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Indigenous and Afro-Colombian land defenders at risk from business interests backed by paramilitary forces

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Indigenous and Afro-Colombian land and water defenders are facing increased risks of violence due to commercial exploitation and the ongoing conflict in Colombia.

The department (province) of Chocó in western Colombia includes six Indigenous communities and 12 collective Afro-Colombian territories.

With the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in this area beginning in 2016-17, right-wing Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) paramilitary forces and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) have battled for control of this territory, notably in Curvaradó and the wider Bajo Atrato and Urabá region in Chocó.

The fighting has meant armed incursions into these territories, a restricted ability to farm, and severe constraints on mobility and the ability to access needed medicines.

On April 2, El Espectador also reported (in Spanish), "'The armed groups have control over the rivers and restrict the entry of food into the area,' said Helfer Andrade, coordinator of the indigenous peoples of Chocó."

These are all deep issues of concern for the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) which has received protective accompaniment from Peace Brigades International-Colombia Project since 1994.

Amazon Watch has reported, "According to CIPJ, cattle ranchers and palm oil and banana growers have counted on the support of the AGC to intimidate, threaten and kill the community leaders who are defending their land from the expansion of agribusiness and commercial logging interests in the region."

The Pulitzer Center has noted, "Rich in natural resources, over three-quarters of the land in Chocó is covered with tropical forests. But the forests are under threat from mining-related deforestation. Chocó is also Colombia’s top gold-producing region."

In fact, as highlighted by Amazon Watch, "Chocó is where almost half of all the forest cover loss in Colombia from mining activities happens."

Amnesty International adds, "Over the years, the Colombian authorities have granted licenses to mining and other companies looking to exploit [the lands that people have been displaced from] and their vast natural resources."

In her recent piece for NACLA (the North American Congress on Latin America), Chelsey Dyer writes, "After decades of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian organizing, the government enacted a new constitution in 1991 and Law 70 [in 1993], which recognized Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities as distinct ethnic groups with the right to land titles."

Dyer highlights though that this has clashed with the Colombian government at the same time embracing neoliberal economics and making ancestral lands more available to transnational corporations and business interests.

She notes, "This dynamic continues to play out today -- as communities vie for land titles to maintain control over their territory, they face pressure from armed actors and big businesses who seek to use the land to implement extractivist projects, construct industry, or run drugs."

Amazon Watch has noted that land rights advocate Maria Chaverra has been "singled out as a target by paramilitary hitmen and industrial agriculturalists."

It adds, "Chaverra contends that the removal of land defenders benefits the industrial agricultural landowners who took advantage of Colombia's years-long armed conflict and their connections to paramilitary groups to expand their commercial ventures into the region after the farmer families were displaced."

Within this context of armed conflict and commercial exploitation is crushing poverty. The Pulitzer Center notes, "According to national statistics collected in 2015, 65.9 percent of people in Chocó live under the poverty line and 40 percent live in conditions of extreme poverty."

On March 29, leaders from river basins in Bajo Atrato traveled to Bogotá to share their concerns with representatives of the embassies of the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Norway, Ireland, Germany and others.

On April 4-5, more than 75 representatives of Colombian, European and civil society organizations convened in Brussels to discuss the ongoing serious human rights crisis in Colombia and the failure to fully implement the peace agreement.

And on April 5, human rights defenders from Colombia and Europe asked the International Criminal Court based in The Hague to investigate the killing of social leaders in Colombia.

The struggle for peace with justice, for land rights and respect for Indigenous and Afro-Colombian rights, continues in Colombia.

Brent Patterson is a political activist and writer.

Image: Peace Brigades International

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