Tuesday, March 17, 2015

For the right to territory, culture and life: We are all Buenaventura!

Last Saturday we hosted the highly anticipated VIVA PACIFICO at Rich Mix in East London. It was the latest in a series of events that we have been putting together with War on Want and Colombia Solidarity Campaign in order to raise awareness about the on-going humanitarian crisis that currently devastates the lives of thousands of Afro-Colombians in the port city of Buenaventura on the pacific coast. This time we joined forces with Movimientos in a bid to bring new life to what was and is ultimately a celebration of the lives of Colombians of African decent who find themselves amidst unprecedented levels of violence.

What we hoped from the event was to duplicate a key and empowering factor that has been at the basis of local resistance in the affected communities of Buenaventura. Namely, the use of the word and music as cultural modes of resistance that act against multiple and systematic forms of violence. By reiterating the importance of tradition in the affirmation of the defence of territory – bringer of culture – communities have taken their stance declaring their beautiful and diverse territory a place of peace, real peace.

The magnificent Rafeef Ziadah together with our own Sebastian Ordoñez animated what was an inspiring array of amazingly talented poets and spoken word artists from the Spoken Word Educators Program who, together with the spiritually charged Afro-Colombian sounds of London based Cumbé, drove the message home to a 300- strong crowd that immersed itself in the sounds of the Marimbas while letting the feeling of love and solidarity reverberate in the words and rhymes of the poets as we danced into the night to the sounds of the brilliant Nab'S'Ora.

Buenaventura is in crisis. Crises of this kind paradoxically tend to invoke silence and denial by states that champion the vilest forms of predatory neo-liberalism. Such is the case in Colombia. However, though many, either naively or deliberately accept such forms of domination to be the norm, what is truly telling in this particular case is that this is a Colombia that finds itself in the middle of peace negotiations.

Should we be surprised? The Colombian government, which won its last elections on the back of a promise to bring about an end to the 50-year old armed conflict, seems to have forgotten the structural causes that brought about the conflict in the first place – A complete disregard for the different relational ontologies (cosmovision, ways of life, needs) of diverse groups at the hand of different forms of capitalist domination that normally expresses itself in the form of two types of violence.

On one level we can clearly see a case of structural violence. Unfortunately this is not new to Buenaventura, one of the most poverty-ridden municipalities in Colombia. With unemployment at 60% and poverty at a staggering 80% in a city of 370,000 you can’t help but ask yourself why it is that the port of Buenaventura  - which sees about 70% of the total of Colombia’s imports and exports and has running water and electricity 24 hours a day – shows such high levels of lack of access to basic living needs. The answer becomes clear, though daunting, if we take a closer look at the specific actions the government has taken with regards to Buenaventura.

After complete silence and denial about any sort of situation let alone a humanitarian crisis in Buenaventura, the Santos administration publicly recognised the situation in early 2014 denouncing the crisis as one generated by conflicting drug-gangs seeking to control drug routes. However such an analysis misses a vital point that is again, naively or deliberately, but almost always overlooked in Colombia and that is that ‘Displacement isn’t an unwanted result of conflict, rather conflict is generated so that there can be displacement.’ And when you look at the statistics for displacement in Buenaventura – a pattern starts to emerge – 107,000 people have had to leave their homes in the last 4 years.

A clear question is being formulated here – is it really just naiveté or is it instead a the deliberate and co-opted use of systemic violence to simply get rid of as much as it is humanly possible of the historically discriminated and marginalised black communities of Buenaventura? In Buenaventura, a climate of fear is being promoted by different powerful actors much like the one that was installed in Central America at the behest of democratizing US missions implemented by the CIA trained Contras in Nicaragua and death-squads in El Salvador.

The coincidences are staggering. Random house fires are happening in locations where there are plans to develop a massive Tourist Boulevard. Chophouses, yes chophouses have become the norm where there are plans to expand the port and its carrying capacity – these chop houses are the tip of the iceberg in a ring of extortion and direct threats to community leaders and families who, in fear of repression, tend to stay silent. Where new coal containers are being thought out – small children are being recruited to join neo-paramilitary groups that are the result of the failed demobilization process led by the bloodthirsty ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez in 2005.

Perhaps the biggest coincidence of all comes in the pages of the aptly named Master Plan – Buenaventura 2050. A government development plan that clearly shows what Buenaventura will look like in 2050 – although it is clearly missing one crucial element: The population of Buenaventura whose umbilical cords are buried in the soil and sea of their territory appear no where in the plans and the land which currently holds their houses has been replaced by the developments mentioned above. Beyond the question of why the government would invest staggering amounts of money on a development plan while completely overlooking the need to tackle any of the deplorable social conditions that people are currently experiencing.  Could it be that the violence perpetrated by the existing neo-paramilitary narco-trafficking groups is facilitating the development plans? It is unfortunately a common truth in Colombia.

One thing is clear – the people of Buenaventura have everything to lose. The spiritual connection they hold to a land, which through traditional, ancestral and bio-physical consolidation, they have designated as their territories is what drives resistance. Territory, bringer of culture, bearer of life. And we recognise that: We are all Buenaventura!

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