In the humid mangroves, black communities have settled in the southern part of the department of Chocó. For generations, they have lived on the riverbanks of their region and resisted illegal armed groups, illicit economies, looting of mineral and forest resources, neglect by the state and, most recently, dispossession of their territory.
“We don’t want to hear any more about food security projects”, says a black man sitting on a red plastic chair. Under a dim artificial light that barely separates him from the darkness of the riverside night, his words are blunt: they will not die of hunger, because the abundance of land in that part of Colombia means that they can ‘solve’ for their daily meals. The rest of the community cheers, almost as one voice: “Yes, that’s right!”. They’re fed up with just simply surviving.
The black communities in the San Juan region want for their agricultural activities to generate income for them, but transporting the crops results expensive because of the obligatory routes they have to take in Sipí: the rivers. These communities can no longer bear to see their rice, banana, cocoa or cashew crops rot, because there’s no way to get these products out of their municipality and there’s no one to buy them.
They only way to move in this region is by water, which is why the 14 black communities in the municipality are settled on the banks of the impressive Sipí, Garrapatas and San Agustín rivers that rise and fall between thick layers of jungle and converge in the San Juan River, the second most important river artery in Chocó, after the Atrato.
For years, its inhabitants have been waiting for offers different than mining, growing coca leaf for illicit use, joining illegal armed groups or any other option other than that related to foreign companies that want to abuse them and take advantage of their territory. Unfortunately, most of the companies and the economic hardship has made the communities of Sipí easy prey.
This is how, for example, a company named Desarrollo e Inversiones Progreso Verde (today known as Eightfold Colombia) arrived in their territory in 2012, with supposed projects focused on environmental preservation, but, unlike what companies with declared mining interests have done, Progreso Verde arrived claiming as its own the 32,450 hectares that ancestrally belonged to the black communities.
Today, the only sure thing the black men and women of Sipí have had, their most precious asset because the territory is the fundamental basis on which their existence as ethnic communities depends, is in danger.
On the Colombian Pacific coast there’s a place that the world does not usually take into account but that is everything to the 3,220 people, most of them black while others are indigenous, that inhabit it. Sipí, in the San Juan sub-region, is one of the 30 municipalities that make up Chocó, one of Colombia’s departments with the highest poverty rates in the country, inhabited by thousands of victims of the armed conflict while also being affected by the dispossession of their ancestral lands at the hands of outsiders.
Of Colombia as a whole, in 2019 the highest level of incidence of departmental monetary poverty —a family’s income compared to the cost of the food basket of goods— was recorded in Chocó with 68.4%, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE)..
Sipí suffers from high school backwardness rates, lacks basic sanitation, drinking water and sources of employability, which contrasts with the great mineral under its soil —hence the strong mining vocation of the black communities of the municipality— and a biodiverse paradise that covers every corner of the 1,274 square kilometers of its surface.
According to the records of the National Health Institute (INS), Sipí is one of the few municipalities in the country where the presence of the virus known as COVID-19 has been minimal. The same could be said of the presence of the State and sense of peace.
On the one hand, the deficient investment and support of the State has had repercussions on the fragility of the communities, which today are faced with a precarious health and education system. Meanwhile, essential infrastructure works are moving at a snail’s pace: the region is still waiting for the construction of the first road in the entire municipality —the 14 kilometer stretch of road between the village of El Cajón, in the neighboring municipality of Nóvita, and the municipal capital of Sipí—. This plan was allocated resources of 20,413 million pesos from the general royalty’s system and no progress has been made. The same happens with 19 prioritized projects for 102,765 million pesos for tertiary roads.
Only since November 2020, a good part of its inhabitants has enjoyed an uninterrupted flow of electricity with the inauguration of the electrical interconnection —although the villages of Charco Hondo, Barrancón, Charco Largo, La Unión, Chambacú and the indigenous reservation of Sanandocito have to use fuel-powered electrical plants and remain in the dark from 10 p. m. onwards—.
On the other hand, communities of the San Juan region are under the yoke of illegal armed groups that condition mobility along the rivers, in addition to victimizing and revictimizing blacks and indigenous people.
For decades now, the Aurelio Rodriguez Front of the now defunct FARC guerrillas operated in the region, but following the Peace Agreement signed with the Colombian State on November 24th, 2016, that insurgent unit abandoned the area and was later taken by the ELN’s Western War Front, commanded by Emilce Oviedo Sierra, known by the alias of ‘La Abuela’. In addition to that, in recent years the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), a group of paramilitary origin know the authorities as ‘Clan del Golfo’, have expanded into these jungle areas from the department of Valle del Cauca.
According to the Ombudsman’s Office, in Sipí there are important natural corridors of fluvial mobility to Valle del Cauca that facilitate the transport of cocaine hydrochloride shipments to maritime ports.
“The potential for gold, silver and platinum mining in these and other municipalities of San Juan also assigns a strategic position to Sipí and Nóvita in the development of the armed conflict. The development of these activities has historically attracted illegal armed groups for purposes primarily associated with obtaining illicit rents from extortion”, reads the Early Imminence Alert 031 of 2019, issued by the Ombudsman’s Office on July 19th, 2019.
By the time Progreso Verde, represented in those days by Luis Enrique Betancur Hernández, began talks with the black communities of this region, the armed conflict in the municipality was palpable. In June 2013, this businessman bought the lands that today threaten the collective property of the black communities of Sipí. A fortnight before that deal, four people were hit by explosives, presumably thrown by the ELN guerrillas, against the police in the municipal capital of Sipí. Two of the victims, both minors, lost their lives.
As a result of this event, 113 families were displaced and at least “1,045 people suffered restrictions to mobility in the villages of Marquesa, Santa Rosa and Tanando”, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
This situation recalls the displacement of Santa Rosa in 2006, one of the communities settled in the municipality that suffered a bloody confrontation between illegal armed groups that forced its inhabitants to leave their territory and return two years later without the proper accompaniment from State authorities.
In addition to registering high rates of victims of antipersonnel mines and explosive devices among the civilian population, San Juan is one of the regions of the department with the highest rates of coca leaf cultivation for illicit use. More than half of the 19 municipalities in Chocó that appear in the records of the Colombian Drug Observatory (ODC) belong to San Juan. By 2019, Sipí was the third largest producer of this illegal activity.
According to information from the Ombudsman’s Office and the local leaders of the area, in recent years in the San Juan region a non-aggression pact was apparently established between the ELN and the AGC that allowed for a reduction in confrontations and is presumably still in force if one takes into account the few aggressions that have been recorded.
Even so, the threat is latent and the black and indigenous people of Sipí are awaiting the decision of those who carry the rifles. For this reason, several human rights organizations and state entities, such as the Ombudsman’s Office, have set alarm bells ringing to prevent further victimization of these fragile communities that have suffered various human rights violations, such as forced disappearances, confinements, displacements and assassinations of their social leaders.
In these lands of the Pacific region, the announcement in the middle of the last century of the materialization of megaprojects such as Calima I, II, III and IV in the municipality of El Darien, Valle del Cauca, adjacent to the Chocoan municipality of Litoral del San Juan, the black and indigenous communities that inhabited that region were concerned about the impact of these works on their territories. For this reason, they united in what became known as the Great Wounaan-Black Territory of San Juan.
However, the Wounaan people disassociated themselves from this initiative and initiated a separate process, which led the black communities to form the San Juan Countryman Association. Years later, they formed the community council and finished adjusting its name, which is currently known as the General Community Council of San Juan (Acadesan)..
Much of Sipí’s territory is within Acadesan’s collective title, along with the municipalities of Istmina, Medio San Juan, Nóvita and Litoral del San Juan. With the Resolution 02702 of December 21st, 2001, the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (Incora) handed over 683,591 hectares on which today 73 black communities live and collectively occupy the title under the three fundamental characteristics established by the 70th Law of 1993: inalienable, imprescriptible and unseizable. Or so it was supposed to be.
In papers that the State recognizes as legal, part of the territory of this collective title was legally demarcated. Today, the community council is facing the possibility of material dispossession and behind it all is a corporate network that extends as far as Canada.