Colombia diary

Our Project Officer, Camilo, writes about young people’s participation in historic demonstrations in two of the cities we work in.

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Throughout history, Colombia’s Pacific region has been excluded and segregated. Spanish colonial rule established social structures that discriminated against the region’s afro-descendent and indigenous inhabitants, classing them as inferior and subjecting them to economic exploitation. Their culture was regarded with disapproval and their religious practices were forbidden. Despite the passing of time, these communities continued to be marginalised and exploited and their unique culture disregarded. They continued to be cut off from the rest of the country as a result of poor quality transport routes, and their population lacked access to clean water, appropriate healthcare and quality education.
Laws have been passed to address this neglect. In 1991, a new Colombian constitution formally recognised the nation’s diversity, celebrating its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature. In addition, after much struggle, social movements succeeded in ensuring the ancestral territorial rights of indigenous and afro-descendent populations were legally recognised. Although these laws have led to greater investment in the region, the population remain severely neglected. The Pacific has been an epicentre of Colombia’s armed conflict. Decades of civil conflict and territorial disputes by armed groups running illegal mines and cultivating and trafficking drugs have hit the region hard, leading to high levels of forced displacement and homicides. This has fractured traditional social structures and threated the life and livelihoods of millions of Colombians who live in the region.
In May this year, the populations of the two largest cities in the Pacific region, Buenaventura and Quibdó, went on strike to demand change. Everyday life was put on hold – economic activity stopped and schools closed – and over 100,000 people took to the streets in each city to march and hold symbolic cultural celebrations. Their protests were directed at the national government’s failure to fulfil a series of promises made over the years to solve the serious problems affecting the region.
The strike in Buenaventura lasted 22 days, during which 60 social organisations united to coordinate their demands to the state. This process culminated with the organisations requesting support from the state to begin a process of inclusive social and economic development in the city. Central to their demands was a need for the development to be respectful of cultural traditions and the environment, to promote autonomy of the Pacific region and protect the rights of all members of the population. Developing this plan was an achievement in itself – decades of violence and fear in Buenaventura have weakened the population’s ability and confidence to mobilise. The strike brought people together, it created opportunities for discussion and agreements about needs people had in common, and created spaces for people to speak out and be listened to. Government support was secured on a number of topics – speeding up the process of providing clean drinking water to all parts of the city; improving healthcare provision including expanding the size of the main hospital; building a public sports centre; improving parks; improving the quality of education.
Our partner Fundescodes was one of the 60 organisations that led the strike. They participated enthusiastically and responsibly, setting up meetings with community leaders and public officials where they gave children and young people the chance to share their opinions, needs and ideas for change. These children were able to prove their commitment to making their communities safer and stronger. Fundescodes also worked hard to promote the peaceful nature of the strikes – they called for participants to resist responding violently to the police presence at protests or to get involved with those aiming to destabilise the strikes with violence and looting. Now that the strike is over, Fundescodes team and young people feel strengthened by the experience and are hopeful that through peaceful, democratic actions they will be able to continue transforming their city.
In Quibdó, the strike focussed on holding the government to account for failing to act on agreements made in response to 4 strikes in the past 25 years. During 18 days of strike action, the organising committee succeeded in reaching a new agreement in which the government committed to completing work to build roads linking Quibdó to two major cities, Medellín and Pereria, in Colombia’s interior; and building a new hospital in Quibdó and 4 more in the surrounding region. The strike organisers pledged that if the government again failed to fulfil their promises, they would call another, indefinite strike to continue their peaceful campaign to demand guaranteed protection of their rights.
Our partner Circulo de Estudios joined the strike in Quibdó – children, young people and women organised traditional dance and music presentations to celebrate their Afro-Colombian culture, as well as joining marches and participating in community forums.
In this context, children and young people from our partners’ projects are adding their opinions and experiences to crucial debates, helping their communities to fight for the protection of their rights and to break the cycle of poverty and exclusion that has affected them for generations. It’s still possible that the national government’s latest promises do not come to fruition, but the strikes have served to mobilise the population of this marginalised region and shown them that they have the capacity to transform their reality. We at Children Change Colombia will continue supporting our partners in this region, and across Colombia, to help children and young people have their voices heard and their initiatives for improving their communities taken into account. Because – if you don’t like your environment, why not change it?!

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