and resources to be implemented.
  •  Take actions to prevent further illegal mechanised mining in the rivers.
  •  Address the call from the affected communities for investment in education, health services, drinking water and nutrition. 

25 July 2014

References

i  Thought to have been incorporated into the Urabeños.

ii Defensoria del Pueblo, 2.500 desplazados en Chocó por enfrentamientos entre grupos armados ilegales, 13 May 2014. 

iii El Consejo Comunitario General del Baudó solicita alerta temprana ante el inminente riesgo de muerte, 19  June 2014.

iv Semana, Pobladores de Alto Baudó temen un nuevo ‘Bojayá’, 27 June 2014.  v Defensoria del Pueblo, 2.500 desplazados en Chocó por enfrentamientos entre grupos armados ilegales, 13 May 2014. 

vi Thought to have been incorporated into the Urabeños. vii Defensoría Del Pueblo, La Defensoría del Pueblo continúa al frente de la población del Departamento del Chocó, 19 July 2014. 

viii Noticias Canal Capital, Seis comunidades del Alto Baudó se encuentran desplazadas desde el 13 de Junio por combates, 25 June 2014.   ix DANE, Comunicado de Prensa, Resultados Pobreza Monetaria y Desigualdad 2012, por Departamentos  x Pastoral Social, Obispos del Chocó envían SOS al Estado para responder a crisis humanitaria, 8 July 2014. xi Caracol, La ONU insta a Colombia a intervenir en el Chocó para frenar la violencia, 10 July 2010.