South America Colombia: Afro-Colombians Protect Pacific Rain Forests by Ben Wheeler, Greengrants Intern August 05, 2004 Afro-Colombians are a minority in a volatile country. They tend to be poor and live in violent regions rich in biodiversity and increasingly targeted by multinational corporations. Although they represent nearly one-third of Columbia's population, Afro-Columbians hold little influence in politics and business. Activists like Libia Grueso and the Afro-Colombian organization she co-founded, Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), are tackling the multifaceted problems of Afro-Columbian communities head-on. PCN, which is made up of 120 member organizations, is dedicated to increasing Afro-Columbian involvement in the political process, preserving the Afro-Columbian traditional way of life, and protecting the lands that are inhabited by Afro-Columbians. PCN works to protect the environment by protecting the culture—and vice versa. Law 70 is a Colombian statute legally recognizing the Afro-Colombian minority as a distinct ethnic group with territorial and cultural rights to their land. PCN was integral to its passage. The organization now uses the law to fight foreign exploitation of the resources of Afro-Colombians and to protect traditional lifestyles and lands. Grueso and PCN have already secured the protection of 5.9 million acres of rural Afro-Colombian land, putting this land in the control of its traditional residents rather than illegal loggers and miners. PCN's current goal is to protect large areas of Colombia's highly endangered Pacific rain forest by using Law 70 and other legal precedents to assert Afro-Colombian control over the area. This will safeguard the forest and prevent relocation of Afro-Columbians. War, narcotics trafficking, and illegal resource extraction have already displaced over one million Afro-Columbians from the area. Greengrants has supported PCN with two grants of $5,000 each, both in 2002. The first grant funded a project created and carried out by the Consejo Comunitario de la Cuenca del Río Yurumanguí (Community Council of the Yurumanguí River Basin), a member organization of PCN. The purpose of the project was to help Afro-Columbians regain food security and strengthen the cultural identity of young people while providing them with alternatives to participating in armed conflict. The Yurumanguí lies in a primarily Afro-Colombian area near the Pacific Coast, and in recent years increasingly violent confrontations between Colombia's warring factions have taken place there. The area is a center of coca production, creating very dangerous conditions that often force people in the area to either resist the coca producers and risk harm or work for them. By providing alternative work for the young men most likely to be caught up in the drug trade, the Consejo hopes to ease tensions and reduce local reliance on coca production. The Consejo used Greengrants funds to organize a series of training seminars and develop educational materials to teach young people the traditional farming techniques that work best in the area's climate and soils. The project promoted cultivation of traditional rice crops, bringing land back under cultivation and providing work and income for young men. The second grant supported members of PCN traveling to a meeting on globalization where they joined a delegation of black and indigenous organizations from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama. The meeting was designed to address issues related to the upcoming Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) treaty. PCN and many other civil society groups in Latin America oppose the FTAA because they are concerned that it will open up their societies and their lands to increased exploitation by multinational corporations. Already foreign corporations are accelerating the extraction of timber and petroleum resources along Colombia's Pacific Coast, with little benefit to local people. The increasingly empowered Afro-Caribbean community in Colombia seeks to work with other previously marginalized groups across Latin America to present a unified front against the FTAA and the exploitation it might encourage. PCN's campaign was given a tremendous boost in early 2004 when Libia Grueso, PCN co-founder, was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. The prize goes to six outstanding environmental activists every year, providing them each a $125,000 stipend and priceless status and regard. These recipients generally reinvest their funds in their local environmental organizations and use the reputation garnered by the prize to increase media attention and fundraising abilities. Click here for more on Libia Grueso's award. Although Libia Grueso and the Proceso de Comunidades Negras face tough opposition from a traditionally racist society controlled by the wealthy, they have already greatly improved the situation of both Colombia's Afro-Colombian minority and the nation's endangered rain forests. Copyright © 2009. Global Greengrants Fund. All Rights Reserved.