During the 9th Congress of Palenques of Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN) held in Riohacha in August 2015, international observers from Bolivia, Brazil, USA, and the UK met with representatives of San Basilio de Palenque to discuss ways in which international solidarity can be built to help defend the rights of this community
The town of San Basilio de Palenque, located in the foothills of the Montes de María, was founded during the early 17th Century by escaped enslaved Africans (cimarrones) and is revered for being the first recognised free black town in South America. The founders fought a long resistance struggle lead by the Great Cimarrón Benkos Bioho, who signed a serious of pacts and peace agreements with the Spanish, but was betrayed and sentenced to death in 1621. After nearly another century of resistance and negotiations, Palenque was recognised as a free town by the Spanish crown in 1713. It has thus become a symbol of autonomy and freedom for Afro-descendant communities throughout the country and the region.
After many years of activism towards the end of 20th Century, San Basilio de Palenque was proclaimed as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005, an achievement that has been important in defending the cultural integrity of the community. The recognition led to the drafting of a 10-year action plan to safeguard Palenque’s autonomy and cultural practices. In 2012, the Colombian government recognized the San Basilio de Palenque’s right to collective land titles in the presence of U.S. President Barack Obama. However, the Colombian government continues to violate the rights of San Basilio de Palenque by refusing to comply with its legal obligations to the community.
The people of Palenque have maintained many cultural traditions and practices as a form of resistance and in defence of autonomy. Community cooperation is central to the social organization of Palenque. Community members are organized into kuagros, or groups of people of a similar age who develop a cultural, political and communal identity together. Work and labour is often carried out within kuagros using the principle of la mano cambiada, or exchange of labour, which is an important strategy for resisting the imposition of a more capitalist-based system.
Many people in Palenque speak the language of Palenquero, which has roots in Bantu and is important for reinforcing social cohesion. Music has been another important space for cultural resistance. Local musicians such as the renowned Meastro Rafael Cassiani Cassiani trains and teaches young musicians traditional Palenquero music and the annual Festival of Drums and Cultural Expressions promotes cultural identity and helps combat racism. The community also maintains traditional agricultural practices and has established a communal plot of land to ensure food security.
There are a number of community businesses that promote the idea of self-development and self-management. Among several activities, the Palenque Association of Agricultural and Traditional Sweets Producers and Ethno-Touristic Services (ASOPRADUSE) produces and sells a range of traditional sweets and desserts. Please support their association here: Clicsporsueños (Hyperlink: http://clicsporcartagena.littlebigmoney.org/en/Gladys)Your support will have an important social impact for the communities, because many mothers will no longer have to travel to nearby towns and cities in order to sell their produce.
Ethno-education, which is education rooted in local experiences and knowledge has been fundamental in protecting and maintaining cultural identity, traditions and language and for forming the next generation of community leaders. Without ethno-education many people feel that they would not have achieved the sense of collective identity, nor recognition from UNESCO. In 1985, the Ministry of Culture in partnership with the Ministry of Education implemented the first state sponsored bilingual education project in an Afro-Colombian community in Palenque. However in order to ensure autonomy it is important that such projects are managed locally and do not convert in top-down initiatives.
Despite efforts to maintain these important elements of cultural identity, traditions and autonomy, the community of Palenque faces a number of threats from mainly outside actors.
Racism and discrimination against members of the community, particularly those living, working or studying in surround towns and cities is widespread. This undermines cultural values and has lead, for example to the decline of the use of the Palenquero language. In accordance with the Ministry of Cultures Law 1185 of 2008 on cultural heritage, the community should be able to receive financial resources to protect its cultural heritage and practices but due to the internal fragmentation caused by corruption, this law has been difficult to implement.
Further, after years of State neglect and abandonment, the recognition of Palenque as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site attracted new state investment in development projects to address issues such as cultural preservation, collective territorial ownership and agricultural projects. However, many development projects fail to respect local customs and practices, undermining the natural dynamic and social organisation of the community, its democratic principles, and its possibilities for autonomy and self-governance. Therefore, the government and other outside interests in San Basilio de Palenque must respect International Labour Organization Convention 169, Colombian Law 70 of 1993, and Constitutional Court Order 005, all of which protect Palenque’s rights to self-determination and autonomy.
As expressed by representatives of the community, this new availability of state resources has also lead to clientelism and a network of corruption including local and departmental politicians, state institutions and the co-option of members of Palenque itself in the mismanagement of funds. In particular some community members have challenged the authority of the current Board of the Community Council which was elected in 2012. This has prevented the Board from being formally recognised by the Mahates Municipality and registered by the Bolívar Departmental Government and the Ministry of the Interior in accordance with Decree 1745 of 1995. The Community Council has filed a legal complaint (tutela) about the failure of recognition, and judges at both the Municipal and Departmental levels have ruled in its favour requesting the Municipality to recognise and register the new Board. However, the Municipality has challenged the decision and fails to implement the ruling.
Most recently, the Ministry of the Interior is being held in contempt of court for failing to register the Community Council Board and the Attorney General has been ordered to initiate disciplinary investigations into the Mahates Municipality. The Community Council is also taking legal action at the Supreme Court against the Bolivar Departmental Court for Land Restitution for declaring the election of the Board as null and calling for new elections.
Without due recognition and registration, the San Basilio Community Council Board is unable to carry out its important function of coordination and administration of the Community Council around issues of collective land titles, management of economic resources and use of natural resources (Decree 1745 of 1995; articles 7 and 10). This seriously threatens the community’s rights to autonomy and self-development. For example, oil extraction projects have already been carried out in the territories without due consultation of the Community Council. The Community Council has sent formal requests for support from other state institutions and mechanisms including the Attorney General’s Coordinator for Ethnic Issues, but has received no response.
Action points for international solidarity
During the meeting with members of the international delegation, representatives of Palenque raised a number of key points through which international solidarity would be valued:
- Pressure the Colombian government to adhere to its own court rulings – International partners can help strengthen the efforts of the community council by putting pressure on state institutions, including the Ministry of Interior’s Direction for Indigenous and Afro-descendant Issues, to adhere to court rulings and legal norms and regulations protecting the integrity and autonomy of Palenque. In light of U.S. President Obama’s familiarity with the historic struggle of San Basilio de Palenque, he should directly pressure the Colombian government to comply with its legal obligations to the community. Colombian state institutions must be called to account to fulfil their role in supporting local development in accordance with their legal obligations.
A letter addressed to the Ministry of Interior calling for compliance with the court rulings and recognition of the San Basilio Community Council Board will be circulated shortly for signatures.
- Greater support from rights-monitoring bodies – international partners can advocate for improved responses from domestic rights monitoring bodies including the Human Rights Ombudsman and Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la Nación) who have been contacted and have failed to visit the community or investigate the urgent situation.
- Support articulation and interaction with international human rights mechanisms, including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
- Share experiences with Quilombola communities in Brazil – The colleague from Brazil can help facility links with Quilombola organisations in Brazil to share learning and experiences of collective landing titling, demands for autonomy, defence of rights to health, education and cultural identity and experiences of legal conflicts with private land owners.
- Share and support the clicsporsueños online campaign – to help raise funds for the ASOPRADUSE project. (hyperlink: http://clicsporcartagena.littlebigmoney.org/en/Gladys). Deadline for supporting is the 15th September 2015.
- Establish international twinning associations – international partners can look into establishing twinning or sister city relationships between San Basilio de Palenque and the towns and cities they are from.