WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
29 Apr 2015 | Commentary | News

Afro-Colombian Leader in Cauca Speaks Out: ‘This Situation That Eats Away at Me’

By Francia Márquez Mina,

I am an Afro-Colombian woman. I was born in one of the mountains of the province of Cauca, one of the worst hit by the war in this country. My ancestors were enslaved in order to mine and farm for the Spanish crown, which to this very day maintains its reign.

For many years we have lived with our campesino[1] and indigenous brothers and sisters, without conflict; nonetheless, this systematic war has always beaten us down. First there was colonization, the so-called “conquest”, which was nothing but the pillage of the wealth of these lands.

Then there was also a so-called “independence”, but in reality it was only the dividing of spoils left behind by the Spaniards. That is to say, it was a distribution of spoils amongst the heirs of the Spanish crown, which in this country added up to no more than 10 families, the same ones that still control this country today, and who benefit from the war.

Not a day goes by when I don’t ask myself: “Do the lives of Afro-descendant, indigenous, and campesino communities matter for this country?”

Like many other women, young and old, as well as men and hundreds of thousands of families, a few months ago I had to flee my home because my two sons and I were declared military targets by armed groups. My sons had to leave their studies, as well as their classmates with whom they grew up, learned to fish, to swim, to work the land, and to mine [gold], among so many other things.

We have had to endure all of this because of our love for our land, our love for seeing a plantain tree blossom, of enjoying a sunny day for fishing, to have our families nearby; because we have defended our right to remain in the place where we grew up and we don’t want to leave because this land is of our grandmothers and grandfathers, and it can also be of our granddaughters and grandsons.  Our land is a place to dream of a dignified future. But we had to secretly flee, even though we owed nothing to anyone, simply because we dared speak up against the daily abuse that we black, indigenous, and campesino communities of the Norte del Cauca[2] endure due to the economic interests in our territories. Armed groups declared us military targets, and that’s why we had to abandon the organic plantain, sugarcane, and greens that we sowed. They have all dried up now, that effort has died; I had felt proud of it, because together with my sons and my partner we were showing the community that we could live a peaceful life in our land, growing our own food.

Maybe that’s why they persecute us, because we want an autonomous life rather than a dependent one; because we want a life where we don’t have to beg, where we don’t have to be victims.

And now I have been displaced, and I seem to have lost my way, and more so knowing that that going back will not be easy, more so given this absurd war, which began not 60 but 400 years ago, and that for all our efforts, will continue filling our rivers with blood, with the blood of those of us who have been kept down.

When we arrived in this concrete jungle, my sons were amazed and exclaimed, “NOOOO! Mami, that plantain costs one thousand pesos! That is too expensive!” Because they know that when we were on our land, eating a plantain was free, at least in monetary terms, and if a neighbor had plantain, he would give us some, even a whole bunch if he had it.

The day before yesterday I felt profoundly frustrated. I couldn’t sleep at night, I kept thinking: What can we do to stop the war?  What more must we endure? I wonder how the people who live in the highlands of my mountain are doing?

I mourned for the death of the soldiers,[3] because unfortunately they are our brothers, or cousins or nephews who couldn’t go to college or get a job and whose only choice is to go fight a war that is not theirs, and who don’t even know their own origins. Many call it defending the homeland, but I ask myself, “what homeland?”  Whose homeland are they talking about if since slavery until today the same 10 families who think themselves heir to the Spanish crown have held the economic power of this country and have shown no regard for our lives? They have called us savages, slaves, uncivilized, minorities, hillbillies… and all of that has helped justify their war.

This is why all day yesterday we heard about the patriotic heroes on the media, who in reality are campesinos being used to guard the economic interests of those 10 families. Many people are saying, with a deep, deep hate emanating from their hearts, “Mr. President, you must order bombardments [against the FARC].”

But I think it’s very irresponsible to demand that those territories be bombarded; those territories are not empty. Little boys, little girls, women, elderly folk, young folk, and families live there, all of them people who have nothing to do with this absurd war. But of course the people who [call for bombardments] live in the cities and they have never been caught in crossfire; they have no idea what it’s like to have helicopters shooting rounds above your house. They are people who don’t know what it’s like to go to your farm to do your weeding and feel your plow pulling on the chord of a landmine that had been buried there and that will end up blowing your life into pieces, just like happened last year to a campesino in Alsacia. They are people who don’t know what it’s like to live in an area without electricity, without drinking water, without phone lines, and constantly be confined.  Those are the people who say, “Mr. President, you must order the bombardments.”

War is war, no matter where it comes from. We should be demanding real peace in our territories. Cauca has been hit hard by the violence, sometimes by the FARC, sometimes by paramilitaries, sometimes by the state, and no one cares. No one has stopped long enough to realize that we blacks, indigenous, and campesinos end up paying the price.

There will be no peace with institutional corruption and forced displacement; there will be no peace with death threats to communities and their leaders; there will be no peace with bombardments in our territories; there will be no peace with large-scale gold mining. The engines of development only generate misery, hunger, pollution, war, and death. There will be no peace with the media providing dis-information. And having the largest jail in Latin America, in Jamundí, will also not bring peace.

Peace means respect for life and for the ancestral territories of the Afro-descendant, indigenous, and campesino communities. It means that Colombia has the largest university in Latin America where students are not kicked out of classrooms when they can’t afford to pay tuition. Peace means that in Bogotá and in all of Colombia we won’t be killed for being black or indigenous.[4] Peace means that our politicians do not steal the funds from the health care system, that women’s rights are respected, and that we are not tortured and sexually abused.  It means autonomy, and respect for difference and for ancestral knowledge. It means a transformation of the development model which, at the end of the day, is the cause of so much war, not only in Colombia but across the world.


[1] Subsistence or small-scale farmers, typically of mixed ancestry.
[2] Northern region of the Cauca province in southwest Colombia.
[3] On April 15, 10 soldiers were killed in what was reported to be an attack by the FARC guerrillas, apparently breaking a unilateral ceasefire (from launching offensive attacks) as part of on-going peace negotiations. See more here: http://colombiareports.co/10-soldiers-killed-in-southwest-colombia-farc-attack/