Day 5 – Justice for Colombia: The Delegation Leaves for Buenaventura

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Our Head of Employment Law at Simpson Millar LLP continues to blog the delegation's journey, as they move south through Colombia.

Desolate Fishing Village

We left on a 07.00 flight to the Pacific Coast town of Buenaventura, there we meet with community activists, local port workers and fishing unions.

In the heart of one of Colombia's combat zones, Buenaventura is the port gateway to the West and an important shipment point for drugs. Already handling 60% of the country's imports and exports, Buenaventura has been unable to cope with the influx of trade since the signing of the US free trade agreement, and unsurprisingly, the port collapsed. What has since transpired is a massive redevelopment of the port and surrounding area with little or no regard for the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities living there, whose livelihoods depend on farming and fishing.

Since 1994 the port has been run by large transnational companies who have exerted their influence to forcibly displace local people from their land, some of which had been granted them under the Colombian Constitution as 'ancestral land'. Indeed, the forefathers of many of the local Afro-Colombians first came to the area to escape slavery. Those communities have since been displaced off their land, with no compensation, and now live in shanty-type housing in neighbourhoods patrolled by the army and police but controlled by paramilitary groups.

According to the UNDP, Buenaventura is, "One of the saddest examples of poverty and social underdevelopment in Colombia". Approximately 90% of the population is of African descent whilst 65% has no access to sewerage and, electricity and fresh water are problematic.The Port in Buenaventura

Our visit was organised by the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace so it was fitting that our first port of call was to speak with the Bishop who described Buenaventura as, "marginalised and excluded by national government". "A capitalist mentality dominates the region", he said, despite the many human rights abuses both the church and local NGO's have unveiled in the area.

"Our analysis is that the multinationals do not want to have to deal with the indigenous communities so they arrange for them to be forced off their land, even those who have held the land for over 300 years" we were told.

In October 2006 the Bishop presented the Colombia Government with a report on human rights abuses in the region but nothing was done. In March 2011, he had dialogue with the Vice President during his visit to the region. "We showed him the reality of life in Buenaventura but nothing happened."

Since 2013 around 150 cases of 'disappearances' have come to light, largely attributable to the rival paramilitary groups who, between them, control the region. "So many people are scared that they no longer report their loved ones as missing" the Bishop told us. Around 10,000 people have been displaced from their homes. They are kept in a state of constant fear by the paramilitaries who carry out routine assassinations. "Casas de Pique" ('chop houses') where the paramilitaries (largely under the noses of the Army and state security forces) dismember and kill anyone who should dare challenge them. This year alone, 12 people have been dismembered according to official figures and 115 have been killed, but human rights organisations in the area suggest the figures are much higher. The Bishop said he'd spoken with the authorities about who is running the paramilitaries but the Government "doesn't want to know".

We left the Bishop and headed for a street in the heart of the paramilitary controlled neighbourhood where in April 2014 the local people, tired of the conflict, descended on an infamous 'chop house' and destroyed it. With assistance from CONPAZ, a local initiative promoting the nonviolent protection of the community and implementation of International Humanitarian Law, they declared the street a "Humanitarian Zone" free of all paramilitary presence. Around 1,000 indigenous, Afro-Colombian people and those of mixed heritage now live there.

Humanitarian Zone Street

We entered the 'zone' at noon to a barrage of welcoming faces and children dressed in traditional cultural dress, eager to dance. A locally prepared lunch was provided for us as we heard testimony from community leaders and displaced families as well as those affected by the atrocities committed in the chop houses. Individuals spoke of the 'menace of the bulldozer' which prevents boats carrying food into the neighbourhood from docking.

The police presence within the zone was palpable, but we are told, "We invite the police into the zone because we want to put responsibility for our protection back onto the State". Other than sending troops into the area who fail to deal effectively with paramilitary activity, "the Government and multinationals simply fail to recognise our rights'.

After hearing testimony we are joined by CONPAZ and other human rights workers living in the zone, on a walk down the street where the paramilitaries set up camp in local houses. Speaking with one such worker as we walked, she told us, "Your presence here, in this street, means there will be no violence; at least not for today".


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