By Valentina Parada, EL ESPECTADOR, June 19, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
On June 12, armed men threatened ten families that had arrived five days ago after being displaced from El Tambo (Cauca Province). They showed them photos of their faces, with their names. They were all part of the Afro Renacer Community Council of Micay, and they had filed complaints of persecution because they had opposed the building of an energy-producing dam in their collective territory.
Ever since the Afro Renacer Community Council of Micay was created in El Tambo (Cauca), its members have not gone through a year without receiving death threats for the work they are doing in that part of the country. Since then, they have worked to maintain the territory belonging to the black communities and to defend their lives.
So far in 2020, three members of the Council have been murdered. They were working in towns (veredas) like Betania, Honduras, and in the municipality of El Tambo (where the organization’s headquarters are located.) The leaders who were murdered were José Antonio Riascos (January 25), Hugo de Jesús Giraldo López, Jesús Albeiro Riascos, and Andrés Sabino Angulo (April 22). Three of them were killed in El Tambo, and one in Santander de Quilichao.
“The persecution just doesn’t stop,” repeats María Leonor Yonda over and over by telephone. She is a member of the political committee of the organization, and the one who said in an interview with Colombia 2020 that even though they have filed complaints to the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, and the Mayor’s Office in all of the municipalities, and to the Office of the Governor of Cauca Province, they have no protection. “They have only issued early alerts when some of us have been killed. That’s all,” she complains.
What has your group been working on since your organization?
We are dedicated to strengthening the cultural and ancestral memory in our collective territory. We protect the black communities, basing our efforts on the framework of Statute No. 70. We are present in 13 towns (veredas) in the province, because our collective territory measures 35,000 hectares. Most of them are virgin soil. There are a few hectares dedicated to subsistence farming, but there are also some 2,000 hectares that they have filled up with coca plantings. It’s not because the campesinos like to plant coca, but because it’s almost ordered by the armed groups. And even though we work with the government on voluntary eradication projects, we can’t get all of that done here.
What have been the projects or causes that you have defended that they have harassed you for?
In general it’s the stigmatization that exists. There are a lot of accusations because the people that work with us have learned to organize, and especially in these remote territories where there has never been any government, we organize ourselves to fortify the principle of territoriality, protecting each other, to govern, protect the environment, and everything that has to do with our way of life, and that the government doesn’t provide for us. The projects that we work on are related to the quality of education because, even though we don’t always have the resources, we build schools, roads, bridges . . .
But where do the most dangerous persecutions and threats come from?
Everything had been improved with the Peace Agreement because here, before, the people who gave us orders were the FARC, and we lived through some very hard situations, like displacements, the murders and everything that happened. So then when they were demobilized we strengthened our own justice system and we thought we would build jails and apply educational penalties, such as putting people that committed crimes to work on something on our land, so that they could live in harmony again, and in cases of more serious crimes, turn them over to the regular legal system. But now there are several armed groups that have told us that they would like to see us disappear.
So is there a direct order for you to disappear? Are there public threats?
Yes, they say that they want to exterminate the board of directors of our group. It’s made up of our legal representative, the coordinator, the vice president, and the treasurer. They say that they have ordered that we have to set up Community Action Committees so that members can be chosen by the new governors, but they put their people in and all of that, so as to get rid of all of us and put different people in.
Have you identified the people that are threatening you? Who are they?
Yes, we have. They are known in the territory as the Carlos Patiño Front of the FARC dissidents and the Jaime Martínez organization. Those groups are at the service of the drug traffickers and the fact that we support crop substitution and other social projects bothers them. The thing that hurts a person the most is the connivance of the Colombian Armed Forces with those armed actors, so that they make accusations, and then the people have to be displaced.
Which of the armed groups that you mentioned worries you the most and why?
What’s happening is that there has been a dispute in this territory for about three years about the construction of a dam that would be called Arrieros de Micay. It would generate energy that they want to use in this territory, in spite of the fact that the land belongs to us. It is collective and we will protect it. So we have a dispute with those big multinational companies, with the government of Cauca, and with the mayors, because we oppose that construction that they are planning to build in the headquarters of our Council.
We have been making complaints because it would cause a great deal of damage and would have a major environmental impact that we cannot permit. In the complaints, we have stated that, since this is a collective territory, we have to be consulted in advance, but they know that we will not permit it because the megaproject would cause enormous damage to the environment, and it would be located on our property; it belongs to us. The dam would even work against the substitution of illegal crops, because there would be fumigation or glyphosate aspersion. I think that everything that is happening to us has a lot to do with that.
A week ago some members of your council were threatened in Buenaventura. What happened that day?
Yes. What happened in Buenaventura was on June 12, with some ten families that had been displaced from here and had gone to El Tambo. They went together to a house while they tried to figure out where they would live. During the night some armed men came and told them that they knew that our organization was supposedly connected to the ELN. We know that’s a lie because everything we have done is at the community level and according to our needs. Besides threatening them verbally, right in their faces, they showed them photos of themselves with their names and the names of their relatives on a list. What hurts us the most is that we had already complained about that last year but the only thing that happened was an early alert. The government has not done what it promised and we had so much hope in the Peace Agreement. Our territory would finally be more peaceful because the conflict with the FARC was over, and we thought they would go ahead with dialogs with the ELN.
How are they? What’s going to happen now?
Well, the authorities took them to a temporary refuge and they have filed their complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, but nothing more. They are incommunicado because along with the threats they took away their phones, and because of security they are not allowed to talk to anybody. What’s sad is that they went from here in El Tambo to go to Buenaventura but there are also threats there. We were able to have human rights organizations help them to leave and they went there. We are worried not just because of the threats to our ten members, but also for their families: wives, children, parents. They also have all their data: their names, photos, where they live, everything . . .
If the government doesn’t protect you, how will you protect yourselves?
Mmmm. . . . It won’t be easy. We are exposed all the time because we work outside on community projects. We take care of displaced families, of victims of the conflict. We’re always out in the country. We might say that the confinement helps us a little; we feel that we don’t have to be hiding everywhere we go, but being kept inside, and uprooted from our land; not being outside depends on what’s happening, and it adds to the threats and everything that has happened to us in this quarantine. We have been very much affected psychologically. The government has been no help at all, it has never paid any attention to us; here the alarms go off when we are killed, but what good does that do?
 Afro Renacer (literally African Rebirth) is an organization of Afro-Colombians active in Chocó and Cauca Provinces.