International Day of the World’s Indigenous People: Land is life

By Father Sterlin Londoño, CAFOD partner Diocese of Quibdó in Colombia

The Diocese of Quibdó, where I live, is a beautiful place. Scattered among the land, in the thick jungle between the rivers, are many small villages, some with just 10 or 11 houses. My neighbours practise ancient cultural traditions like dance and handicrafts, and we travel the land using small wooden boats. We have plants that cure many diseases and illnesses. We have fish that you can’t find or buy in any shop. We can see incredible birds without having to pay to go to a zoo. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than living here, among my family and my community.

Transport in Choco, Colombia, CAFOD

Choco, Colombia

How mining leads to conflict

But this beautiful community has been scarred by conflict and corruption. The fertile land beneath our homes is rich in desirable minerals like gold, copper, zinc and coltan. Over the years, both guerrilla groups and paramilitaries have taken control of different areas within the diocese, pushing local people off their land to make way for illegal mines, cattle ranches and banana plantations.

Find out about our work in Colombia >>

When these armed groups move in, they monitor and restrict people’s movements – stopping them from going to work or to market, and restricting how much money families can spend each month. More than half of the inhabitants in my diocese have been forced at some point to leave their homes and their land. In the last few years around a thousand people have been murdered. We have had to collect their bodies and bury them ourselves.

Aside from the immediate threat of violence and the loss of land that mining brings, the long-term impacts can be wide-reaching. Mining pollutes the local rivers, contaminating them with mercury and cyanide. This not only has an impact on local people who use the rivers to clean their clothes, but it kills fish, depriving people of food and a way of earning money. Within nearby communities, mining has contributed to school drop-out rates and an increase in sex work.




Protecting the land

As a local priest, and as part of the Diocese of Quibdó, for the last 30 years I have been helping people in my community to live a life free from fear. For afro-Colombian communities this means protecting the land they live on and its natural resources. So local communities got together to set up an organisation called COCOMOPOCA. When I started supporting them in 1997, they were in the early stages of applying for legal rights to the ancestral land they live on, in the hope this would protect communities from being evicted from their homes. But we faced many obstacles in the process.

Soon after I began supporting COCOMOPOCA, there was an escalation of violence in the area and an increase in battles between FARC guerrillas and paramilitary groups. They killed civilians. Many people were threatened and displaced. We lived through this kind of environment for four years.

This violence motivated the community to persevere with their application for land rights, to fight for their land and for their safety. But in 2008 the Colombian state denied their application for collective land title. Despite this huge disappointment, we refused to give up hope and we applied again.

Over ten years after we first applied, in 2011 the community finally achieved the rights to their land. This was a wonderful achievement for all of us and one of the proudest moments of my life. But our celebrations were short-lived. Within just a few days we discovered that a large mining company had also been granted concessions to mine part of the land we had just received the title for.

After all our struggles, this was so disheartening. However, if you live on a plot of land but don’t have any legal titles, then you have no rights, but at least now the communities knew there was an appeal process they could follow. So we continue to fight for their land. We haven’t lost hope and we will not lose hope.

Choco, Colombia, CAFOD

Choco, Colombia

My visit to the UK

In March I travelled to the UK to talk with MPs and the UK Government. I shared with them some of the aspirations of afro-Colombian and indigenous communities living in Colombia. But I also wanted to tell them about the problems that are arising from the economic model that’s being pursued by the Colombian government. I shared some of the problems caused by the mining industry, and explained how the companies that are investing in extractive industries in Colombia are having an impact on people living in Quibdó.

One of my wishes is for governments to recognise the impact mining is having. So I want to ask MPs and the UK Government: “Do you know how British companies, such as mining companies, are investing in Colombia? Do you understand what this is doing to communities like mine?” We want the Government to understand that afro-Colombian and indigenous communities must be consulted about mining before it happens on their land, land that they have lived on for generations. Because for afro-Colombian communities, land is culture, history and a means of survival. Without land there is no life.

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Father Sterlin’s blog was also published in The Catholic Times.

International Day of the World’s Indigenous People is on 9 August.

Find out more about our work in Colombia.

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Filed under CAFOD, Latin America and Carribean

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