“Being a human rights defender in Colombia means getting up and facing uncertainty”: Olga Araújo

Olga Araújo Casanova always uses both of her surnames in honour of her mother. She is a grassroots educator and human rights defender, a member of the Board of Directors of the Association for Social Investigation (Asociación para la Investigación Social – Nomadesc)[1], an organisation located in Cali, in the Valle del Cauca department.

Olga was born in Tumaco, in the Nariño department, close to the border with Ecuador, in a humble home where she was educated by her parents who questioned many aspects of the social status quo. Olga began her community work in her native city, inspired by her parents’ teachings; however it was in the city of Cali that she deepened her commitment to society and community. She began working on the case of Jarillón del Río Cauca, a sector whose rights were severely affected by administrative policies that, according to Olga, “are part of a long-term policy of land dispossession in the country”. First of all she worked in the Playa Renaciente Community Council, where she would meet with the women from the community, many of whom were displaced and from extremely vulnerable contexts, and in whom she “found immense potential” and learned a great deal. Later she joined the Nomadesc Association, where she coordinates the organisation’s educational, advocacy and networking activities.

Nomadesc focuses on supporting and advising social and civic organisations, trade unions, women’s organisations, indigenous organisations and small-scale farming organisations, in one of the areas most affected by the Colombian conflict, and has been accompanied by PBI since 2011. The organisation was founded after a number of years of work with communities affected by the internal social conflict in the country. The Association’s work is focused on a number of areas, including socio-legal support to victims of human rights violations, educational and investigative work and political advocacy. Its mission is to guarantee holistic accompaniment for the protection of human rights. Nomadesc has also carried out research on national and international companies and human rights, and in the city of Buenaventura, for example, has supported the resistance of local communities to remain in their lands in the face of the expansion of the city’s port which is the largest in Colombia[2].

Olga y Adri_blog

Olga explains to us that Nomadesc focuses on the protection of economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of peoples, which she says are still being seriously violated. When she talks about the rights of peoples she refers to collectives, to culture, to ethnicity. Colombia is a multi-ethic and multicultural country and Nomadesc describe this as “a great people of peoples”. Indeed, there are around 115 indigenous peoples[3], Afro-Descendant peoples and small-scale farming peoples, which all have differences depending on the region they are from. According to Olga, “taking into account this diversity means that, in terms of education, the same format cannot be used for all of the people, and it means having an understanding of different cosmovisions, ways of seeing life, and the particular territorial aspects of each people and each region in Colombia”.

Another aspect to take into account is the issue of gender. According to Olga, there is still much o be done in the country. This is Nomadesc’s vision of its work, to connect different socio-cultural elements. “It is not always easy to respond to cultural diversity”, she tells us, “nor is it easy to respond to realities such as those faced as a human rights defender in a country like Colombia that claims to be one of the oldest democracies on the continent, but in practice has long been sustained and continues to be sustained by socio-political violence”. The violence in the country “has been a policy that has implied, for several generations, living through different cycles of violence, and these are becoming increasingly more sophisticated at making the State’s responsibility invisible”. According to Olga, defending human rights, “sometimes makes you face very difficult situations, but it also gives you the satisfaction of being able to contribute to a society to which we all aspire, transforming power structures that have historically been and that continue to be extremely powerful”.

Berenice Celeyta y Olga Araújo-NOMADESC_BLOG
Olga Araújo Casanova and Berenice Celeita from Nomadesc

In spite of the difficult context, for Olga Colombia’s greatest strength is its strong, creative population. Nomadesc does not use the word “resilience”; they prefer to talk about resourcefulness, courage, joy and the artistic and cultural potential of the Colombian population. According to her, these are the elements that, in the midst of adverse situations, create energy and allow people to keep going. One concrete and clear example that comes to mind is that of the town of Buenaventura, which, in the midst of extreme difficulties, without a decent hospital to attend to the health problems of the community, with 71% of the population that only has water for eight hours a day and 40% of citizens who do not have a sewerage service, where unemployment exceeds 65%, and 41% of people live in poverty; “despite all this, the population remains cheerful, receptive and full of brotherhood” [4]. According to Olga, these relationships that are so full of energy are what enable the people of Buenaventura to continue working.

Today, Valle del Cauca is one of the Colombian departments where the most attacks on human rights defenders occur, according to reports from the organisation We are Defenders (Somos Defensores). In this context of constant risk, Olga’s work, like that of all defenders, is of paramount importance[5].

When we ask her what it means to be a defender, in terms of the risks she has to face every day, she explains that “being a human rights defender in Colombia means getting up and facing uncertainty, not knowing what can happen. It means facing thousands of difficulties every day, which seek to hamper your work, commitment and participation in the political sphere”. Despite this, Olga does not see uncertainty as something only negative, but rather believes that it is an engine that enables expectation, creation, renewal and giving new meaning to aspects of reality. Among the difficulties she encounters, Olga mentions gender-based discrimination, related to having a voice, how an audience reacts differently depending on whether a woman or man is talking, how to be paid attention a woman has to have a loud voice and strong posture, body expressions that attract attention, something that, on the contrary, does not happen with men. According to Olga, to cope with these situations “you have to know how to master them, you have to look for ways to assert yourself and not let these difficulties isolate you”. Machismo is still very strong in Colombian society and for her it is very important that women defenders are supported to strengthen themselves in this area.

Olga y eve_blog
They say it is better to imagine utopias, because if you can´t imagine utopias it means you stay still and don’t engage in your daily struggles – Olga, together with Evelina (PBI)

Another fundamental aspect is self-care, given that “often we are more committed to others and we ignore our own personal life. I think that this is one of my struggles…” It is very difficult as a woman to balance caring for others, self-care and working as a defender. Society also places significant pressure on women, which means that often women blame themselves for not having paid sufficient attention to their partner, children, etc., and this can weigh heavily on a woman defender. Olga says that this has also been somewhat difficult to manage throughout her life. Nevertheless, with time she has been able to develop self-reflection which enables her to live in a more balanced way, in spite of the difficulties, and to support other women who are currently going through this process, especially younger women.

Olga is currently in the middle of a speaking tour of Europe, raising awareness in a number of countries about the situation of defenders in the Valle del Cauca department, human rights violations and the processes accompanied by Nomadesc.

Evelina Crespi


[1] Nomadesc

[2] El Espectador, Buenaventura: entre la violencia y el narcotráfico, 5 July 2019.

[3] El Espectador, Población indígena en Colombia creció casi 40% desde 2005, 16 September 2019.

[4] El Espectador, La triste paradoja del puerto de Buenaventura, 10 December 2017.

[5] We are Defenders Program (Programa Somos Defensores), Defensores, ¿El juego final?, 9 October 2019.

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