The ongoing civic strike in Buenaventura is powerful example of people centred human rights in action

26 May 2017
Esther Ojulari

People centered human rights (Baraka, 2013) are those rights which emerge from locally grounded struggles against the multiple forms of oppression in the global capitalist world. Through People centered human rights (PCHR) processes oppressed peoples define the content and meaning of their rights as they demand structural transformation, justice and the dismantling of neo-colonial relations of domination. The Afro-descendant and indigenous communities of Buenaventura and Chocó in Colombia’s pacific coast are doing just this as they uphold an ongoing civic strike has been in place since mid-May.

Why are the people of Buenaventura striking? 

The mainly Afro-descendant and indigenous region of Buenaventura and the wider Pacific region of Colombia are rich in natural resources and biodiversity yet have some of the highest rates of poverty, unemployment and lack of basic services such education and health in the country. Throughout the region, largescale mining and other neoliberal development projects threaten the very existence of communities and their ancestral lands, polluting rivers with mercury, destroying traditional livelihoods and displacing whole communities. The UN has reported that over 50% of the 78,839 hectares of land which suffers the impact of mining exploitation in Colombia is located in the Pacific region. While private business profits from the region’s resources, the national government has long neglected to invest in infrastructure to guarantee the basic rights of the population.

The city of Buenaventura itself with a population of just over 400,000 people is home to the country’s most important international port, through which last year alone over 15,000,000 tons of cargo was imported and exported. Since the port was privatized in 1991, the vast majority of income generated goes straight into the pockets of private business owners from outside of the city, while the community suffers from a lack of investment and neglect. 64% of the population lives in poverty and 9.1% in extreme poverty. The child mortality rate in Buenaventura is 27.6 per 1000. The sewage system covers only 60% of the city, and only 76% receives running water. For most of the population that water arrives in homes for only a few hours a day and in some communities only a couple of times a week. The city’s public hospital was closed in 2015 leaving the population with access only to primary health care and meaning that patients often have to travel to other cities to receive adequate medical attention. Only 22% of the population have access to secondary education, and schools not only lack materials and infrastructure but resources to provide a culturally relevant education. The privatisation of the port contributed to a rise in unemployment as many of the jobs were given outsiders leaving an unemployment rate today of 62%. Much of the working population are engaged in informal labour, with lack of job security and safe working conditions.[1]

Over the past few years and in the context of economic plans to increase Colombia’s access to international trade, there have been several development projects to expand the capacity and infrastructure of port, including the construction of new terminals such TCBuen (Buenaventura Container Terminal) located near the communities of Inmaculada and Santa Fe on the mainland of Buenaventura. These projects have meant widespread human rights violations for the traditional fishing communities living on the sea front. Numerous families have been displaced to make way for new container parks, constructions have restricted freedom of movement and access to the coast and creeks where people fish, dragging of the sea bed to enable large container ships to dock is destroying the ecosystem contained in one of the worlds largest mangrove forests, and the 24 hour heavy activities of the container parks have led to the collapsing of houses and health problems among residents. Locally based organisations such as Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN) have reported that violence, including massacres rose dramatically in the barrios nearest to the port expansion sites shortly before the construction began, leading to the displacement of many residents. It is widely believed that the violence was a deliberate strategy to spread terror and make it easier for the company to buy up houses cheaply and push the community out. 

People-centred human rights in Buenaventura

The people Buenaventura are therefore well aware that the human rights violations they face are a direct result of the government’s neoliberal economic model based on continuous growth, extractive industries and private profit and underpinned by structural racism that denies the humanity of black and indigenous lives in the name of profit. In the face of these threats, and as part of a the wider Afro-descendant struggle for territorial and cultural rights in Colombia, the community of Buenaventura has been engaging in processes of resistance that can only be described as people centred human rights. Through participatory processes, community education, and mobilisations communities are reframing human rights in their own languages, rooting demands in local experiences and challenging structural racism and neoliberal oppression. The community calls for basic rights to health, education, water and justice but central to their struggle is the right to territory; defined as the vital space in which they exist, live and maintain ancestral livelihoods and traditional cultural practices. Only through the realisation of the collective right to territory can they exercise the rights to be, to live their identities as members of the Afro-descendant people, and to autonomy and political participation. For this community territory is life and life must not be sold for profit.

The civic strike as PCHR

The civic strike is the most recent action in this long struggle for rights in Buenaventura, and the demands being made of the government bring together these locally defined ethno-territorial rights, rooted in the urgent situation facing the communities. The central demand of the strike is for the national government to declare a “state of social, economic and ecological emergency” in the city in accordance with article 215 of the 1991 Colombian Constitution. This declaration, the Civic Strike Committee argues, would committee the government to allocate resources in order address eight key issues as a matter of priority:

  • Low, medium and high level health service provision, coverage, prevention and assistance and traditional medicine;
  • Recovery and conservation of degraded water basins and other strategic ecosystems;
  • Coverage, quality and relevance of basic, technical and university education;
  • Strengthening and mass promotion of cultural practices, sports and recreation;
  • Basic sanitation and infrastructure and public and community operation of public utilities;
  • Access to justice and reparations for individual and collective victims;
  • Territorial order in terms of the life and collective well-being with repair for the Buenaventura family;
  • Strengthen local and regional production and other political, legal and economic measures to ensure the generation of decent employment and income required by the family.

Over 11 days, while shops and business remained closed hundreds of thousands of members of the community have blocked the 6th Avenue, and Via Alterna main roads in and out of the port and city centre, marched in the streets, and taken part in a parade of boats in the waters surrounding the port, to peacefully call for a response from the national government to demands to guarantee their rights. In the face of violent repression and tear gas attacks by the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron), state imposed curfews, and helicopters intimidating the community day and night from the skies, people of all ages have not given into fear and have continued to take to the streets every day, clear in their objectives, shouting their demands and joining the voices of the civic strike also taking place in the Department of Chocó in the northern Pacific region. 

An initial round of talks between the Civic Strike Committee and a government delegation on the third day of the strike in Buenaventura were suspended when the government did not meet the call to send a high-ranking delegation of Ministers to the negotiating table. A second round of talks took place on the 23rd and 24th May with a government delegation led by the newly named Minister of the Interior, Gillermo Rivera. Talks broke off into autonomous spaces on the 25th to consider proposals and give time for the government to seek a decision on the declaration of a State of Emergency.

In a commendable display of transparency and people-centred politics the dialogues between the Strike Committee and the government were transmitted live via local television and the internet. Yet as residents sat at home, watching the talks each day, and into the nights, under curfew with the helicopters still circling above, and tear gas being fired into vulnerable communities, it became increasingly obvious that the government had no interest in meeting the demands of the strikers. Indeed as talks resumed on Friday 26th May, in the wake of a heavy night of attacks and arrests in the communities, the Minister confirmed that the state of emergency would not be declared. After several hours of discussion he left the table, leaving the dialogues to be suspended yet again and causing indignation and frustration among the Strike Committee and the community watching at home. As Strike Committee member Victor Hugo Vidal stated on Tuesday during the dialogues, if the government is unable to declare a state of emergency in Buenaventura then where else in the country could such a situation be declared?!

The situation in Buenaventura is urgent as everyone who lives here knows only too well. But thanks to ongoing resistance and PCHR process facilitated and supported by local organisations, local people are not only aware of the injustice of their situation, but are increasingly aware of their human rights and of the neoliberal economic structural context in which these rights are being violated. As such they are increasingly adding their voices to the collective demands for the realisation of their rights and for structural change for themselves and future generations. The energy, spirit and mass participation in the civic strikes over the past ten days is testimony to how this PCHR movement in Buenaventura has enabled a collective sense of ownership in locally grounded, transformative political processes, as strikers take to the streets to demand that the rights of the people must be prioritised over the private business interests of the port.

Strikers form a chain to block ESMAD from the march in symbolic resistance

Procession of boats heads out past the docks of the Port Society on Tuesday towards the Bay of the Cross amid chants of “el pueblo no se reinde carajo” (the people won’t give up) and “arrecha, arrecha, a rechazar, a todos los ladrones que vienen a robar” (…reject all the thieves that come to steal!)

As strikers make their way to the march on Sunday, ESMAD guards the local shopping centre which was looted last Friday night.

[1] Figures reported by the Afro-Colombian Congressional Bench in “Latentes problemas en el pacífico colombiano” (24 Mayo, 2017) available at: http://www.reporterosasociados.com.co/2017/05/latentes-problemas-en-el-pacifico-colombiano/

CONPA: Ultimatum to the National Government Regarding a Humanitarian Crisis and the Lack of Inclusion of Afrodescendents in the Peace Accords

The National Afrocolombian Peace Council (CONPA) sends a greeting to the Colombian people, and in particular, a greeting of life, happiness, freedom to our sisters and brothers in resistance in the port city of Buenaventura and in the Choco region.

We thank the media present here for responding to our call, on the eve of the celebration of the Day of AfroColombianity, May 21.

The Black, Afrocolombian, Raizal and Palequero in Colombia are living through a historical and systematic situation of exclusion and racism, which, during these days, has developed into a humanitarian crisis and threatens our very existence. In April of this year, according to our communities, there have been new occurrences of mass displacement​, as well as forced confinements, which affect thousands of our families; new assassinations, disappearances, kidnappings and denunciations related to the reappearance of armed groups in the lower San Juan, upper Baudo and Rio Sucio, Carmen del Darien in the department of Choco, in Southern Bolivar, in rural and urban zones of Tumaco and in Northern Cauca, areas where this is a concentration of the FARC.

In the territories, we continue to find mutilated and tortured bodies, we continue to live through combat and armed harassment, threats, arbitrary detention, we suffer attacks and killings of community leaders, forced urban recruitment and recently we have been receiving threats against our sons and daughters, with the message that if they are found outside of the house after 6 in the evening, they will be raped and killed.

In face of this situation of secular neglect and incompliance of State obligations, lack of recognition for, as well as protection and advancement of our rights, and in the face of economic policies and megaprojects that are being imposed in our territories which continue being factors of plundering and impoverishment of our people, the civic strikes have been organized in the department of Choco and in the port of Buenaventura. These will continue into other areas in order to continue to call for the attention of the State.

The celebration of the Day of Afrocolombianity reminds us of the actions taken for enforcement of our rights, initiated by our ancestors, and which we continue to advance with strong will for the construction of peace.

Mister President Juan Manuel Santos, and representatives of Congress, as a way of advancing our rights, CONPA proposes:

  • To work with a Normative Framework that covers all issues and topics necessary for the implementation of the 29 agreements contained in the Ethnic Chapter, together with the peoples represented through the High Level Body created by the Ethnic Chapter of the Peace Accords
  • A guarantee for the establishment of a special fund for the implementation of the accords in Black territories and communities
  • A guarantee that the fundamental right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent will not be regulated via the fasttrack process.
  • Implementation of a route for participation, as agreed upon with the government within framework of the National, Campesina, Ethnic and Popular Minga and the strike in Choco, and which guarantees compliance with the agreements that are reached with the government with the Civic Strike of Buenaventura also related to the expedition, this coming 27 of August of 2017, the regulated decrees for Law 70 of 1993.
  • Formulation, in collaboration with the people, their authorities and organizations, of a specific and differentiated policy for the eradication and substitution of illicit crops that covers collective and ancestral territories of Ethnic Peoples.
  • Inclusion of San Basilio de Palenque in the Territory Focussed Development Plans (PDETs)
  • A guarantee of the conditions for the updating of the Integral and Long Term Development Plan for Black, Afrocolombian, Raizal and Palequero people, in a participatory way, and based on consultation, and that this is converted into the Plan for the Afrodescendent Decade, guaranteeing the resources assigned yet not implemented in the 2014-2017 plan are reintegrated and added to this current Plan.
  • A guarantee that in the High Level Body for Gender of the Peace Process, there is full participation of Indigenous and Afrodesdendent women, to guarantee a ethnic-racial gender perspective
  • That necessary measures are taken to ensure that the established institutional mechanisms, or those yet to be established, for the implementation of the peace accords, are based  on consultation, guaranteeing the participation of ethnoterritorial Indigenous and Afrodescendent authorities, towards the compliance of its functions and protocols.
  • We would like to take this opportunity to make public the invitation, this 25 of May, Day for the Dignity of Victims of Sexual Violence, to participate in a symbolic act, where Afrodescendent women will make public 1000 cases of sexual violence against Afrodescendent women in the framework of the armed internal conflict, and to recognize the T-622 Court Decision of November 10, 2016, that recognizes the Atrato River as a subject of rights.

As Afrodescendent people, we are living a humanitarian crisis that threatens our very existence as peoples. The Civic Strikes in Choco and Buenaventura, and those that are to come, are a response to State neglect. If, within 30 days, there are no significant advances, we will seek out the international community and agencies that are following what is happening regarding peace in this country, peace which has become a reference point for the world.

Afrocolombian National Peace Council – CONPA

Press conference – video (in Spanish) https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=6WJP3e3_pUA& feature=youtu.be

Hashtag. #VamosPuebloCarajo


National Strike in Buenaventura

Submitted to Black Alliance for Peace

By Esther Ojulari
Monday 22nd May 2017

The city of Buenaventura on Colombia’s Pacific coast is home to the country’s main international port through which billions of dollars of imports and exports pass every year. Yet due to decades of abandonment form the government, the mainly Afrodescendant and indigenous community of Buenaventura does not have access to adequate health services, education or running water. Further, neoliberal development projects to expand the port threaten the very existence of communities as traditional fishing livelihoods are destroyed and whole communities violently displaced from their ancestral lands.

Since last Tuesday 16th May the community of Buenaventura (along with communities in the Chocó region of Colombia) has been on general strike demanding that the government fulfils basic human rights to water, education, health, culture, land and freedom from racism and violence.  Businesses were closed, road blocks were set up at several points along the main road and peaceful protestors chanted, sang, danced and banged cooking pots to call attention to the desperate situation. On the first day along the Chamber of Commerce reported the strikes had caused up to 10,000 million pesos (about $3.5 million USD) in losses.

For three days there was a sense of joy and hope as the Civic Strike Committee entered into discussions with the government. But unfortunately due to lack of consensus the discussions were suspended and on Friday 19th the national government sent the ESMAD (riot squad) to repress the protestors and violently remove the road blocks. The crowds and communities were attacked with tear gas throughout the day and into the night of the 19th causing numerous injuries.  Tragically in the community of Punta el Este, located at the end of Buenaventura’s main bridge to the port and city centre, Puente Piñal, a baby was suffocated from the gas causing outrage and indignation throughout the community. The ESMAD had one aim here, to open the road for the trucks to leave the port and allow the global capitalist machine to clunk back into action. Once again private business interests were prioritised over the lives of the black and indigenous community.

On Saturday the government installed a prohibition on public demonstrations and a curfew in response to looting of supermarkets by some people, although many have claimed these actions were instigated by outside forces.  Nevertheless the peaceful protestors have remained firm in their objectives and calls for a satisfactory response to their demands. On the 20th March over 30,000 people put on white shirts and marched to the city centre to demonstrate that the strike would go on, and on the 21st, National day of Afro-Colombian Heritage, we estimate that up to 200,000 marched to the outskirts of the city. Up to 200 people have been detained by the authorities accused of participating in looting and rioting and while the freedom of some has now been secured many have ongoing legal processes.

Today as the Committee returns to discussions with the government the people of Buenaventura continue to strike and continue to march under the calls “el pueblo no se rinde carajo” (the people won’t give up…), and “pueblo unido, jamás será vencido” (a united people will never be defeated).

In solidarity with the struggling people of Black Colombia and in defence of fundamental human rights, the Black Alliance for Peace calls on the people in the United States to sign the petition below, but also to circulate information on this situation through your networks since it is being “whited out” by the corporate press. We are also asking that you send statements of solidarity to Charominarojas@gmail.com



Support the Black Women’s Gathering in Colombia

Support the National & International Gathering of Black Women Caregivers of Life and Ancestral Territories in Colombia:  Thursday, November 17th through Sunday, November 20th, 2016

Through this weekend of presentations, workshops, inter-generational exchanges, cross-cultural dialogue, art, conversation and skill shares, over 160 Black women from across Colombia, Honduras, the U.S. and Brazil will create a collective agenda from, by and for Black Women for the collective care of life and ancestral territories with a local and Afro-diasporic focus.

Help Us Raise $10,000 USD to Make This Important Gathering a Reality.

CLICK HERE to visit our GoFundMe Page. Any amount helps! 

$10 covers breakfasts for one participant for the length of the gathering
$20 covers lodging for one participant for the length of the gathering.
$50 funds travel for a delegation from within Colombia
$100 helps cover press work to disseminate the gathering’s platform
$200-800 helps toward getting an international delegate to the gathering


On November 17th, 2014, dozens of Black women from southwest Colombia mobilized a 400 mile march from Cauca to Bogotá, called the called the ‘Black Women’s Mobilization for the Care of Life and the Ancestral Territories’ to demand the respect of their territorial rights. When the Colombian Government refused to negotiate in good faith the Black Women’s Mobilization for the Care of Life and Ancestral Territories occupied the Ministry of Interior to force government officials to demanding the removal of armed illegal mining activities that continue to steal the intergenerational source of accessible gold deposits, poisoning rivers, and threaten their lives and long-term displacement of their families from their rural ancestral lands.

Since then, their leadership and vision have played a central role in their communities’ efforts to demand–and win–an Ethnic Chapter in Colombia’s historic Peace Accords. They have mobilized to protect their territories from international mining interests and extractive industries. From autonomous food systems to national and regional protests, they’ve steered the pedagogy and helped define the goals of their communities’ resistance efforts.

Now, two years after that historic march, and within the context of Colombia’s formative, and hopefully post-war moment, Black Colombian women are convening their Black women comrades from all over Colombia, from Honduras, from Brazil, and from the U.S. for the National and International Gathering of Black Women Defenders of Life and Ancestral Territories. This gathering will strengthen Black women’s bonds of sisterhood by collectively constructing an agenda that articulates their efforts to face their many challenges, together from across the diaspora. The Black Women’s Mobilization for the Care of Life and the Ancestral Territories believes that just as Black Women gave birth to humanity, so too will Black Women give birth to humanity’s liberation.

Through presentations, workshops, inter-generational exchanges, and cross-cultural dialogue, The National and International Gathering of Black Women Caregivers of Life and Ancestral Territories will create a collective agenda from, by and for Black Women for the collective care of life and ancestral territories with both local and afro-diasporic focus.

Help make this work happen by donating whatever you’re able. CLICK HERE to visit our GoFundMe Page. Any amount helps! any amount helps!

$10 covers breakfasts for one participant for the length of the gathering
$20 covers lodging for one participant for the length of the gathering.
$50 funds travel for a delegation from within Colombia
$100 helps cover press work to disseminate the gathering’s platform
$200-800 helps toward getting an international delegate to the gathering

Help spread the word!

La ACSN Condena Amenazas de Muerte Racista contra Defensor de la Paz Afrocolombiano

El 3 de Septiembre, en un foro organizado por el Centro Democrático para discutir el plebiscito por la paz en Buenaventura, el líder Afrocolombiano, rapero, y líder social Leonard Martin Rentería Vallecilla ejerció su derecho a la libertad de expresión y dio un apasionado discurso a favor del “Sí” al plebiscito por la paz. El Señor Renteria Vallecilla, un sobreviviente de guerra y violencia, y cuya familia ha sufrido ataques y asesinatos, abogó respetuosamente por una sociedad más inclusiva donde las diferencias de opinión sean respetadas. Sin el conocimiento del señor RenteriaVallecilla, unos defensores del “No” grabaron su presentación en este evento donde el ex-presidente y ahora Senador Álvaro Uribe estaba presente.

Un video del discurso del señor Renteria Vallecilla se hizo viral en redes sociales tales como Facebook y WhatsApp. Inmediatamente lo bombardearon con amenazas de muerte y comentarios racistas por teléfono, por haber expresado su opinión. En Facebook, algunos compartieron su paradero para que otros pudieran encontrarlo y lastimarlo. Las amenazas incluyeron comentarios racistas como “negro HDP” y advertencias de que pronto se enfrontaría a su muerte. A la compañera de trabajo del señor Renteria Vallecilla la siguieron unos hombres en moto que le hicieron señales con la mano de estarle disparando con una pistola.

Es particularmente problemático que varios miembros del partido Centro Democrático, señalaron desde sus cuentas de Twitter y Facebook,  que Leonard estaba siendo apoyado por la guerrilla y por el llamado “castrochavismo.” Alguien más desde un blog señaló que Leonard era parte  o había sido parte de un grupo armado. Estos tipos de señalamientos lo pone en grave riesgo dada la coyuntura muy polarizada y violenta en Colombia.

La Red de Solidaridad con Comunidades Afro-Colombianas (ACSN) condena enérgicamente las amenazas e intimidación que está recibiendo el señor Renteria Vallecilla. Hacemos un llamado a las autoridades Colombianas y Estadounidenses para que le otorguen inmediatamente al señor Renteria Vallecilla, su familia, y miembros de su organización Asociación Cultural Rostros Urbanos, la máxima protección necesaria para garantizar su seguridad. Las autoridades Colombianas deben condenar públicamente estos ataques y tomar acción para investigar y procesar a aquellos responsables por estos actos.

Para más información favor contactar a gsanchez@wola.org