La Toma, Colombian July 28, today the Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network released a report that revealed the continuation of illegal mining activity by “unknown” companies in violation of a recent order from the Colombian Constitutional Court that declared all mining activity that was not approved by local community councils and did not conform to traditional mining methods of Afro-Colombian communities, to be illegal. As a member of the verification mission, I was able to witness directly the devastating impact on the physical environment by mining methods that used giant excavators that torn holes in the mountain side and dumped harmful chemicals into the Ovejas River, the main source of water for the communities located just 50 feet away from the mining area. I also had a chance to see how fear from Para-military elements that work directly with these companies and rich individuals can grip a community and even a municipal government that is tasked with the responsibility to enforce the law of the land.
Climbing down the side of a mountain through lush vegetation along rock filled paths in order to get to the site of the illegal mining without revealing our presence, our guide from the local community would only accompany us half way down because she did not want to be revealed as the one guiding us into the encampment. Once we approached the outskirts of the encampment after more than an hour of hiking down the mountain, the workers who could now see us approaching stopped working and retreated back to their makeshift housing that consisted of strips of black and blue tarp, crudely constructed wood planks and ropes to hold it all together. Once we got to the site we were welcomed with cold drinks by the few women who stayed in the cooking area. At this point a few of the men joined us under the tarp that served as their cooking area and the organizers from the Proceso Communidades de Negras (PCN) conducted a meeting with the workers explaining who we were and why we were there. The workers, some of whom it appeared had been part of other illegal mining operations in other parts of the country, were aware that using the giant excavators to mine for gold not only destroyed the environment but were illegal. But their claim was that they were brought in by the owners of the land and told that there would be no problems and assured that they would be protected. When asked the name of the company that they worked for they claimed that they did not know the name of the company.
To some readers, this may seemed like a minor drama but for the Afro-Colombian people of La toma and Afro-Colombian communities throughout the country, the fight to maintain control over their land has had life and death consequences. The hundreds of thousands of displaced Afro-Colombians who now find themselves in the cities of Bonaventura, Cali and Bogota lost the fight to remain on the land and the dozens of Afro-Colombian organizers, political representatives and community leaders who have been tortured, assassinated and disappeared for daring to fight for the integrity of their people, culture and land are the testaments to the culture of violence, lawlessness and impunity that is the reality of Colombia. That is why we document situations like La Toma and call on our friends to assist in putting pressure on the authorities at every level of government to meet their responsibilities to respect the rights and protect the integrity of Afro-Colombian people. It is why we fight against efforts like the Free Trade Agreement ( FTA) with the United States that will give even more impetus to efforts to displace Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people’s from their lands that will now be even more valuable for export production to the US. And it is why we stand in solidarity with the Afro-Colombian people who are building their power to resist and to advance their interests independently of all outside forces.
The Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network report can be found at http://transafrica.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/ACSN-La-Toma-072811.pdf
Ajamu Baraka is a US based human right activist and past founding director of the US Human Rights Network, a network of over three hundred organizations committed to applying international human rights standards to the governmental processes and laws of the United States. Ajamu participated as a member of the verification mission in his capacity as a member of the Board of Directors of the US based Center for Constitutional Rights and the Latin American and Caribbean Community Center.