Ralston Deffenbaugh, Lutheran World Federation (LWF) assistant general secretary for International Affairs and Human Rights, shares impressions of his visit to the Department for World Service (DWS) program in Chocó, Colombia, following the LWF Council meeting 15-20 June 2012 in Bogotá.
“Chocó Magicó” (“Magical Chocó”) reads the beautifully photographed poster for the LWF’s Department of World Service program in Colombia.
Yes, Chocó—a department in the northwest, situated along the Pacific coast—is magical.
But it is also in pain. More than 40% of Chocó’s half million people have been forcibly displaced as a result of Colombia’s violent conflicts. At least a thousand have been killed. The violence continues.
In June 2012, I had the chance to spend three days in Chocó as part of a study visit following the LWF Council meeting in Bogotá. As we landed in the capital of Chocó, Quibdó, and started to travel around, I felt like I was in West Africa.
The tropical humidity and heat, the lush foliage, the red soil, the modest houses with corrugated metal roofs and peeling paint, the sudden heavy downpours, all reminded me of visits to Guinea and Liberia.
So did the population, for three quarters of Chocó’s people are Afro-Colombians–Colombians of African ancestry, the descendants of slaves. One of our delegation, Council member Elijah Zina from Liberia, exclaimed, “I’ve come home!”
What makes Chocó magical can be both good and bad, and sometimes at the same time. Vast stretches of the land are covered in thick jungle. The bio-diversity is among the greatest on Earth. With most of Chocó inaccessible by road, rivers are traditionally the major way of transport.
This remoteness made it possible for Afro-Colombian communities of escaped slaves to establish themselves and survive. It also allowed for the survival of small communities of indigenous people—one tenth of Chocó’s people—who were able to stay out of the way of the Spanish colonists and their descendants who make up the majority of Colombia’s people.
In today’s Colombia, however, Chocó’s remoteness makes it an attractive refuge for various illegal armed groups, some of whom are revolutionaries, some drug traffickers, some both.
Isolation and lack of equal participation in the broader society are a recipe for poverty. Four fifths of the population have unmet basic needs. Half the population lives on less than one U.S. dollar per day. A third of adults cannot read. One out of every four children is not in school. Only a quarter of the people have access to clean water.
Colombia’s violence contributes to poverty as well. Imagine what your community would be like if two out of every five people had been forcibly uprooted from their homes and had to start over again somewhere else.
With a dedicated local staff of people from Chocó and support from the country office in Bogotá, the Lutheran World Federation’s Department for World Service (DWS) program in Colombia is making important contributions in three main areas.
One is in helping indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities organize themselves, so that they can better assert their human rights and regain and protect their land. This is especially important as large mining companies try to set up operations that will dispossess people of their land and have dramatic environmental consequences.
Another DWS activity is in helping internally displaced people—mostly households headed by women—restart their lives through training and income-generating programs.
Lastly, DWS plays an important role in disaster relief and preparation. Because of changing weather patterns, Chocó suffered from extraordinarily heavy flooding in the past two years.
As we met with representatives of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, it was inspiring to see their bravery and determination. They told how they have protected and regained land, how they have suffered from displacement but worked to reestablish themselves. And it was encouraging to hear how appreciative they are of the accompaniment and support from the LWF. They had hope.
On our last morning in Chocó came an impression that captures that determination and hope of the people. One of the internally displaced women with whom we met, a woman whose village had suffered a massacre and who had survived things that I can only begin to imagine, wore a T-shirt with this message in Spanish: “We don’t bear children for war. My body is the first land of peace!”
Photo: “My body is the first land of peace,” reads t-shirt of woman from Chocó (ELCA Mikka McCracken LWF)
Source: Lutheran World Federation, LWF: http://www.lutheranworld.org/lwf/index.php/becoming-the-first-land-of-peace-in-choco.html