Amidst conflict and violence, Colombia’s Afro-descendant People continue to protect their forests

Despite constant threats from extractive activities and drug trafficking, community councils of Afro-descendant Peoples from Buenaventura and Northern Cauca have successfully conserved the forest. This is their extraordinary story.

02 .02. 2024  
9 minutes read


It’s Monday, August 14 of 2023 in Colombia. Cecilia Herrera, a member of the Association of Afro-descendant Women of Northern Cauca (ASOM) sits in a minivan by the window, directly behind the driver. Her fellow passengers include three journalists, one from Mongabay; another from the Colombian newspaper, El Espectador; and a third from the environmental journalism platform, Dialogo Chino.

Also in the minivan are four members of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), including me. Our van is headed to the countryside state of El Refugio, located in Santander de Quilichao, Cauca, where we plan to meet with the leaders of  the Association of Afro-descendant communities (called the Black Communities Process or PCN in English) and other members of ASOM.  

It is also the day after dissidents of the now defunct guerilla group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), detonated a car bomb in the village of Timba in Northern Cauca, killing a police officer. The attack was part of the so-called “pistol plan” in response to a government campaign against drug trafficking. Due to this and previous attacks in this region, Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro is holding a security council in the capital of Cauca, leading to a tense calm in the air.  

A week ago, we had planned this day quite differently. The journalists and representatives of ASOM and PCN had expected to visit the community council at La Alsacia, Buenos Aires, which is home to a 22-year-old rights movement by the local Afro-descendant community and its sustainable coffee agriculture and forest conservation initiative. But since La Alsacia is within the township that was attacked, we are now headed for a brief meeting instead in Santander de Quilichao, Cauca.   

There, we would learn about self-defined rights-based conservation efforts across Northern Cauca and Buenaventura, led by community councils of Afro-descendant Peoples who in 2022 have formalized their traditional conservation systems into 15 community conservation areas in sectors bordering the Yurumanguí River, the Cauca and Calima River basins and the micro-basins of the Mazamorrero, Mayorquín, Payal, Raposo, Dagua and Teta Rivers.  

From the road, Cecilia sees a group of children playing in a small creek. One of them emerges from the water, his shorts and T-shirt soaking wet, and climbs onto a high rock, propelling himself back into the water and splashing the other children. “They sure know how to vivir sabroso,” Cecilia says. 

In English, vivir sabroso translates loosely as “live well” or “live with flavor”. It was adopted as a campaign slogan by Colombia’s vice president, Francia Márquez, an Afro-descendant woman who began her leadership journey with the same organization that Cecilia belongs to: ASOM. This slogan also represents a philosophy of life for Colombia’s Afro-descendant population. Vivir sabroso does not require wealth, but rather living without fear, with dignity and access to one’s rights and territory. This philosophy has guided the lives and ongoing work of ASOM and PCN leaders amid the ongoing violence between state security forces, illegal gangs, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and FARC dissidents. 

Community Council La Alsacia,north of Cauca, Colombia. Photo by Angie Larrahondo, ASOM for RRI. 

The 15 community protected areas created by the region’s Afro-descendant communities are part of the Biogeographic Chocó, a set of territories formed by tropical rainforests, mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrasses. All host ecosystems key to climate change mitigation and adaptation. In fact, more than 25 percent of the region’s animal and plant species are exclusive to this part of the world. However, despite its enormous ecological value, illegal extraction and trade of gold, timber, and fishery resources as well as illegal coca crops and logging for cattle ranching have led to biodiversity loss and weakening of social structures, cultural traditions, and governance by local communities. Afro-descendant Peoples have protected these aspects of their communities for centuries but are now struggling to keep them intact. 

A community exercising governance despite the absence of the state 

Upon arriving at the PCN state, we find chairs arranged in a semicircle. In the background, we can hear drums and women’s songs that reference ASOM’s history and values. The leaders of the community councils of La Alsacia, Cerro Teta and Cuenca Cauca, and PCN representatives from Alto Cauca have been waiting eagerly for our arrival with Clemencia Carabalí, ASOM’s founder and more recently, former Advisor to the Colombian vice President on women’s equality. 

Clemencia arrives in an armored vehicle guarded by two other cars on the lookout for threats. Due to this department’s strategic location for cultivation of crops of illegal use, environmental leaders in Cauca have faced threats, kidnappings, and assassinations for decades, leading to these strict security measures provided by the Colombian government. 

Only the leaders who can accommodate the agenda’s sudden change have arrived at the meeting. Representatives from Yurumanguí and the Calima River Basin are unable to attend from their remote areas, from where they can only travel with boat reservations.   

Joining us at the PCN farm is Adelmo Carabalí, a coordinator with PCN who co-founded the community council of the Agua Blanca River Basin in La Alsacia. In his intervention Adelmo states in one of his comments:

“We are a product of civil resistance. We have suffered three massive displacements and confinement of our people in the territory,” Adelmo tells us. “The first was in 1986 due to the Salvajina hydroelectric plan building in Suarez, Cauca; the next in the 2000s with the incursion of [right-wing] paramilitaries; and then in 2013, when there was a confrontation between the army and left-wing FARC guerrillas,” says Adelmo.


Adelmo Carabalí, member of the community council of La Alsacia. Photo by Angie Larrahondo, ASOM, for RRI.

La Alsacia comprises over 1,088 hectares, of which 550 are allocated for conservation. This organization decided 22 years ago to reject illicit crops promoted by illegal armed groups and to develop its own system of food sovereignty. Today, there are 100 families in La Alsacia mainly dedicated to producing coffee. 

“These productive systems have connectivity corridors with the primary forest, from where animals have easy access to the farm and food…that is what we are aiming for in our organization: to develop environmentally-friendly and sustainable agriculture over time,” says Adelmo.  

In this region, the Afro-descendant Peoples have developed their own land and natural resource management practices in accordance with their ancestral ways of life. Their arduous advocacy has led to the state’s recognition of their right to collective ownership of their lands, and to their use, access, governance, and conservation of these lands which is protected by Chapter 4 of Law 70 of 1993 on ethnic territorial rights.  

Protecting land while fighting multiple threats 

 “Our first fight was with the state to obtain title to the land of collective property. The second was with the growers of illicit crops,” Adelmo says. “People from other areas settled on the hill to burn forests to grow poppy. We had to remove them from the territory and create internal regulations that prohibit cultivation for illicit use or processing. To this day, we sometimes find coca processing laboratories during our patrols and have to confront them again despite their threats.”  

Since 1993, 5.7 million hectares have been titled for Afro-descendant communities in the country, including Northern Cauca and Buenaventura. However, the work of ASOM and PCN goes beyond titling. From the beginning of the land legalization process, the communities of Northern Cauca and Buenaventura determined that some areas within their titles should have special protection in the conservation framework. 

In this vein, these communities, PCN and ASOM with RRI’s support,  are seeking to create a Community System of Protected Areas, which proposes a rights-based conservation model focused on people. This approach was developed by anthropologist and PCN co-founder, Carlos Rosero. Rosero is also known for his huge contributions to Law 70 of 1993, considered one of the most influential regulatory frameworks in Latin America for developing land tenure policies for Afro-descendant Peoples.  

“With these areas, we seek environmental recovery and conservation and the preservation of life at all levels in our territories,” says ASOM’s Clemencia Carabalí. “In 2021, we began a project to identify these areas with the support of RRI. Now we have just started a second exercise to identify their ecosystem services. This will help us determine ways to continue exercising our economic autonomy and possibilities of conserving the territory.” 

One of the community council’s projects is the creation of an ecotourism strategy. “We are very hopeful that peace will become a reality in our territories and that people will be able to come and enjoy what these lands hold without fear. We also aspire to build development strategies for these territories we are protecting, but from our worldview as an ethnic group,” says Luz Deifa Carabalí, a member of the La Alsacia community council.  

La Alsacia, community council, north Cauca, Colombia. Photo by Angie Larrahondo, ASOM for RRI.

The harmony between Afro-descendant communities and nature has allowed the region to remain a global biodiversity conservation hotspot. However, their efforts to retain their lifestyles have also cost them lives. 

“Our territory is among those with the most landmines in the country, since we were frequently at the center of the confrontation between the guerrillas and the army–so much so that La Alsacia is a priority territory for humanitarian de-mining in the Peace Agreement signed by the FARC and the government of Colombia. This priority unfortunately has not been fulfilled,” says Adelmo Carabalí.  

In a public statement, demobilized former FARC commanders recognized that the Alsacia community council was one of the most organized bodies they had encountered. However, humanitarian de-mining efforts would be impossible to carry out there, as the explosives operators who installed the mines are no longer alive and there is no record of the mines’ exact location.   

Adelmo says that, fortunately, some mines have exploded during fires or lightning rains without harming any member of the community. “Last year…there was an accidental fire that burned much of the forest. Mines exploded each time the flames advanced,” says Adelmo. 

Also at the meeting is Leidy Johana Bastidas an artisanal miner, farmer, and member of the Cerro Teta Community Council and ASOM. She tells us, “At ASOM, we have been advancing a process of environmental recovery and reforestation in Cerro Teta with the objective of recovering native tree species in danger of extinction, mainly due to mining.” 

Cerro Teta was the first community council created at the national level and is cited as a success story of defending ethnic-territorial rights in the country, particularly as it is a territory shared between Afro-descendant Peoples and Indigenous Peoples. However, today Cerro Teta is embroiled in conflict between paramilitaries and guerrilla dissidents fighting to control illegal exploitation of gold. 

“The hill is rich in gold, which has made it an object of dispute between paramilitaries and guerrillas, with the communities resisting to preserve the ecosystem and take care of their territories in the middle,” says Clemencia.

Meeting and Guardia Cimarrona by Angie Larrahondo, ASOM for RRI.

Untold stories of resistance  

The territories of Northern Cauca and Buenaventura have many stories of resistance and rights-based community conservation that are still unknown to the general public. ASOM’s audiovisual group Las Renacientes has made an effort to document some of these with the support of RRI, and together, we will continue to produce and share these stories to support their struggle for territorial rights and community-led conservation. 

“More and more we learn of young people from displaced families who went to the cities and were returned in little boxes to bury them, because they had no opportunities there and joined gangs… this is a loss of generation that we cannot continue to allow,” concludes Adelmo Carabalí. “Instead of going down to the cities, we went to the mountains, where we managed to build (an organization) and project and provide a better future for our young people.”


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