As Colombia’s peace process moves into its 39th round of talks they are facing a rough patch, as public support has decreased and combat operations throughout Afro-Colombian territories have intensified. This intensification prompted the Colombia Director of the United Nations Refugee Agency to warn of a serious risk to the process, and unsettling days followed as the FARC continued attacks. In response the government’s lead negotiator Humberto de la Calle stated that peace talks “are reaching an end, for better or for worse.”
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Fortunately, recent days have seen a silver lining emerge: the guarantor countries and countries accompanying the talks (Cuba, Norway, Chile and Venezuela) called for a de-escalation of actions by all parties, a call which ultimately led to the FARC’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire beginning July 20, and the FARC’s and the government’s July 12 joint communiqué on an agreement to speed up the peace process and to de-escalate the conflict.
Negotiators will return to the table with the goal of reaching a bilateral ceasefire or agreement that can strengthen and provide renewed vigor to the peace process. To this end, affording marginalized groups a seat at the table will be vital to ensuring the talks’ success. One important group excluded so far, the Afro-Colombian population, is fighting to have its needs and proposals heard.
The Afro-Colombian community has been disproportionately victimized by the conflict, with Afro-Colombian territories frequently at the epicenter of combat operations. Some of the biggest setbacks in the peace process so far have occurred in regions where Afro-Colombians live, like General Ruben Dario Alzate’s kidnapping in November 2014, and recent attacks on Colombia’s infrastructure that left the port city of Buenaventura without power for several days. Despite these widely known facts, this community has been left out of the peace process.
Afro-Colombian territories will be at the crux of agrarian, drug and demobilization efforts stemming from the peace accords that will rely on community leaders for successful implementation. If included in the peace process, it would represent a rare opportunity for this group to be front and center in an important moment of Colombian history, something that has not happened in the past. As Marino Cordoba, International Coordinator of Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) explains, “the participation of Afro-Colombians will represent the third historical moment for our community to participate in a turning point of our own history.”
The other two moments, the abolition of slavery and the legal recognition of Afro-Colombian rights through the 1991 Constitution, did not involve direct participation of Afro-Colombians and left them in the shadows of a pivotal moment in Colombia. That being said, in 1991 Colombia did adopt one of the most progressive constitutions in the Americas. Beyond recognizing the multiethnic and pluricultural character of Colombia, the 1991 Constitution granted differentiated rights to minority groups and promised to produce follow-up legislation specifically aimed at improving the lives of Afro-Colombians.
This provision and a subsequent law, Law 70, became the foundation for collective land titles, economic and social development initiatives, and the rights to ethno-specific education and health services. Most importantly, Law 70 defines the collective organization and representation of Afro-Colombian communities through the Consejos Comunitarios, thereby establishing legally recognized bodies that safeguard their territory against economic, governmental and armed actors seeking to exploit Afro-Colombian lands by requiring prior consultation with community leaders.
Afro-Colombian communities have already created a platform that has brought together some of the largest representative organizations for this population, such as The Afro-Colombian National Authority (ANAFRO), Choco Interethnic Solidarity Forum (FISCH), Afro-Colombian National Conference (CNOA), Process of Black Communities in Colombia (PCN), Afro-Colombian Labor Council (CLAF) and the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) in order to create the Afro-Colombian National Peace Council (CONPA). To ensure that its proposals are taken into account during the peace process and the post-conflict phase, CONPA seeks to build collective proposals and consensus among participating organizations, which will be promoted within the institutional mechanisms that have either been, or will be, developed as part of the negotiations in Havana.
On June 24, CONPA released a statement that, among other things, demanded two very important points: firstly, that the negotiations in Havana take into consideration the Afro-Colombian perspective by receiving a delegation made up of various Afro-Colombian communities, Palenquero and Raizal people; and secondly, that a sub-commission be established in the talks that jointly addresses, in consultation with Afro-Colombians, indigenous and other minority communities guaranteeing their rights in the agreements and in their implementation.
Although it is true that the parties have welcomed five delegations of victims, many of which have included Afro-Colombians, these delegations are not exclusively representative of the Afro-Colombian community. Each member of the delegation has presented a personal perspective of impact the conflict has had on them. Nevertheless, by welcoming victims to the peace process, parties in the negotiations have recognized victims as major stakeholders of the process. The participation of affected communities will only reinforce this premise.
As members of the CONPA explained to various policy makers during their visit to Washington D.C. on May 2015, the participation of Afro-Colombian communities will be essential in the implementation of the accords. The efforts of Consejos Comunitarios in educating and serving as a resource to prevent any conflicts in the delicate years following the approval of a final peace accord will be vital. More importantly, if consulted during the talks, the quality of decision-making will be greater since the ability of community leaders to contribute, organize and educate about the impact of the decisions being made in Havana can have positive repercussions for a process that at times suffers from public fatigue.
A decision to include the Afro-Colombian community in the peace process through mechanisms such as CONPA would signify an important turning point from the commonplace lack of government consultation with ethnic communities, as well as the abuses committed against this community by armed groups.