This article is part of the Leaders of Social & Political Change series from the Fall 2012 issue of Americas Quarterly. View the full special section.
In the past 20 years, the Afro-Colombian population has gone from being nearly invisible politically to assuming a more powerful role in public discussion and politics. But we are still a far cry from many of the promises made in the 1991 Constitution.
The change started in the 1970s with the emergence of social movements, many of them organized around the territorial and ethnic claims of Afro-descendant and Indigenous populations. And they found their most powerful legal and institutional expression in the Constitution two decades later.
The new charter’s recognition and protection of the country’s ethnic and cultural diversity marked a profound transformation in the Colombian state. At the same time it marked a break with the historical myth of the Colombian nation as a homogenous society and culture. By legally recognizing the racial and ethnic diversity of the country and providing scope for the election of Afro-national legislators, the Constitution opened the door to laws that could dramatically broaden the rights of the Afro-Colombian population. Normatively and politically the country had accepted that Afro-Colombians possessed a common history, traditional cultural practices, their own forms of organization, and their own connections to land that differentiated them from the rest of Colombian society.
The Constitution also sparked the creation and mobilization of Afro-Colombian community associations (organizaciones de base). The emergence and efforts of these groups resulted in the 1993 Law of Black Communities (Law 70). The law permits communities and their organizations to make collective title claims to ancestral lands in the Colombian Pacific, institutes specific, semi-autonomous political units for Afro- Colombian communities, and establishes government programs to protect cultural identity and promote access for Afro-Colombian students to education.
In recent years, the Colombian government has recognized racial discrimination as a structural problem, laid out penalties for discrimination, and established offices and detailed recommendations to address cultural, economic and political exclusion.
But despite these efforts, there has been no real substantive change in how our communities are treated before the law and the state. According to a 2010 report by Gay MacDougall, the independent expert of the United Nations on minority issues, “While the constitutional and legislative measures are worthy of recognition […] application of Colombian legislation in the Afro-Colombian communities continues to be lamentably inadequate, limited, and sporadic.”
Our political, economic and social exclusion is made worse by Colombia’s internal armed conflict. Afro- Colombians have been disproportionately affected by the violence, often displaced from their communities and towns, many forced to move to urban areas where they face discrimination and economic dislocation.
Addressing the multiple historical, structural and modern roots of Afro-Colombians’ exclusion is not easy. It will not come simply through a constitutional change. Rather, it calls for the construction of a broad agenda of political renewal that must come from the Afro-Colombian communities and their social movements. One of our communities’ central objectives will be reclaiming and transforming the patterns and means for political participation and representation created by Law 70. The first step will be strengthening the capacity of the organizations themselves to act and serve on behalf of their constituencies, as well as improving the political will and capacity of the state to implement many of the well-intentioned policies that until now have existed only on paper.
To this end, global networks, multilateral organizations, international conventions and norms, and foundations have proven essential to the broader effort of making Colombia—and the region—more inclusive and humane. Contributions of international organizations like the Ford Foundation and the European Union have been vital to Afro-Colombian rights and to strengthening the organizations that defend our cause.
The Ford Foundation in particular has helped to stimulate the work of academics focused on Afro-descendent communities. That work has not only contributed to a deeper understanding of our history and challenges but also helped us form a broader notion of the Afro-Colombian social movement and its relationship to the outside world. Through this effort, we have been able to place topics related to racial equality, human rights and inclusive citizenship on the international and national agenda. These initiatives have also strengthened Afro-Colombian community associations that are struggling on a daily level to combat racism and discrimination through public policy reform, political activism and social mobilization. The group that I represent has been one of the beneficiaries.
El Observatorio de Disciminación Racial (Racial Discrimination Watch—ODR) was born in 2007 to document and combat racism in Colombia and Latin America. This organization currently develops law cases and legal reforms to defend and expand the ethnoterritorial rights of Black communities, conducts research on human and social rights, and educates Afro-descendant youth and Colombians broadly on racial justice in Colombia. While the solution lies within us—the communities and their citizens—the roots and the causes of our exclusion are too varied, too deep and too stubborn to tackle alone.