Resisting in the Naya River

I

Navigating the clear waters of the Naya River is a pleasure for the senses. Lush vegetation bursts forth as you leave behind the Pacific Ocean to enter this river basin: a zigzagging river flow, whose banks are dotted with 64 black communities, all belonging to the Naya Community Council[1]. They have been here since ancestral times, “338 years to be precise”, according to Enrique Chimonja and Maru Mosquera, members of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesaial de Justicia y Paz – CIJP), an organisation that PBI has been accompanying for several decades now. Anyone who has lived and travelled through this area speaks with pride about the collective use of this territory by the black, indigenous and mixed ethnicity populations, which has made it a reference point for biodiversity all over the world. “Along the Naya River you can find abundant and clean water sources, forests full of all kinds of vegetation, fauna and healthy soil”, says Chimonja emphasising the importance of this place. However, its strategic location, connecting the Valle del Cauca and Cauca departments with the Pacific Ocean and at the same time, crossing the Andes mountain range in the west of Colombia, has converted it into one of the most strategic routes for drug and arms trafficking[2], and this has caused serious problems for its inhabitants.

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Wooden houses on stilts belonging to the Afro-Colombian communities of the Naya River
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Sergio, from PBI, walking inside one of the Afro-Colombian communities of the Naya River

II

Don Fausto[3], a leader of the community who greets me by clasping his weathered hands in mine, is happy to see us and receives us with enthusiasm. We are here to accompany the CIJP and some members of the Community Council in what could be called a humanitarian mission after the latest incidents that occurred this year in these waters[4], which have terrorised the communities. Perhaps that is why Don Fausto’s gaze seems to be searching for someone to confide in and to get things off his chest, and he soon tells me that he is worried. He speaks to me quietly, almost in a whisper, despite the fact that there is nobody nearby, and he explains to me that there is a lack of trust in the community, that people are not as sociable as they used to be and that they prefer to stay silent. “I understand, the situation is complex after the…” I tell him, but my sentence tails off, because I imagine that my words are in no way helpful. And so I too stay quiet, so as not to stir up the pain of these last few days, in which four members of the community disappeared on the river, with nobody knowing who committed this crime or why. It seems clear that the clandestine networks of informants that have arisen alongside the armed groups who are fighting amongst each other continue to be “a mechanism for terror on a daily basis”[5]. The past seems to be repeating itself for these black communities, as though their journey, the tireless struggle of a people who have been attacked from all sides, never happened.

Instalandonos en comunidad
The PBI team putting up flags to make their presence visible on the ground and calling the PBI Office to let their colleagues know that the team has arrived

III

The last day that Hermes Angulo Zamora, Obdulio Angulo Zamora and Simeón Olave Angulo were seen was on April 17 this year. All members of the same family, they were travelling on the river near Puerto Merizalde, the municipal capital of the Afro-Colombian communities of the Naya River, situated two hours by boat from Buenaventura, and nobody knows what happened to them. After this and after days of the family alerting the authorities to the fact that they were missing, the Pacific Regional Ombudsman (Defensoría Regional) and the local Human Rights Officer (Personería) travelled along the river on May 5 to collect Iber Angulo, the victims’ brother who had suffered threats after he began searching for his family members. The aim of the humanitarian mission was to get Iber out of the community of San Juan Santo because of the high risks he was facing, and move him to Buenaventura. However, in the middle of the journey, in the Santa María area, an armed group held up the boat at gunpoint and took Iber[6]. The mission was aborted and news of this attack on a humanitarian mission organised by the Ombudsman’s Office raised international alarms about the dangerous situation in the Naya River[7].

IV

“Things have not been easy for the Community Council since it was founded in 1993”, Enrique Chimonja explains at a meeting to remember the community’s history, which takes place during our visit. The Council was founded thanks to Law 70, which recognised black communities in the Pacific river basins according to their traditional practices, their cultural identity and their right to collective property[8]. However, despite this famous law which was passed to protect these communities, there have been constant conflicts over control of the area, leading to numerous displacements of whole families because of threats.

The paramilitary incursion of 2001[9] [10], perpetrated by members of the Bloque Calima paramilitary group, is still imprinted in the memories of those who experienced it. The aim of this attack was to gain control over the territory, as extractive projects were already being planned in the region, “especially in the river because it is rich in gold deposits” according to Chimonja, and because of the coca trade[11]. This horrific attack included “the crime against Juana Bautista[12], a disabled woman who was raped and murdered by the paramilitaries, which led to the forced internal displacement of around one thousand families who fled towards the safer places along the smaller rivers in this territory”, continues Chimonja, remembering the many terrible moments that still linger in the memories of the people here.

This crime moved the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to grant precautionary protection measures to the 64 communities of the Community Council of the Naya River[13], however, these measures seem to have been forgotten, if the lack of compliance by the State is anything to go by. According to Chimonja, “the state security forces should patrol the perimeter area so that illegal armed actors do not travel on the river and affect the communities”; that is to say, they should control all the traffic on the river without entering the communities, as this would place the population at risk. The state security forces do not always comply with this, however.

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We visit the Afro-Colombian community of San Francisco with indigenous women from the Joaquincito indigenous territory, who also come from the Naya River

V

“In the midst of such a difficult scenario, where does the people’s energy come from to keep resisting?” I ask Maru and Enrique, curious about the resilience and tireless strength of Colombian people, after meeting some of these communities on our trip. The area that we are visiting has lived through the presence of the FARC, the ELN, paramilitaries from the Bloque Calima and Bloque Pacífico groups; extractives companies have also arrived, the drug trade has sailed through these waters, and the area has also been militarised, without the people being able to do much to oppose these impositions; and with the worst consequences of all these combined factors being the disappearance of their fellow community members. That is precisely why they have organised a space to think collectively this weekend, in the form of an Extraordinary Assembly in Puerto Merizalde, and people from all the communities have come. Their aim is to make coherent decisions so that nobody and nothing can continue to violate and place at risk their ancestral life plans.

Elena and Sergio run PBI’s work in the area of Reconstruction of the Social Fabric, and have been offering psychosocial support and protection workshops to the family members of the four disappeared men. The guilt and the pain have become more acute and the tools to heal this swirl of emotions are increasingly necessary. Even for us it is not easy, and we finish this accompaniment without knowing much about the Angulo family: how they are, what they are feeling and thinking …; and we leave with the uncertainty of what risks they will have tomorrow, of what new fears lie waiting in the forest. But with a frown, we continue analysing this strange reality because we think that this is our way of contributing: by accompanying these communities, even from an outsiders’ perspective, so that they can live as they wish to.

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Elena, Sergio and Silvia with Enrique Chimonja. PBI are accompanying both CIJP and the Afro-Colombian communities from the Naya River.

VII

We leave the Naya River in silence, the same silence with which the lush vegetation greets us as we make our way towards the Pacific Ocean again, letting ourselves be swept downstream by the current; the same current surrounding the communities that are hemmed in by the distrust of the last weeks, perhaps months; where truths lie hidden and cries have been stifled, alongside the quiet sounds of these beautiful, strong, empowered, struggling, resistant people.

We leave with the certainty that the struggle for their collective future is more alive than ever, and they are showing the world that “it is possible to run a territory using governance and autonomy without resorting to violence”, as explained by Chimonja and Maru at the end of this journey along the river. They will continue to work to make visible and show the value of the efforts of these black communities of the Pacific region to resist and re-exist in the waters of the Naya River.

Misión acabada
the accompaniment mission ends in the port of Buenaventura. Photo by D. Fellous/Mira-V

Silvia Arjona M.

Footnote

[1] Prensa Rural: Consejo Comunitario de la Cuenca del Naya.

[2] Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas para la Paz – FIP): Dinámicas del conflicto armado en el sur del Valle y norte del Cauca y su impacto humanitario. 2013

[3] Due to the risks faced by the people from the Naya Community Council, we have changed the names of some people who appear in this blog.

[4] CIJP: Desaparecidos tres afronayeros miembros del Consejo Comunitario. 22 April 2018.

[5] Informe del Grupo Internacional de Trabajo sobre Asuntos Indígenas (IWGIA): Colombia: el caso del Naya. Pedro García y Efrain Jaramillo. 2008.

[6] Defensoría del Pueblo Colombia: Grupo armado secuestró en el río Naya a un hombre protegido por la Defensoría. 5 May 2018.

[7] UN: Naciones Unidas exige liberación de 4 personas desaparecidas en el Naya y urge a que se respeten las misiones humanitarias, 9 May 2018.

[8] Congreso de Colombia: Ley 70 de 1993 (Agosto 27) “Por la cual se desarrolla el artículo transitorio 55 de la Constitución Política”, 31 August 1993

[9] Rutas del Conflicto: Masacre en el Naya.

[10] Verdad Abierta: La masacre de las Auc para escapar del Naya. 20 October 2011.

[11] Verdad Abierta: Los ‘narco-motivos’ detrás de la masacre de El Naya. 29 March 2011.

[12] CIJP: Juana Bautista Angulo Hinestroza. 15 April 2009.

[13] IACHR: Medidas Cautelares a las comunidades afrodescendientes de Buenaventura, Colombia. 2 January 2002.

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