Peace in El Pacifico? Colombia’s Chocó region has its own agenda

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On 17 June, Colombia votes in the second round of its presidential election: the first since an historic peace agreement was signed in 2016 and the country emerged from almost half a century of armed conflict. With over seven million Colombians forced to leave their homes, the country has the largest number of internally displaced people.

No candidate managed a majority of the vote to win the first round outright, however Iván Duque, the chosen candidate of formidable and popular ex-President Álvaro Uribe, secured 39% of the vote, just less than the 50% majority needed. He looks set to win the second round comfortably over ex-guerrilla fighter Gustavo Petro. The two candidates visions of peace differ markedly.

In line with his mentor Uribe, Duque believes that the peace agreement did not go far enough and is too conciliatory to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), with whom the accord was signed. Petro, however, a former guerrilla from the M-19 group, wants to uphold this process and sees it as key to a united Colombia.

Chocó’s dilemma

However, for those living in the poor peripheral department of Chocó on Colombia’s north-western Pacific coast, what people are looking for is real change, including investment in education and health. Whilst peace is symbolic, their region is scarred. The dense and remote jungle provided a perfect base for fighting and smuggling, and it was the area most embroiled in armed conflict.

map of Chocó department, colombia
The impoverished department of Chocó comprises the whole of Colombia’s border with Panama and a large swathe of its Pacific coastline. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Chocoans are hoping that memories of loss – in life, friends, family and their environment – can finally be replaced by the government infrastructure that has always been found wanting in this part of Colombia. It is in this region that a vibrant demographic, comprising pockets of Afro-Colombian communities and the indigenous Embera living side-by-side, that the shadow of violence remains. Perhaps only the hope of better government services will finally allow them to leave the conflict behind.

Every morning, Nativo goes out to the beach to look at the fading moon. Resting on a tree-trunk as he traces its outline into the black sand, he says: “it’s like you are in another world.” Young men canoe through high waves to a fishing spot, two nestle on the rocks and release their nets. The opaque sea melds into the sand, which parts into thick, green jungle.

It’s hot on the Pacific coast, and Chocó is one of the wettest places on earth: salty air sweeps into the trees as the tide changes rapidly. El Valle, a small fishing town in the region, is alive with people and their ever-changing beautiful natural environment. Nativo knows everyone in the town as he walks around, but there is a sadness beneath his sparkling eyes and energy for life.

He is among the elders of El Valle who lived through the conflict. One of those that took up arms to protect their land from FARC guerrillas and saw his region ravaged by war. For him, the peace agreement signed in November 2016 was positive, as “peace, after all, is peace.”

choco forests beach chocoans
Photo credit: Sabrina Montoya/Jericho.

Marked by armed conflict

But the conflict remains embedded in many there. Similar to much of the Pacific coast, there are no roads in or out, and very little government infrastructure can be seen. Whilst the pain attached to the legacy of cocaine is felt deeply by all, with its remoteness from cities and government – and only one ATM machine on the whole of the coast – easy access to cash goes a long way. Although everyone could live through subsistence in the fishing town, cocaine money breeds the idea of quick consumerism, and fuels conflict and suspicion within the community.

It wasn’t just the drug trade that paramilitaries and rebel groups were involved in: the conflict also made illegal gold mining rife in Chocó, destroying over 19,000 hectares of rainforest. With over 79% of Chocoans living in poverty, and as the film ‘Chocó’ shows so powerfully, many leave their homes to work on the mines. As a provision of the peace process, the government aims to shut these illegal mines and coca plantations, but closing them down without a meaningful replacement leaves vacant space for the possibility of the remaining guerrilla groups to navigate.

The mining question

Decades of conflicting illegal activity by rebels and paramilitaries have impacted the unique natural environment. And now, the onset of media and modern technology is having an adverse effect. Sergio, a documentary-maker in the region, laments that, “it is changing their mentality and making people think that they should be looking for other ways to live, forgetting the values and beauty of their culture.”

Up the coast from El Valle is Utria National Park, the area where humpback whales arrive each year to give birth. “The positive aspects of these changes aren’t being harnessed,” Sergio says, “because government services don’t reach the area, and instead the armed groups have been the major presence in the region.”

choco beach forest
Photo credit: Sabrina Montoya/Jericho.

While for some in Colombia – but certainly not all – the issue of peace is a central concern in the run-off election, the young people in Chocó are clamouring for a leader that will bring real change.

The march of consumerism has brought new access to 3G phone signal and WiFi to Chocó, giving people a wider understanding of the context of their problems, but the younger generation still do see hope for genuine change. Beatriz, a young woman living in Quibdó, the capital of the department, says that, “most are choosing to vote away from traditional parties. Petro represents a different alternative to the one that is normally offered for Chocó.” For those such as Beatriz, this is a new hope of social spending, and a sustainable future with education, employment and development.

While Petro represents change in a country that is still so fragmented by conflict, he trails distantly in the polls. The most likely scenario is a Duque presidency, with little prospect of change for Chocó.

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