In past months, the Residential College organized a visit of Marino Córdoba, legal representative for AFRODES (National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians).

    In 1991, the assembly debating the current Colombian Constitution spoke for the first time of the need for recognition of traditional identity and land rights for Colombian Afro- and Native Americans. Acknowledging the existence of a diverse, multiethnic, and multicultural population was of utmost importance in a country which has for centuries taught its children a history loaded with the origins and cultures of the European colonizers of the land but nearly nothing of the Native Americans colonized nor of the Africans enslaved and brought in steadily beginning in 1520.

    The 1991 Constitution is, in many ways, one of the most progressive constitutions in the world today. Organizations such as the Proceso Comunidades Negras (Black People's Processes) and the Organización Campesina del Bajo Atrato (Small Farmers Organization of the Lower Atrato—OCABA), of which Mr. Marino Córdoba was a prominent member at the time, played an important role in advocating the long overdue recognition of Afro-Colombians as a "distinct ethnic group" with a right to territorial autonomy and development according to its own cultural values. This was a significant step in undermining a process by which one of the largest populations of African descent in all Latin America—one which has been building the nation for more than 400 years and has nowadays important representatives in politics, sports, music, and in all other scenarios of national life—had been silenced and made invisible, a process aimed at exclusion and whitening initiated with the first republican document of 1819 and continued through the Law of Abolition of Slavery in 1851, which conceded citizenship to "blacks" but didn't go as far as calling them "free men and women."

    Despite the important legal rights achieved through it, the 1991 Constitution has also given rise to new and deadly challenges, placing many Colombians in a quagmire. This is especially true for inhabitants of the territory which stretches along the 1,300 km on the Pacific Coast, along the numerous rivers, and in the vast valleys of the rainforest region of El Chocó. Three-fourths of these people (around 2 million) are of African descent.

    The department of Chocó was created in 1945, in a region which some historians contend used to be a broad palenque, where a large population of cimarrones (fugitive slaves) like the legendary Benkos Biojó fought for their freedom and independence. Governmental neglect and discrimination, a pattern of displacement and the ransacking of natural resources have made of Chocó one of those regions where immense poverty and enormous wealth coexist in contradiction. It lacks all infrastructure to meet basic human needs, health care is poor or non-existent, infant mortality rises to 110 per 1,000 live births, per capita annual income is $500 (compared to a national average of $1700), and access to education is extremely limited (2 out of every 100 Afro-Colombians go on to college, and mostly to the lowest ranked institutions). At the same time, Chocó boasts one of the greatest biodiversities in the world, untapped oceanic resources and deposits of strategic materials like gold, platinum, magnesium, uranium and plutonium.

    It is not the modest peasant economy that armed factions of the Colombian conflict are seeking to control in Chocó, but the territories which will house huge economic projects and also serve as strategic passages for the profitable 2-way traffic of drugs (and the chemicals needed for the production, which are largely provided by U.S. industries) and illegal weapons. The IMF / World Bank Structural adjustment that took place in Colombia throughout the 1990s gave way to policies which determined that Coastal communities would become beach resorts with megahotels, forests would be harvested for timber, and minerals would be extracted from mines and riverbeds. Projects to tap the genetic diversity of the region for pharmaceuticals and biotechnology also emerged, as well as plans for the building of an inter-oceanic canal. Taking advantage of a legal device which states that Collective title expires if the community is not there to claim it, the army and paramilitaries—whose connections have long been signaled and underscored by international organizations—and guerrilla groups have massacred entire communities or forced their displacement through the use of terror or blockades of food and medicine in order to depopulate their traditional ancestral lands, denying their rights to active neutrality and territorial autonomy. The U.S. has also made presence in the conflict in both official (hundreds of troops deployed for "training" missions) and unofficial numbers (Dyncorp and other companies hire militias of actively involved "private contractors" like those recently brought to the spotlight by events in Iraq).

    This is what has been going on over the last ten years in places like Riosucio, where in 1996 Mr. Córdoba was targeted by paramilitaries and forced to flee for his and his family's life along with those other members of the community who were not massacred. At the time Mr. Córdoba worked as a special advisor to community councils which assumed administration of collective land titles, member of the Peace Council and Mediator in Alternative Dispute Resolution in the municipality. This happened just days before a law transferring land to the community was to pass. Similar events occurred in Juradó, Bojayá, Quibdó, San Juan and Naya Rivers, to name only a few places in Chocó that have contributed to the scandalous death rates and the massive forced displacement that now nears 3 million people in a country of less than 45 million, making Colombia the worst scenario for these occurrences worldwide. A large percentage of those internally displaced are Afro-Colombians. And for those who choose to cross the border into Panamá and other neighboring countries, repatriation without guarantees for safety is tantamount to a death sentence.

    Three years ago, distinguished documentary filmmaker Marta Rodríguez was on the U-M campus presenting Nunca Más/Never Again, one of the latest in her works on ethnocide in Colombia, which features the displaced people in Chocó and Urabá regions. Massacres of Afro-Colombians were then and still are taking place in Chocó and elsewhere in Colombia. Victims of this type of violence like Mr. Córdoba, first President and legal representative for the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), have taken upon themselves the task of traveling around the world as means of counter-information, giving audiences like us the privilege of witnessing the events that keep going on largely unreported by the world media. Mr. Córdoba has received numerous peace awards and invitations to speaking tours in various countries of Latin America as well as in the United States and South Africa. In 2001, he ran as a candidate to the City Council of Bogotá, representing the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who have in recent years swelled the population of the marginal neighborhoods of the capital. Shortly after, he was wounded in a new attempt against his life and was forced to flee the country following the failure of the Colombian Government to provide the necessary conditions to guarantee his and his family's life and livelihood, even when this was explicitly requested by the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States. He is now residing temporarily and seeking asylum in the United States, where he works and travels to denounce the deplorable situation for human and civil rights in his homeland, and in particular, to garner support for the cause of Afro-Colombian communities besieged by the violence of war.

    Felipe Gomez is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at U-M.