Defending the voice of the Afro communities: Leyla Arroyo

Buenaventura is a region inhabited by an Afro-descendant, indigenous and mixed ethnicity population and is the largest urban and economic hub on the Colombian Pacific Coast. It is also the most important port for Colombian export trade[1]. Despite the rich cultural diversity of this region, it is well known for high levels of poverty, difficulties to access public services, health, dignified housing, and education, without leaving aside the high levels of violence suffered by the population for many years[2]. One of the main recent incidents in Buenaventura occurred in May 2017, when the population in the city who are members of different movements, including the Black Communities’ Process (Proceso de Comunidades Negras – PCN), decided to organise a Civic Strike to demand their rights. The city was paralysed for 22 days, until an agreement was reached between the government and the members of the Civic Strike Committee[3].

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Evelina (PBI) together with Layla during the interview

In the city of Cali we met with Leyla Andrea Arroyo Muñoz, a black woman whose ancestors were from the southern part of the Colombian Pacific, and who was herself born and raised in Buenaventura. Leyla tells us about her personal and professional journey and about the processes she is part of in the city. Leyla is a co-founder and activist with PCN[4], where she facilitates local social and organisational processes, both within ethnic processes and bringing together different ethnic processes, for the defence and affirmation of the ancestral rights of black people. She is currently taking part in a speaking tour to raise awareness in other countries of the difficult conditions in her region, the struggles she works with and the achievements they have made over the years.

Leyla tells us that she joined the Black Communities’ Process in 1988 when the movement was using the 450th Anniversary of Buenaventura to recruit members and presence in the city. On that date the movement had given itself the challenge of organising young people, so that the population in the city could increase its political knowledge and learn to govern itself. However, while they were preparing for the anniversary, they realised that the National Constitutional Assembly was being organised, and was proposing a new Constitution to take into account the social, political and environmental reality and other issues that had not been contemplated in the former Constitution of 1886.

The different organisational movements in Buenaventura began to link with the national movement, led by the student movement. Although their movements had been born at the local and grassroots level, the constitutional process enabled them to reach further than they had initially imagined, and raise ethnic issues at the national level. Under discussion at the time was the need for the new Constitution to address the issue of ethnic diversity that characterises Colombia, an important element not present in the Constitution until that moment. This process finally led to the creation of the Constitutional Assembly and to the drafting of a new Colombian Constitution in 1991.


In Leyla’s words, “what started as a grassroots struggle today represents a movement to reclaim the rights of black people in Colombia, and the Black Communities’ Process of which I am a member, is part of the whole national and social movement of black people. We particularly concentrate on claiming and defending our collective and individual rights as black people”.

PCN now has many members, including more than 140 grassroots organisations, community councils and individuals, who work for the transformation of the political, social, economic and territorial reality of black, Afro-descendant, raizal and palenquera communities in Colombia, by defending and claiming their individual, collective and ancestral rights. One of its greatest achievements has been influencing the Constitutional Assembly in 1991, thanks to which Colombia began to define itself as a “pluri-ethnic and multicultural nation”.

Included in the new Constitution was transitory article 55, which led to the approval of law 70 of 1993, which “recognises the right to collective property for the black communities that have been occupying wasteland on the shores of the rivers in the Pacific Rim, in accordance with their traditional production practices. It also aims to establish mechanisms for the protection of the cultural identity and rights of the black communities of Colombia as an ethnic group, and the promotion of their economic and social development, in order to ensure that these communities obtain real conditions of equal opportunity compared to the rest of Colombian society”[5]. This law, known as the Black Communities Law, is one of black people’s greatest achievements in Colombian legislative matters.

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Leyla explains that PCN is different to other organisations from the social movement who claim civil and political rights related to racial discrimination, whereas PCN focuses on collective rights. They emphasise four main collective rights that are relevant to all ethic peoples, in any part of the world and that are recognised in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples[6].

  • Firstly, “the right to be”, that is, the right to ethnic and cultural identity.
  • Secondly, “the right to a space to be”, which is the right to territory.
  • Thirdly, “the right to participation, self-organisation and autonomy”, which is the right to be a black community, without having to assimilate with the rest of the Colombian population.
  • Finally, the fourth universal right is “the right to self-defined development”, which PCN describes as the right to their own vision of the future in their country, as black people.

In addition to these rights, PCN claims a fifth right which is not universally recognised: “the right to solidarity between black peoples around the world”, based on self-recognition as part of the African Diaspora. “Whether we are here in Colombia, or in South America, even though we do not have contact with the other black peoples in other parts of the world, we believe that any crime committed against one black people is committed against us all, and any achievement also belongs to us all”, says Leyla.

Throughout her journey as a member of PCN, Leyla’s work has specifically focused on territorial rights. She initially focused on the process to gain collective land titles in rural areas of the Pacific and, for the last ten years, she has focused on creating the concept of territory in urban areas, working with Afro-Caribbean communities to defend Lands Won from the Sea[7]. This is how the inhabitants have baptised the Bajamar areas: “they are lands built with their own hands, filling estuaries and mangroves with waste thrown away by the Port. That is how the first settlers lived in this city built with its back to its region, the sea, its ancestors and its culture”[8]. As she tells us: “At the beginning, I participated by accompanying other peoples in their territories and over the last ten years I am using this experience to accompany my own people, because I am from the urban area of Buenaventura”.

When we ask Leyla about the risks that she runs in her territory, as a human rights defender, she tells us that defending rights in Colombia generates risks. For her, and in the case of PCN, the greatest risks are related to confronting powerful interests, political and economic powers, at both the state and international level. Knowing how to organise, raise the consciousness of black people, and demanding that the State guarantees the rights of citizens, means that they are seen as a threat to these powerful interests, and that is exactly what puts them at risk.

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Adrián (PBI) with Leyla

These risks are made real through defamation, intimidation, and also co-optation, a risk which, according to Leyla, is not often talked about, but which is very real. Difficult living conditions and the desire to improve them, in fact, make people more vulnerable to this type of threat, which comes from both illegal and legal actors. These risks are not as related to physical and personal effects, such as killings, prosecution or defamation, but to the effects on the integrity of community leaders which, according to Leyla, is even worse. In many cases, this results in the breakdown of social processes within communities, with severe consequences.

We end our interview with Leyla by thanking her for her time and her important work. We also wish her luck for her European speaking tour organised by PBI in a few weeks’ time. This will offer a great opportunity for Leyla to raise awareness with a diverse audience, about the difficult situation for the rights of the people of Buenaventura, and hopefully to gain allies who will support Leyla’s work in her region defending fundamental rights on behalf of the black communities of the Colombian Pacific.

Evelina Crespi and Adrián Carrillo


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

[2] Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo), Informe de derechos humanos Paro Civico – Buenaventura 2017, 25 August 2017

[3] Municipio de Buenaventura: Gobierno Nacional y Comité Ejecutivo del Paro Cívico firmaron acuerdo para levantar el paro, 6 June 2017

[4] PCN website: Renacientes

[5]  Interior Ministry, LEY 70 DE 1993 (Agosto 27) “Por la cual se desarrolla el artículo transitorio 55 de la Constitución Política”, 27 August 1993

[6] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 13 September 2007

[7] For further information see: Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz) and Mundubat: Buenaventura, el despojo para la competitividad, p. 27, May 2015

[8] Centre for Historical Memory, Diario de una investigadora en Buenaventura, accessed on 19 November 2019

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