March 16, 2011
Among the many crises competing for international attention, the ethno-territorial conflict plaguing the Afro-Colombian population on Colombia’s Pacific Coast is barely making headlines. Afro-Colombians have been systematically displaced from their communities, often violently, at the hands of guerillas and neo-paramilitary groups since the mid-1990s. Yet few Colombians, let alone foreigners, are paying attention.
This comes despite the de-escalation of Colombia’s three decade-long drug war. Still today armed militias are active and using terror tactics to expel Afro-Colombians from their ancestral territory. The reason is that the land is so valuable. It is considered among the richest in the world in terms of natural, exploitable resources, including oil, timber and minerals. Groups like the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), which can no longer generate enough income from drug trafficking and kidnapping, are turning to mining, both legal and illegal, along the Pacific Coast to finance weapons sales, according to President Juan Manuel Santos. With gold at near record levels, neo-paramilitary groups appear to be cashing in on this business as well.
The socioeconomic condition of the Afro-Colombian community, estimated between 4 million and 10 million strong, and a lack of political representation help to explain why this population is vulnerable to internal displacement. In fact, 78.5 percent of Afro-Colombians live below the poverty line compared to 49.2 percent of the general population, and only one out of every 50 completes a university education. Afro-Colombian representatives only hold two seats in the national chamber and none in the Senate, adding to the challenge of getting issues of inequality, exclusion and the more pressing displacement epidemic on the national agenda.