Interview with Afro-Colombian IDP Leaders

Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli
Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli Senior Associate for Colombia and Haiti, Washington Office on Latin America

December 1, 2003

Colombia counts the largest IDP population in the Americas with estimates ranging from over a million to nearly 3 million. Local sources report that IDPs of African descent constituted a third of the total persons displaced in 2002. Like other Colombian IDPs, they are highly organized.

What follows is an interview with two Afro-Colombian leaders from the Association for Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES):

Luz Marina Bercerra currently serves as Secretary for AFRODES in Bogota. She recently participated in a multi-state speaking tour in the US to raise awareness of the plight of Colombia’s IDPs.

Marino Cordoba, founder of AFRODES, sought refuge in the US after several attempts on his life. He received asylum in 2002 and continues to serve as a leading voice for Afro-Colombian displaced persons.

Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli (GSG): How did you become internally displaced?

Marino Cordoba (MC): I was displaced from my village of Riosucio (Choco Department) in 1996 as a result of a bombing jointly undertaken by the paramilitaries and the Colombian military (17th Brigade). Riosucio was the first place in the Colombian Pacific region where Afro-Colombian persons were granted communal rights to their lands under Law 70 (1993). In this part of the country the lands and natural resources (wood and minerals) belonging to the native communities have been appropriated by businesspersons, politicians and settlers. There are economic interests in this area as well as plans to construct an inter-oceanic canal that will link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This activity has led to displacement of Afro-Colombians and the impoverishment of native communities.

Luz Marina Bercerra (LMB): The causes of my displacement are the following: Colombia’s civilian population finds itself caught between three armed groups (the paramilitaries, the guerillas and the military) and as such, it is often under pressure by the armed groups who are fighting with each other. At the time of my displacement, the guerillas were active in our community and they would pressure us into providing them with services. My nephew, for example, worked as a boat operator who transported people from one river to another but he was forced to carry out transport requests by the guerillas. Saying no to the guerillas would have meant paying with your life. When the paramilitaries arrived they accused our community of collaborating with the guerillas and began to point fingers at people, assassinate others and displace us. Motorists and persons who worked in transportation managed to save our lives.

GSG: What motivated internally displaced Afro-Colombians to organize themselves and create the Association for Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES)? What are AFRODES’s goals?

MC: We decided to form AFRODES because of the lack of attention that was being paid to displaced blacks, the discrimination they face for being black and displaced, the need to denounce the human rights violations against them and to mobilize international solidarity with their plight. Another reason was our need to continue to fight for social, political, economic, cultural and land rights within the framework of the Colombian constitution and international conventions. The only way for us to do this was by creating an organization for internally displaced Afro-Colombians. This process was not new for us because we were already peacefully organizing our communities in our areas of origin. AFRODES’ purpose is to denounce the systematic human rights violations towards Afro-Colombians and to work towards their education and organization and increase their awareness of their rights. In addition, AFRODES works towards the goal that each of these families will some day be able to return to their areas of origin with compensation.

LMB: We decided to create AFRODES because we found that the displaced Afro-Colombian population in the large cities was totally disoriented, dislocated and without anyone to help them.

GSG: What are the special needs of Afro-Colombian IDPs residing in Bogota? Do the needs of IDPs differ when IDPs are residing in cities versus rural areas? Luz Marina, do IDP women have special needs?

MC: Displaced persons in cities have special needs. Although the security situation in the cities appears to be better than in the rural areas, when it comes to food and shelter IDPs must compete on a daily basis for food, shelter and clothing. In the cities the displaced get lost among the poor and some are ignored. They must find a way to live and sustain themselves on their own. Many communities refuse to leave rural areas because they are not prepared for urban living.

LMB: Displaced women have special needs. They must take care of their children while living with the trauma of having lost their husbands. Women must become both mother and father to their children. It is harder for Afro-Colombian IDP women to obtain jobs due to discrimination. They also do not often have the right skills needed for city jobs. Furthermore, the help offered to the displaced by the state does not consider that women need special items such as diapers and feminine hygiene products.

GSG: Do Afro-Colombian IDPs in Bogota receive assistance from the Social Solidarity Network (the state institution mandated to assist IDPs), NGOs or the international community?

MC: The majority of the assistance for IDPs comes from international foundations and churches. The Social Solidarity Network is bureaucratic and negligent. There is not much opportunity for IDPs to compete for jobs, given the unemployment in Colombia and their lack of skills. Any dream of their becoming businesspersons is quickly lost. IDPs need to receive skills training as well as access to markets where they can sell their products.

LMB: In Bogota, Afro-Colombian IDPs receive practically no assistance from the government. In the past, persons received humanitarian assistance and health services. Now there are many persons who registered as IDPs more than a year ago but who have not received anything. This is due to lack of funds and because the system for assisting IDPs is undergoing reform. NGOs have tried to help but some only help in a manner that is in accordance with their own interests. Some propose projects in our name but we do not receive the benefits. Often the focus of their projects is on empowering displaced persons but this is not helpful to us if we cannot put our plans into action.

The best way to improve assistance to IDPs is by directly giving it to IDP organizations and local organizations that support them. We are the ones who know our community the best because we have experienced displacement. For the past five years, our situation as displaced persons in Bogota has not changed. We are in critical need of employment and projects that allow us to help ourselves.

GSG: What obstacles have you faced as an IDP leader?

MC: The first hurdle one must overcome as an IDP leader is the challenge of creating an organization that undertakes the peaceful resolution of disputes between the displaced and public officials. The officials with their legalisms and bureaucracy at times reduce our ability to work more effectively with other IDP groups. Equally important is the lack of a budget with which to support our activities and basic needs.

LMB: We face two main obstacles as leaders of the displaced. The first is security. In Colombia, persons who work in human rights are often persecuted and harassed. This has happened to various members of our organization including Marino who is in exile in the US due to attempts on his life. The second obstacle is economic. Our work is purely voluntary and we do not receive a salary. We are literally hanging from the tips of our “nails.” We do not have funds for transportation so we often have to walk long distances to work.

GSG: Why is Law 70 significant for Afro-Colombian displaced persons?

MC: Law 70 is a “small constitution” for Afro-Colombians, in particular rural persons who first initiated this effort. Law 70 is important because it recognizes a group of persons whose country ignored them throughout its history and acknowledges their land rights. However, we cannot stop with this achievement alone; we must continue to fight for our survival.

LMB: Law 70 is an instrument that is very valuable to our people. It is unique and not found in other countries. Unfortunately, in a country where laws often remain on paper we have to continue to work toward the implementation of Law 70.

Our organization has initiated a project called “Project of Life” which forms the basis of our work. In order to unify the Afro-Colombians we conduct activities in seven areas: 1) organization and capacity building of the Afro descendant population, 2) economic and social development, 3) cultural identity, 4) issues faced by urbanized Afro-Colombians, 5) human rights, in particular the rights of IDPs, 6) women, youth and children issues, and 7) land rights.

GSG: Have you utilized the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in your work? What meaning do these Principles have for Afro-Colombian IDPs?

MC: Many of the norms re-stated in the Guiding Principles form part of Convention 189 that relates to tribal and indigenous groups, Law 70 and Law 387 of 1997. Displaced persons empower themselves based on international conventions. The Guiding Principles form part of the fundamental basis of our work.

LMB: The Guiding Principles provide a framework for our work and we utilize them when advocating for our rights. What we would like is for the government and others to implement them.

GSG: What is your relationship with other IDP leaders and displaced groups in Colombia? Have you learned any lessons since becoming an IDP leader?

MC: The most important outcome we have achieved in coordinating with other IDP leaders and IDP groups has been to increase the level of visibility of the displaced population. We also work with human rights organizations and international organizations such as the United Nations. At first there were difficulties amongst IDPs and their leaders due to our cultural differences and lack of knowledge of each other’s specific ethnic rights in Colombia.

LMB: There are many IDP organizations in Colombia. We work with other IDP groups within the framework of the Mixed Working Table of Soacha. When we form partnerships with other IDP leaders and IDP groups, we make sure that they respect our ethnic differences.

One myth that exists among agencies working with IDPs is that the displacement experience forces women and IDP leaders to empower themselves and learn about their rights. In the Afro-Colombian IDP community, this has not been the case. Displacement has weakened them.

GSG: Do you have any advice to offer to other persons who find themselves internally displaced in other parts of the world?

MC: The necessity and urgency that comes from working for one’s survival is instinctual. The right to life is inherent in every human being and when this right is under threat one has to work to overcome this. In general, poor and minority ethnic groups are more likely to face this threat. That is why it is our calling to work every day for our rights and to create networks with others facing similar situations around the world so we can unify efforts.

LMB: My advice to other IDPs is that you must organize yourselves. It is more difficult for one person to get attention and face these problems alone. The organization process is slow and the successes may take some time but it is crucial that IDPs organize and become aware of their rights.

GSG: Do you have any specific recommendations for how the international community can better address the needs of Afro-Colombian IDPs?

MC: The international community should make every effort to become aware of the tragic realities that exist in Colombia and in particular to address the situation of its ethnic groups. A visit to the areas inhabited by the African descendant groups would be essential to better understanding our history and present circumstances. Today this history has become more difficult because of the war that is taking place over our lands and natural resources. We need international solidarity in order to overcome our situation. If the international community refuses to heed the cry for help issued by Afro-Colombians then we are condemned to no longer exist in future generations.

LMB: I have three recommendations for the international community. First, more follow up on the implementation of norms pertaining to IDPs. Second, make every effort to ensure that there are enough resources to sustain IDP projects and that these resources are directly reaching the IDPs who need them. Lastly, US aid to Colombia should be focused on social rather than military assistance. International support should go to better health, shelter and education not to more weapons. This is to only way to help resolve Colombia’s conflict.