Capacity-Building Retreat: Community Councils of Afro-Colombian Communities

Capacity-Building Retreat: Community Councils of Afro-Colombian Communities

by Katrina Kniss, communications volunteer

posted on August 4, 2016.

On July 14-15, 2016, Sembrandopaz sponsored a capacity-building retreat for leaders from the communities of Mampuján, Libertad, Camarón, and Berruguita. These community members came together in Berruguita to learn and share experiences about the important legislation that applies to them as Afro-Colombians. If applied to their full extent, these laws and decrees would ensure that these communities are guaranteed their basic human rights as Colombian citizens by taking into account the specific histories and concerns of afro communities. The workshops were led by Moises Pérez of Procesos de Comunidades Negras (Black Community Processes) and focused on the themes of differentiated focus, collective land titling and organizing tools available to Afro-community councils.

Each community in attendance was in a different place in their knowledge and experience of organizing around Afro-Colombian law, and each had a different motivation for attending the event. Libertad has been registered as a community council since 2008, which makes it the longest-standing of the group. The community was one of the first collective reparation subjects in the country, although it was not elaborated with a focus on the community as Afro Colombian. They continue organizing so that the reparations plan is carried out, focusing on economic development and improving health facilities in the community. Berruguita formalized their community council in 2012 after several years of meeting and building capacity as a community, and shared their experience of the difficult process of creating community consensus around these projects. Mampuján is known as the first community to win collective reparations under the Law of Justice and Peace in 2005, but began forming a community council in 2013. They hope to continue developing awareness around the topic of differentiated focus as an Afro-community, as a way of complementing the other processes already at work in their community. Finally, leaders from Camarón attended the retreat in hopes of learning more about the process of forming a community council as a way of further developing their awareness of Afro-Colombian identity and the possibilities of collective land ownership. Although the context of each community differs, there were several key lessons from which every community could learn.

When speaking about topics of Afro-Colombian identity, it is crucial to recognize the unique history of Afro-Colombian communities, who have overcome the victimization not just of the armed conflict as small farmers, but also the structural violence of state abandonment and poverty, and the historical violence of slavery. While the children of all slaves were freed in 1821, the official end of slavery in Colombia did not come about until 1851. The descendants of newly-freed slaves have since been subjected to generations of poverty, left without support from a government who made no attempt of reparations for centuries of abuse and unpaid labor, and in fact compensated former slave owners for economic losses corresponding to the value of the newly-freed slaves. The Colombian constitution of 1886 also made no mention of black communities, effectively invisibilizing this community and their identity. However, in the middle of the 20th century, black people began being allowed to enter into the university. This progress, coinciding with the global consciousness of the black condition raised by leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., brought about a renewed awareness among Afro-Colombians about their place in their country’s history. With this consciousness came movements for increased equality and a celebration of black cultural identity and pride.

Traditional Afro-Colombian tools and handicrafts.
Traditional Afro-Colombian tools and handicrafts.

As is shown by their lived experience, the violence of the most recent armed conflict affected Afro-Colombians in ways that are unique from other citizens. Therefore, when the Colombian government and constituent assembly formed the new constitution of 1991, Afro-Colombians and other marginalized groups and ethnicities fought for explicit recognition under the law. This recognition is known as a “differentiated focus” and applies to Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The first important legislation to directly address the concerns of Afro-Colombian communities was the Law 70 of 1993. The Law 70 protects and strengthens Afro-Colombian identity by recognizing the traditional characteristics of these communities and making room for them in law. The key actor in this legislation is the Community Council, made up of a directive board and the assembly. The directive board directs and executes the desires of the assembly, which is made up of the entire community. In this model of leadership, all decisions that affect the collective must be run through the community council. In one of its most important achievements, the law 70 created the option for alternative organizational structures, such as collective land ownership, as these communities engage with the government in programs of development and reparations.

The importance of collective land ownership is that it addresses the reality of the traditional social organization of Afro-communities. Many of these communities have settled on vacant government lands without official land titles, but have always organized land use within the community without the need for legal recognition of property, in ways that protect the land for use by future generations of the community. Therefore, the goal of collective land titling is not to strip individuals of their land holdings, but to keep the community functioning how it always has. While some community leaders shared anecdotes of the difficulties of gaining the support from community members for these processes, because of the connotation of “collective” with communism, others stressed that, once established, the benefits of collective ownership are easy to embrace. With collective titles, the government guarantees productive projects. Furthermore, when a community is united, it keeps ownership of the land within the community and out of the hands of third parties, making displacement by large corporations much more difficult. As one community leader declared, “We won’t let these systems of slavery repeat themselves. The state turned its back on us. But our lands are ripe for production and tourism, and they will not displace us again.”

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Not only have these communities faced racial and economic injustices, but they are also peasant communities who were greatly affected by the armed conflict in the Montes de María. The Victims’ Unit has had a significant presence in this region since the establishment of the Victims’ Law 1448 of 2011, raising awareness of and facilitating the victims’ reparations process. The processes under this law, however, apply to all victims of the conflict and are often back-logged due to the sheer amount of need and limited government resources. One of the most heated conversations during the retreat was a reflection on the difficulties of navigating the system for receiving indemnization payments, with its miscommunications, long lines, and invasive questioning. Recognizing the emotions present in the space, one facilitator commented, “Before you all were independent and autonomous, thriving and making a life for yourself despite the absence of the government. But the violence of the armed conflict broke that, and now you’re reduced to waiting in lines for the support of an absent government. It’s simply a process of victimization and dehumanization all over again.”

This difficult reality makes the concept of differentiated focus even more crucial and empowering. In 2011, the Law Decree 4635 was passed as a parallel legislation to the Victims’ Law, addressing the specific concerns of Afro-Colombian victims of the armed conflict. Those in attendance were all in agreement that the culture of their communities is one of open doors, sharing freely, and solidarity. An assassination of a member of that kind of community has a much greater effect on the collective than a similar act of violence would in a neighborhood where no one knows their neighbor. While this legislation does not replace individual reparations, it opens up opportunities for collective, holistic reparations that address far more than just indemnization payments. This organizing structure, when utilized to its full potential, can create a space where the community’s reflection and protest against injustice can be channeled into direct, effective action towards the betterment of their quality of life, that reinforces and protects their traditional community practices.

While a large amount of technical information was presented during the retreat, by the end of the second day each community had at least two concrete, realizable steps that their leadership could now pursue in the ongoing process of strengthening their community councils. The lectures and PowerPoints were interspersed with laughter, the sharing of experiences, games, bountiful amounts of food, and even a swim in the nearby stream. Most life-giving of all was the connections these leaders created when they came together in celebration of their Afro-Colombian identity. Members of each community shared jokes, songs, and stories. While each was unique, these cultural gifts demonstrated the underlying spirit that unites these communities as Afro-Colombians: despite seemingly-insurmountable difficulties and oppression, these communities are still here, with the desire to continue surviving and moving forward. It is an honor for us at Sembrandopaz to accompany these communities in their organizing processes and facilitate the kind of spaces that allow such hope and strength to shine through.

Retreat participants
Retreat participants