Cauca and the Afro-Colombian Renaissance

by Bill Weinberg

Heading south in a “chiva” mini-bus from the teeming and chaotic city of Cali, the road crosses into the southern department of Cauca—one of the most conflicted in Colombia—as suburbs and industrial sprawl gradually give way to small campesino plots and extensive haciendas where cattle graze. On the cusp of this urban-rural divide lies Villa Rica, a community of some 15,000 African descendants. On a wall near where the chiva drops me and my photographer off is a mural depicting Black youth studying, building, playing musical instruments. The legend reads LA JUVENTUD NO VA A LA GUERRA—Youth Don´t Go to the War. It was painted by a group of Villa Rica´s young residents this July 20, Colombia´s independence day.

On the southern edge of metropolitan Cali, Villa Rica must contend with both the urban and rural manifestations of Colombia´s endemic violence— the gang warfare that terrorizes the city barrios and the dialectic of retaliatory bloodshed between guerillas and paramilitary groups that reigns in the countryside. But in Villa Rica, it is the youth—who are most impacted by the violence—that are on the frontlines of resisting it and finding alternatives.

Juan Carlos Gonzalez, now 23, helped found the group Colombia Joven—Young Colombia—when he was only 12. He does some construction work for money, but devotes far more time to his community activism. A young man with an almost relentlessly serious demeanor—in contrast to his friends who joke and sing as they guide us on a tour of the community—Gonzalez explains how Colombia Joven sees cultural revival and recovery of economic self-sufficiency as the keys to an exit from increasing embroilment in the region´s armed conflicts.
“We came together to address unemployment, violence, human rights,” he says. “We have drawn up a development plan for this region of Cauca, based on local micro-enterprises. We want to recuperate values of love and respect to halt the disintegration of families. We want to empower youth so they wont be recruited by armed groups.”

Under Article 55 of Colombia´s 1991 constitution, the Afro-Colombians are recognized as having local jurisdictional authority of the same kind that the indigenous peoples were given by the same constitutional reform. But acheiving real autonomy has been a challenge—especially for communities, such as Villa Rica, outside the Afro-Colombian heartland along the Pacific coast in Choco department. Gonzalez is cynical about the officially-instated Afro-Colombian autonomy. “Its a lie, the state doesn´t respect it,” he says—citing especially the military presence on Afro-Colombian lands in spite of community wishes.

Villa Rica became a self-governing municipality in 1999 as a “fruit of the social struggle,” according to Gonzalez. Before that it was part of mestizo-dominated Santander de Quilichao municipality. Santander has large Indian and Afro-Colombian minorities, but the leaders have always been mestizos. A Black mayor elected in 1998 was promptly removed on corruption charges. After this, the Villa Rica residents began petitioning the Cauca government for a referendum on remunicipalization. The referendum was held the following year, and creation of an independent municipality was overwhelmingly approved by Villa Rica´s residents. Villa Rica´s current Mayor Maria Edis Dinas is a community leader and former Cauca department representative who had led road blockades in the ´80s to pressure for potable water projects and recuperation of usurped lands.

Villa Rica now has its own hospital, but still has no potable water. A truck comes once a week to bring drinkable water; what comes out of tap is contaminated by both biological and industrial pollutants. But the overriding concern for the new municipality is lack of economic opportunity.
There is some agriculture in Villa Rica, with a few residents growing platano, sugar and cacao on small plots to sell in local markets. But with inadequate lands, most youth find work in a nearby industrial park—or join armed groups. The ultra-right paramilitary militias pay the best—but indoctrinate their young recruits with a depraved insensitivity to human life. Gonzalez says paramilitary recruits are literally paid by the head. “They give them chainsaws to cut off the heads and limbs of their victims as proof of the kill,” he says. “They bring them back and are paid for each death.”

Colombia Joven sees recovery of local lands traditionally worked by the region´s African descendants as critical to the struggle against violence and paramilitarization. Under 1993´s Law 70, the empowering legislation of Article 55, Afro-Colombians have the right to recover traditional lands and hold them collectively, in a system similar to the Indian “resguardos” or reservations. In Caloto municipality, to south of Villa Rica, Pilamo Hacienda—once worked by African slaves—is now controlled by an Afro-Colombian community council. The land was first occupied by the descendants of the former slaves in the 1980s, and was titled as an inalienable communal holding—with no right to resale—under Law 70 in 1994. It is now producing fruit, cacao and cattle.

Just outside Villa Rica´s urban center—within the municipality and across the road from the industrial park—lies the former slave-labor cacao plantation of La Bolsa, now a cattle ranch. Juan Carlos and his friends walk us out there, and the expanse of vacant, verdant land contrasts both the tired and overworked campesino plots and shoe-box factories that surround it. We walk through the gate despite the menacing barks of guard dogs that surround the stately and palatial old hacienda house in the middle of the fields. As we wait in a drive-way shaded by centuries-old orchid-laden trees, a young mestizo boy comes out. Gonzalez explains to him that we are journalists who want to see the slave-era relics on the hacienda. But we are told that the patron is not around now, and we will have to return later.

We cross back out the gate. But Gonzalez and his friends lead us down the road and across a barbed-wire fence onto La Bolsa lands. We cross a field and arrive at a patch of trees that shade a cluster of decrepit gave markers of brick and cement. The most recent dates are from the 1930s. The oldest bear no visible markings. Gonzalez tells us that this is where generations of La Bolsa´s slaves and their descendants—the ancestors of Villa Rica´s inhabitants—are buried.
Why haven´t you retaken the hacienda, and claimed it under Law 70?, I ask. For the first time, Gonzalez cracks a wry smile. “That´s a good question,” he admits. He faults lack of education about histoy and land rights under the old Santander municipal government. “Our ancestors struggled for the land and understood their history, but they didn´t have a law. We have a law, but we don´t know our history.”

Slavery was officially abolished in Colombia in 1851, but little changed for many Afro-Colombians, who continued working the same lands under similar conditions as debt laborers. Even before abolition, escaped slaves, or “cimarrones,” sometimes founded their own armed and fortified communities known as “palenques” in the rainforest or mountains, devising elaborate tricks to hide their whereabouts—such as only approaching them walking backwards to throw off trackers. Some palenques still survive as autonomous Afro-Colombian communities. At Palenque San Basilio near Cartagena, in the north of the country, a distinct language is still spoken today, incorporating elements of the African tongues Bantu and Kikongo.

Cimarrones from La Bolsa went to a place called El Chorro, on the banks of the Rio Cauca, and founded a community there—because it was the only land available. Even there, they were eventually forced to flee—both by periodic floods when the river broke its banks and attacks by the gunmen of big landowners who coveted the rivershore lands. In the 1930s, the local story goes, La Bolsa´s owner, Don Julio Arboleda, was killed by a Black child whose parents he had killed. Don Julio´s children who inherited the hacienda were somewhat more modern and enlightened—and also found cattle more profitable than labor-intensive cacao. In 1939, they ceded a large chunk of their lands to their former laborers to found a community on. Blacks from both La Bolsa and El Chorro gathered there and founded Villa Rica as a “vereda” or unincorporated village of Santander municipality.

Villa Rica´s inhabitants trace their ancestry to Guinea, Senegal and Angola; African traditions survive and are being institutionalized in the new municipality. We watch Villa Rica´s children perform the dance called El Chunche at the village community center. Juan Carlos´ friend Einer Diascubi, who beat on the bombo drum to drive the ceremony, says the dance depicts rice harvesting and other means of community sustenance. “Chunche” means pollen in Caucana, the region´s local dialect, and at one point the young dancers writhe on floor shaking off imaginary rice pollen. Diascubi says the Associacion Folklorica Chango was founded 15 years ago to preserve the dances that contain the collective historical memory of Villa Rica.

A new political group, the Unity of Afro-Caucano Organizations (UOAFROC), has recently come together to extend the land recovery movement—much stronger in coastal Choco department—into Cauca. New cross-ethnic alliances are also emerging. “The indigenous and the African descendants are now cooperating to recover their lands,” says Gonzalez. “The Afro-Colombian and indigenous communitiess are the most marginalized in the country. So we took the decision to struggle together.”

Both groups have lost traditional lands to government mega-development projects as well as landlord encroachment in recent years. The Salvajina hydrodam built on the Rio Cauca south of Villa Rica in 1980s affected both Nasa Indians and Afro-Colombians. Black residents of Suarez municipality had thier lands seized by the government for the floodplain, and were relocated. Many ended up joining armed groups, Gonzalez says.

In May 2002, the First Inter-Ethnic Meeting of Cauca was held in Villa Rica´s school building, bringing together both Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders to discuss land recovery and cultural survival. Convened by Villa Rica´s first mayor, Atie Aragon, it was attended by 2,000 local Blacks and some 3,000 Indians, mostly Nasas.

But such efforts are daily ground down by the harsh realities of war and an entrenched culture of violence. In 2002, eight Villa Rica youth were killed by paras or violent crime—in some cases, the bodies were burned or mutilated and thrown into Rio Cauca, in trademark para style. Paramilitary outfits recruit youth to assassinate both accused guerilla collaborators in the mountains and—making the war nearly fratricidal—their own kin who have become gang members. A Villa Rica-based gang called Los Crazy steal cars and hold up buses on the road to Cali—and are targetted for death in the paramilitaries´ “social cleansing” campaign.
In adjacent Puerto Tejada municipality—also with an Afro-Colombian majority—the situation is even worse. Gangs with names like Los Ramallama, Los Emboladores and Los Mechas use military rifles and grenades as well as pistols in wars against both the paras and each other, jacking up a death toll of nearly 600 last year in a municipality with a population of just 35,000. Family members are often killed in retaliation for the killing of paras. A nephew of of Villa Rica´s Mayor Dinas was killed by presumed paras—along with 14 others—in a drive-by shooting in Puerto Tejada in August of this year.

Colombia Joven, which is now present in five Cauca municipalities, continues to wage its campaign against violence and militarization of Afro-Colombian lands. Gonzalez emphasizes that the group was founded well before Colombia´s then-president Andres Pastrana launched a short-lived national program of same name in 1998. The group remains independent of all armed factions—including the government.

When I ask Gonzalez if he has any closing words for readers in the United States, he immediately states that Washington must cut off aid to President Alvaro Uribe´s government. “The government is the greatest perpetrator of violence in our communities,” he says. When I point out that most of the violence in Villa Rica seems to come from ostensibly illegal criminal gangs and paramilitaries, he responds: “The paramilitary groups are funded by the same government. Everybody knows it.”

Before we get on the chiva back to Cali—before sundown, to avoid gang hold-ups—Gonzalez offers his final words: “Every dollar from the United States is one more death. They are cutting health, education, public services— everything is going for the war. The United States government needs to reflect about what it is doing to our country.”