An Afro-Colombian Civil Rights Leader
Colombia's Pacific Rainforests: A Region Under Threat
Forgotten and relatively isolated for a long time, Colombia's Pacific Coast region, situated between the westernmost chain of the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, is home to 30 percent of Colombia's 10.6 million Afro-Colombians, the black descendants of slaves emancipated in 1851 without any reparations. Afro-Colombians make up 26 percent of Colombia's total population. Yet in the 1980s, the coast, the poorest region in the entire country, began attracting the attention of overseas developers. Multinational corporations moved in to exploit its natural riches such as gold and oil and to introduce foreign mono-crops like the African palm. In the years that followed, armed groups from both sides of Colombia's civil war have intensified their incursions in pursuit of their cut of the profit, including the introduction of illicit crops such as coca, causing terrible and widespread devastation. Today, up to 200,000 acres of Pacific rainforest are being destroyed each year by industrial gold mining in an area already devastated by heavy logging. This has also had an impact on the traditional indigenous and black settled cultures, affecting their social relations and their links with nature.
Mounting Violence and Mass Displacement
On May 2, 2002 in one of the worst mass killings to date, an estimated 120 Afro-Colombians from Pacific communities were killed when a bomb launched by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) landed on a church in Chocó, the state with the largest population of Afro-Colombians. These killings came on the heels of massacres in Alto Naya, where 150 people were murdered and quartered with chain saws and on the shores of the Yurumanguí River where 12 more were also killed. These incursions have caused massive displacements, with 7,200 displaced persons recorded in the port city of Buenaventura alone between 1999 and 2001.
The Rise of Afro-Colombian Rights
Hope Amid Conflict
Activists like Grueso who have proposed sustainable development models sensitive to cultural and environmental concerns have found themselves at odds with private interests at times at risk to their lives. Some have been persecuted and singled out; others have been murdered. Last year, an Afro-Colombian running for mayor of Roberto Payan city, and also an advocate of Law 70/93, was killed for openly criticizing guerrilla activities in his locale. This history of selective assassinations of Afro-Colombian leaders on the coastal region of Nariño has been repeated 75 times since 1998, when Mr. Francisco Hurtado, the first president of an Afro-Colombian community council, was assassinated by paramilitaries while carrying out a census of his community on the Mira River. Hurtado had won a legal action (for protective relief) against the environmental abuse committed by mining operators and palm growers in his territory. In 2002, Sister Yolanda Cerón, a supporter of Law 70 and of the preservation of traditional crops along the Patia River, was also murdered. Her death shocked the entire country. In 2001 seven environmentalists were murdered while hiking in Puracé National Park.
Despite these dangers, Grueso and other PCN members press on, driven by a broad sustainability plan for the entire Pacific region that reflects a vision of development grounded in Afro-Colombian and indigenous cultural and environmental values. Along these lines, she is working at the institutional level to protect Colombia's national parks, particularly the parks located in the Pacific region, from drug fumigation and the threat of privatization. The Colombian government has been steadily cutting back the park department's staff and funding as it seeks to hand over management of the park to private entities. Grueso is critical of this scheme, which is in direct violation of the park's original management plan, an innovative partnership between park officials and community leaders.
Black Environmentalism: A Global Movement by People of African Descent
Grueso traces the roots of her own activism to a childhood spent as the daughter of a fisherman and teacher in the jungles of the Pacific coastlands where villagers rowed canoes up and down the river, men hunted wild pigs, and children were taught to respect nature. She remembers watching this world erode under the pressures of aggressive economic development that decimated large swaths of the jungle for lumber and ruptured the tightly-knit community of her youth.
The Struggle Continues
While in the U.S. to accept the Goldman Environmental Prize, Grueso plans to make Hill visits again to voice criticism of the Bush administration's proposed $618 million (mostly in military aid) to Colombia as well as the U.S.-backed counter-drug measure of highly toxic herbicide fumigation for Colombia and six of its neighbors. She is especially concerned about the consequences of these measures, which have contributed to widespread health problems for surrounding communities and damaged local crops.
"Grueso and the PCN have been the most effective in putting into practice an innovative vision and strategy for sustainable development based on the marriage of ecology and culture," said Enrique Leff Zimmerman, coordinator of the Environmental Training Network for Latin America and the Caribbean, United Nations Environment Programme.