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.