Marco Tulio Pérez arrived in the remote Afro-Colombian community of Libertad in 2000. One of his first acts was to organize a beauty pageant for local girls between 15 and 18 years of age. But this pageant was to be much more than just another example of a community engaging in one of Colombia’s favorite pastimes because Pérez, also known as “el Oso” (the Bear), was the new leader of the right-wing paramilitaries in Libertad. The “prize” for the 15 highest-ranking girls in the pageant was a two-week stay on the small farm that the Bear and his troops had commandeered for their living quarters. The mass rape that occurred during that two weeks signified the beginning of a brutal four-year siege that the residents of Libertad would be forced to endure at the hands of the paramilitaries. It is a violent legacy that the community is now struggling to overcome.
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Four hundred years ago, Afro-Colombians living along Colombia’s Caribbean coast would cry when a child was born because the youth was destined to suffer a life of slavery under Spanish colonial rule. And when an Afro-Colombian died, people would engage in a nine-day and nine-night wake to celebrate the deceased’s return to Africa. Back then it appeared that death was the only path to liberation. But today, parents in the remote village of San Basilio de Palenque no longer cry when their children are born thanks to the bravery and resilience of their ancestors, who successfully gained freedom from the Spanish crown in 1603. The contemporary residents of San Basilio de Palenque—simply called Palenque by locals—claim to live in the first free black community in the Americas and earlier this year they sent a letter to Barack Obama inviting the first black president of the United States to visit their village. “We are inviting Barak Obama and we hope he will visit us,” explains community leader Enrique Marquéz. “We are not going to ask him for anything. We only want him, and all the blacks and all the people of the world, to learn about Palenque.”
In the hamlet of Imbirí la Loma in Colombia’s southwestern department of Nariño, Yaneth Sosa and her family once struggled to survive as oil palm farmers. But their lives became dire in 2007, when blight killed off most of the African palm trees in Nariño’s Tumaco municipality, where the country’s palm industry is concentrated. Blight, known locally as la pudrición de cogollo, has plagued much of Colombia’s palm production since 2006. Like most monocultures, palm plantations displace indigenous flora and fauna, destroying the ecosystem’s resistance to blight. They are also undermining food sovereignty in the region’s Afro-Colombian communities.
Several hours up the Tapaje River from the Pacific Ocean, the monotony of the lush green rainforest is broken when we round a bend and the remote village of San José comes into view. Most of the buildings on the riverbank are fragile wooden structures precariously perched on stilts. Afro-Colombian women busily wash clothes in the river while their children splash around in the fast-flowing brown water. The motorboat slows, glides past the women and pulls up to the crumbling cement steps that constitute the dock. There is little to distinguish San José from hundreds of other remote jungle villages in Colombia that have suffered from goverment neglect in the social and economic spheres. And, like many other rural communities, San José has also been devastated by the US-backed counternarcotics initiative called Plan Colombia.