Peaceful strikers are still be attacked by armed police in Buenaventura but the people won’t give up! by Esther Esther Ojulari

Peaceful strikers are still be attacked by armed police in Buenaventura but the people won’t give up! by Esther Esther Ojulari

CTS tear gas canister fired at the balcony where we stood.JPG

“I know you’re fighting a just cause…We go all round the country and we see people fighting just causes all the time…But this is our job…our role here is to attack, so that’s what we do.”

These were the words my friend was told when he engaged in conversation the other night with an agent of the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron) on the streets of Buenaventura, Colombia, in the context of the ongoing civic strike.

The mainly Afro-descendant and indigenous community of Buenaventura on the Pacific Coast of Colombia has been on a civic strike now for 16 days. 16 days in which business, banks, shops and schools have been closed down and taxis and buses have stopped working to demand that the national government fulfils is basic human rights obligations to its citizens.   

The demands of the strike are clear. Due to the desperate human rights situation which the community faces in Buenaventura, the Strike Committee called for the National Government to adopt a State of Social, Economic and Ecological Emergency in accordance with article 215 of the 1991 Colombian Constitution.  This declaration would commit the government to providing within 30 days (90 days with extension) sufficient funds to address urgent issues in the city; basic and fundamental human rights which are seriously lacking, such as clean drinking water, a hospital with tertiary level health care, adequate sewage systems, quality and culturally relevant education institutions, and reparations for victims of violence, conflict and injustice. The Civic Strike Committee has been in and out of talks with the government for two weeks and the government has so far refused to meet the demands of the strikers.

injuries from 31 may.JPG

Meanwhile day after day up to 200,000 strikers have taken to the streets marching or congregating in collective meeting points along the main Avenida 6o  (6th Avenue) and the Via Alterna Interna  (ring road) which both lead from the outskirts of Buenaventura to the city centre, and Colombia’s most important international port.  The strikers protest at the injustice of neoliberal economic policies which leave a city of over 500,000 people without basic public services, infrastructure and human rights, while the profits from tens of billions of dollars of imports and exports each year line the pockets of private owners.  

The meeting points, consisting of open-air tents and sound systems, in which strikers peacefully resist this economic model, though cultural traditions of music, singing, dancing, storytelling, banging pots and pans and chanting for basic human rights, have a another function; preventing the cargo trucks, from entering and leaving the city. This is a historical and monumental form of resistance, not only to Colombia’s economic model, but to the wider global economic system, as a small group of determined protestors block one of the most strategic international ports for trade between Latin America and Asia.  The response from the state has been has been violent, brutal and repressive.

Since the 19th March the ESDMAD have been present in the city, and backed up by the police, military and undercover police operations, has rained down on strikers firing not only tear gas but on several occasions fire arms. Tear gas has repeatedly been fired at residential areas and in particular into the most vulnerable communities where it easily enters into Buenaventura’s traditional casas de palafitos (wooden houses on stilts) causing asphyxiation for babies and young children, many of whom have been rushed to the clinic on the backs of motorbikes in the early house of the mornings. Night after night the ESMAD has torn down meeting points to make way for the cargo trucks that enter and leave the city just before dawn.

Last night was a particularly bad night. We arrived at the Sabrosuras meeting point in El Dorado barrio shortly before midnight after reports of earlier attacks by the ESMAD. As we arrived we were greeted by at least 150 strikers, men, women, and children, chatting, drinking coffee, singing along to music. All was quiet for a couple of hours, but then at around 2am we got news from a meeting point further along the road that the ESMAD were on their way back.

Groups of young strikers prepared to defend themselves and the meeting point, committed to preventing the trucks from passing. They strengthen the makeshift road blocks of tree branches, tires and planks of wood, and set up shields made from billboards several hundred metres from the official meeting point were people of all ages were still gathered. From our vantage point we could see the public security forces slowly advancing, first a battering tank to take out the road blocks, then an ESMAD tank followed by ESMAD agents on foot, and behind them several policemen on motorbikes and more tanks, trucks and cars.  It felt like an army had been sent to overpower a couple of hundred unarmed protestors, with nothing but stones for self-defence.  

The first encounter was brief, the battering tank took out the road blocks in a matter of seconds and the ESMAD began firing tear gas scattering the protestors into the nearby streets. The convoy thundered on, creaking and moaning under the weight of so metal armour, easily reaching and passing the tents of the meeting point.  For a short time after they passed and continued down the road there was relative silence as protestors wearily made their way back to the main road. Then more ESMAD trucks and agents arrived and a two-hour confrontation ensued between ESMAD and a hundred or so mainly young people.

When the attack finally calmed down, the dust settled and most of the protestors had been scattered the cavalry arrived.  The raison d'être for all this violence. First an ESMAD tank, then police cars, then a line of 20 or so police on bikes ceremoniously ushered a procession of no less than 50 cargo trucks into the city. One after one the trucks thundered by as outraged bystanders shouted angrily at the drivers and ESMAD agents point blank shot tear gas at anyone who looked like they might try to stop the neoliberal caravan of profit as it made its way to the port.

The ESMAD hung around well after the trucks had passed through, still shooting the odd tear gas canister, revealing their immaturity as they hid behind walls, clearly enjoying playing at war while the city’s residents walked the streets attempting to go about their morning activities in peace.  Except it wasn’t a game and the scene really resembled one of occupation and war.  When the ESMAD finally moved out strikers and bystanders gathered on the sidewalks to mockingly cheer and clap the national heroes. The agents responded with equal scorn, taunting the crowds, laughing and putting their thumbs in the air.

The confrontations at El Dorado and Independencia barrios didn’t end there, they continued well into the morning, even as the Civic Strike Committee organised and planned for the day’s cultural activity, a march from El Dorado and other meeting towards the Isla de la Paz barrio located near the Via Alterna Interna.

Yes. Last night was a particularly bad night. There were numerous injuries from tear gas and a further six fire arms injuries confirmed so far.  Evidence was gathered and shared by strikers of empty tear gas canisters, bullets from army rifles, photos of armed, plain clothed officers in the crowds and videos of the ESMAD advancing and firing tear gas at the unarmed strikers and at the houses in the nearby streets. The voice of one young woman carried across the wind as she called from a balcony in a building engulfed with tear gas a few streets away, repeating over and over “murderers, murderers, you are killing us, murderers.”

As the strikes entered their 16th day in Buenaventura, and the Committee prepared for the arrival of government ministers this morning to present their reformed demands, the call they have been making for weeks for the government to remove the ESMAD forces and end the violence on the streets and in the communities of Buenaventura resonated more strongly than ever. For how can we negotiate agreements in the middle of a war?  The continued presence of the ESMAD, who in their own words, are here to “attack,” has made it impossible to negotiate a truly peaceful end to the strike, and demonstrates that the government has little intention of respecting the demands and rights of the community and is farm more concerned about protecting the private interests of the port.  Nevertheless, in the face of an indifferent government the people of Buenaventura have stayed strong and committed to this people-centred human rights and political process.  As the dialogues commenced in the afternoon of the 16th day, the community of Buenaventura continued to assert their right to march, strike and protest in the streets, to demand their fundamental human rights and to chant day after day and night after night that “el pueblo no se rinde carajo!” the people won’t give up!

The ongoing civic strike in Buenaventura is powerful example of people centered human rights in action by Esther Ojulari

The ongoing civic strike in Buenaventura is powerful example of people centered human rights in action by Esther Ojulari

26 May 2017

People centered human rights (Baraka, 2013) are those rights which emerge from locally grounded struggles against the multiple forms of oppression in the global capitalist world. Through People centered human rights (PCHR) processes oppressed peoples define the content and meaning of their rights as they demand structural transformation, justice and the dismantling of neo-colonial relations of domination.  The Afro-descendant and indigenous communities of Buenaventura and Chocó in Colombia’s pacific coast are doing just this as they uphold an ongoing civic strike has been in place since mid-May.

Why are the people of Buenaventura striking?

The mainly Afro-descendant and indigenous region of Buenaventura and the wider Pacific region of Colombia are rich in natural resources and biodiversity yet have some of the highest rates of poverty, unemployment and lack of basic services such education and health in the country.  Throughout the region, largescale mining and other neoliberal development projects threaten the very existence of communities and their ancestral lands, polluting rivers with mercury, destroying traditional livelihoods and displacing whole communities. The UN has reported that over 50% of the 78,839 hectares of land which suffers the impact of mining exploitation in Colombia is located in the Pacific region.  While private business profits from the region’s resources, the national government has long neglected to invest in infrastructure to guarantee the basic rights of the population.

The city of Buenaventura itself with a population of just over 400,000 people is home to the country’s most important international port, through which last year alone over 15,000,000 tons of cargo was imported and exported. Since the port was privatized in 1991, the vast majority of income generated goes straight into the pockets of private business owners from outside of the city, while the community suffers from a lack of investment and neglect. 64% of the population lives in poverty and 9.1% in extreme poverty.  The child mortality rate in Buenaventura is 27.6 per 1000. The sewage system covers only 60% of the city, and only 76% receives running water.  For most of the population that water arrives in homes for only a few hours a day and in some communities only a couple of times a week. The city’s public hospital was closed in 2015 leaving the population with access only to primary health care and meaning that patients often have to travel to other cities to receive adequate medical attention. Only 22% of the population have access to secondary education, and schools not only lack materials and infrastructure but resources to provide a culturally relevant education. The privatisation of the port contributed to a rise in unemployment as many of the jobs were given outsiders leaving an unemployment rate today of 62%.  Much of the working population are engaged in informal labour, with lack of job security and safe working conditions.

Over the past few years and in the context of economic plans to increase Colombia’s access to international trade, there have been several development projects to expand the capacity and infrastructure of port, including the construction of new terminals such TCBuen (Buenaventura Container Terminal) located near the communities of Inmaculada and Santa Fe on the mainland of Buenaventura.  These projects have meant widespread human rights violations for the traditional fishing communities living on the sea front.  Numerous families have been displaced to make way for new container parks, constructions have restricted freedom of movement and access to the coast and creeks where people fish, dragging of the sea bed to enable large container ships to dock is destroying the ecosystem contained in one of the worlds largest mangrove forests, and the 24 hour heavy activities of the container parks have led to the collapsing of houses and health problems among residents.  Locally based organisations such as Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN) have reported that violence, including massacres rose dramatically in the barrios nearest to the port expansion sites shortly before the construction began, leading to the displacement of many residents.  It is widely believed that the violence was a deliberate strategy to spread terror and make it easier for the company to buy up houses cheaply and push the community out.

People-centered human rights in Buenaventura

The people Buenaventura are therefore well aware that the human rights violations they face are a direct result of the government’s neoliberal economic model based on continuous growth, extractive industries and private profit and underpinned by structural racism that denies the humanity of black and indigenous lives in the name of profit.  In the face of these threats, and as part of a the wider Afro-descendant struggle for territorial and cultural rights in Colombia, the community of Buenaventura has been engaging in processes of resistance that can only be described as people centered human rights. Through participatory processes, community education, and mobilizations communities are reframing human rights in their own languages, rooting demands in local experiences and challenging structural racism and neoliberal oppression.  The community calls for basic rights to health, education, water and justice but central to their struggle is the right to territory; defined as the vital space in which they exist, live and maintain ancestral livelihoods and traditional cultural practices. Only through the realization of the collective right to territory can they exercise the rights to be, to live their identities as members of the Afro-descendant people, and to autonomy and political participation. For this community territory is life and life must not be sold for profit.  

The civic strike as PCHR

The civic strike is the most recent action in this long struggle for rights in Buenaventura, and the demands being made of the government bring together these locally defined ethno-territorial rights, rooted in the urgent situation facing the communities. The central demand of the strike is for the national government to declare a “state of social, economic and ecological emergency” in the city in accordance with article 215 of the 1991 Colombian Constitution.  This declaration, the Civic Strike Committee argues, would committee the government to allocate resources in order address eight key issues as a matter of priority:

  • Low, medium and high level health service provision, coverage, prevention and assistance and traditional medicine;

  • Recovery and conservation of degraded water basins and other strategic ecosystems;

  • Coverage, quality and relevance of basic, technical and university education;

  • Strengthening and mass promotion of cultural practices, sports and recreation;

  • Basic sanitation and infrastructure and public and community operation of public utilities;

  • Access to justice and reparations for individual and collective victims;

  • Territorial order in terms of the life and collective well-being with repair for the Buenaventura family;

  • Strengthen local and regional production and other political, legal and economic measures to ensure the generation of decent employment and income required by the family.

Over 11 days, while shops and business remained closed hundreds of thousands of members of the community have blocked the 6th Avenue, and Via Alterna main roads in and out of the port and city centre, marched in the streets, and taken part in a parade of boats in the waters surrounding the port, to peacefully call for a response from the national government to demands to guarantee their rights. In the face of violent repression and tear gas attacks by the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron), state imposed curfews, and helicopters intimidating the community day and night from the skies, people of all ages have not given into fear and have continued to take to the streets every day, clear in their objectives, shouting their demands and joining the voices of the civic strike also taking place in the Department of Chocó in the northern Pacific region.

 

An initial round of talks between the Civic Strike Committee and a government delegation on the third day of the strike in Buenaventura were suspended when the government did not meet the call to send a high-ranking delegation of Ministers to the negotiating table. A second round of talks took place on the 23rd and 24th May with a government delegation led by the newly named Minister of the Interior, Gillermo Rivera. Talks broke off into autonomous spaces on the 25th to consider proposals and give time for the government to seek a decision on the declaration of a State of Emergency.

 

In a commendable display of transparency and people-centred politics the dialogues between the Strike Committee and the government were transmitted live via local television and the internet. Yet as residents sat at home, watching the talks each day, and into the nights, under curfew with the helicopters still circling above, and tear gas being fired into vulnerable communities, it became increasingly obvious that the government had no interest in meeting the demands of the strikers. Indeed as talks resumed on Friday 26th May, in the wake of a heavy night of attacks and arrests in the communities, the Minister confirmed that the state of emergency would not be declared. After several hours of discussion he left the table, leaving the dialogues to be suspended yet again and causing indignation and frustration among the Strike Committee and the community watching at home. As Strike Committee member Victor Hugo Vidal stated on Tuesday during the dialogues, if the government is unable to declare a state of emergency in Buenaventura then where else in the country could such a situation be declared?!

 

The situation in Buenaventura is urgent as everyone who lives here knows only too well.  But thanks to ongoing resistance and PCHR process facilitated and supported by local organisations, local people are not only aware of the injustice of their situation, but are increasingly aware of their human rights and of the neoliberal economic structural context in which these rights are being violated.  As such they are increasingly adding their voices to the collective demands for the realisation of their rights and for structural change for themselves and future generations. The energy, spirit and mass participation in the civic strikes over the past ten days is testimony to how this PCHR movement in Buenaventura has enabled a collective sense of ownership in locally grounded, transformative political processes, as strikers take to the streets to demand that the rights of the people must be prioritised over the private business interests of the port.

 

Esther Ojulari – Bio

Esther Ojulari is a human rights researcher, activist and practitioner whose work focuses mainly on racial justice and the rights of oppressed minority groups. Esther has ten years’ experience working in NGOs and human rights organisations, and has worked for the past five years as a consultant at the UN OHCHR Anti-Discrimination unit supporting the work of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African descent in the context of the UN Decade for people of African descent. She holds a Masters with distinction in human rights from the University of London and is currently carrying out doctoral research into the People Centred Human Rights processes of Afro-descendant communities in the city of Buenaventura on the Pacific Coast of Colombia. Esther has lived in Colombia for the past four years where, as well as doctoral research she accompanies, she teaches at the University of Valle-Buenaventura and supports the work of local Afro-descendant and human rights organisations in processes and demands for rights, reparations and justice.

 

An Update from Buenaventura, Colombia by Charo Mina Rojas

An Update from Buenaventura, Colombia by Charo Mina Rojas

Greetings from AfroColombian territories.

As you are informed, the community form the city-port of Buenaventura has been on strike for 10 days now, demanding the State presence they have lack for centuries. Buenaventura since later 1998 has been under control of paramilitary forces that committed horrendous crimes with a disproportional focus on women and youth and have endured centuries of racist treatment. 

Buenaventura is a community of around 500.000 people, mostly Black, with 80% poverty levels, 60% unemployment, extremely limited access to health attention, huge school drops, scarce water service cut off 126 days/year. However, enormous investment has been made to expand the capacity of the port and to build a touristic mega-project that would displace families from seven neighborhoods. Buenaventura is highly contaminated by the open-sky storage of coal, most of the areas affected are the same areas that face gentrification by the ambitious projects where economic interest prevail over the human beings and their rights.

After many urgent calls from the human rights organizations, catholic church, union organizations and coalitions, teachers and even the local commerce, all decided to initiate an indefinite civic strike that started on May 16. The community mobilized performing cultural activities to ensure a peaceful and organize demonstration and have sustained culturally oriented activities while blocking the main roads that access to the port. Having peaceful intentions, elder and children were part of the mobilizations. On May 19, the Ministry of Defense order the special force ESMAD to attack the peaceful demonstrators. The ESMAD responded with a massive attack with tear gas and ribber bullets. The indiscriminate and vicious attack had as result several children severely affected by the ingestion of the tear gas that needed to be hospitalized and a chaotic situation that brought an opportunity for  the unscrupulous to ravage the city. We presume that many of the responsible are part of those armed groups that have dominated in Buenaventura for more than a decade, considering how this situation occurred and how many citizens try to hold back the pillage. Despite the massive presence of police and ESMAD, these forces were apparently unable to control the pillage, or pay little attention to this criminal situation, while focus on the peaceful demonstrators who were not even responding to the attack with violence.

Since May 19, the ESMAD have been attacking systematically the groups at the roadblocks, but the last two days and specially last night, these forces took chance of the circumstances and attacked neighborhoods, one of them Juan XXIII, launching tear gas to the houses at 12:00 a.m while people was sleeping.  The human rights committee of the Paro Civico reported families affected by tear gas and many youth injured. Black women, being disproportionally affected by the economic, social, environmental and the violent situation in the port, and being more than half of the population, are at the receiving disproportional end this critical situation.  People reported shuttings but we haven't been able to confirm if it was with rubber or real  bullets. The truth is that the national government has responded to Buenaventura with a extreme presence of military, marine, police and special forces, heavy machinery and vicious attacks given a sense that the government is treating the situation as a situation of war.

Today, the attacks in neighborhoods are victimizing even babies, please see attached video. This brutality must end.

The human rights team of PCN urgently call your attention and respectfully ask that your organization exhorts the President Juan Manuel Santos, Peace laureate 2016, to immediately order the ESMAD, police and military forces to restrain from attacking the civilians and better ensure effectively that the dialogues can continue without hostile repression.

We appeal to your leading voice regarding racial and social justice and peace to urge for the respect of civilians, particularly women with small children, who are not directly involved on the peaceful strike. 

In a country preparing to build peace, it's contradictory, even hypocritical, that the response to peaceful and urgent request by a community desperate to be treat with respect and recognition of their fundamental rights to live in dignity, is a war-like threaten. It is hypocritical that the Peace Nobel Prize call barbaric the actions in Egypt while is allowing this vicious attack on innocent and peaceful people. It is obvious that profit is more important than human beings and their rights. We understand that President Santos is determine to stop loosing money by all means necessary. We see as a historic strategy to use violence to displace and expropriate Black people from their territories, sough-after by multinationals and government, strategy that today takes disproportional magnitude in Buenaventura. 

Please help to stop this barbaric respond from the Colombian government. Remind President Santos that his message todays is totally contradictory with the efforts he shows internationally to build peace. There cannot be social justice without racial justice. What happens in Buenaventura is absolutely deplorable, it's a crime. 

National authorities are meeting with the Coordination Committee since Sunday. The Paro Cívico has identified eight main demands (please see attachment) and have organized groups by thematic in order to give specific attention to each point. In the middle of this negotiations the national government continued with hostile responses that don't help the process. Buenaventura is decided to continue the strike until clear agreements are reached based on those demands. This calls for a real political will from the national authorities to look for clear responses and solutions and real commitment to comply with what is accorded. The Colombian government has a historic reputation of neglecting agreements reached in the past and particularly the administration of President Santos has been slow on complying with the agreements with indigenous, Afro-descendants and campesinos from the past mobilization on 2016.

As a resonant voice against racism and racial discrimination and justice we urge a letter and calls directed to President Santos, the new Ministry of Interior  Guillermo Rivera; the Ministry of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas and Anibal Fernandez De Soto vice ministry of defense, and the National Ombudsman, Carlos Alfonso Negret, requesting that peace in Buenaventura is restored and command the military, police and special forces to stop the attacks against the community; urge the Colombian government to show a real political will with the community in Buenaventura, ensuring that the conciliation happens in a peaceful and respectful manner, ensuring the presence of high level authorities capable and decided to take decisions and bring clear response to the demands and expectations of the community and ensuring the safety of the leading voices in this process, including immediate protective measures for those who need it.

In light of the perilous situation the special forces are putting in the community, we also urge you to consider an urgent mission to Buenaventura to evaluate the human rights situation in the port. 

Finally, we ask you to exhort President Santos to visit Buenaventura and in person assure the community his real commitment to effectively address the humanitarian, economic, environmental and social crisis affecting Buenaventura. The conditions in Buenaventura are part of the issues we expect to be addressed during the implementation process of the Peace Agreement, the accords reached with the Negotiation Committee are important step to start with.

You can find more about the #ParoCivicoBUENAVENTURA (Spanish) at 

bit.ly/2qk13kp

If you have any questions or require more information please do not hesitate in contacting me at 3143708931 or ecn@renacientes.net.

 

PCN human rights committee greatly appreciate your urgent attention to this critical matter. 

 

We look forward to hearing from you soon on this very sensitive matter.

 

Respectfully,

 

Charo Mina Rojas

Human Rights Committee

International Working Group 

Black Community Process in Colombia -PCN

@renacientes

@AfroColombians