Roosbelinda Cardenas Gonzalez, a current Mexican doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has been concerned with the situation of Afro-descendants in Colombia for the last decade or so. Her research focuses on the abuses suffered by African descendents in Colombia and their struggle for rights and recognition, an issue that remains understudied in spite of the strong presence of black communities in that country.
Second to Brazil, Colombia has the largest African descendant population in Latin America (AFRODES, 2007). The U.S. office in Colombia reports that approximately one-quarter of its 45 million citizens are of African descent, with their origins tracing back to 1520 when Africans were forced into slavery. Although the labor of Afro-Colombians has been essential to the economic and cultural growth of Colombia, this population resides predominantly in the most neglected and high conflict regions of the country. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that within the last few months, more than 1,800 people in that region have abandoned their homes due to the increasingly violent struggle between illegal armed groups to control mining and coca plant growing activities.
Yet it is noteworthy that within Latin American/Americanist scholar's circles Colombia is often viewed as exemplary in its passage of progressive policies protecting the cultural identity and rights of black communities. Indeed, it is this paradoxical combination of progressive politics, violence, and poverty that has motivated Roosbelinda's research and her focus on Ley 70, a law passed in 1993 to grant Afro-descendants cultural rights and territorial rights over the lands belonging to their ancestors.
Though the passage of Ley 70 resulted in more than five million hectares of ancestral lands being titled to Afro-descendents and promised improved conditions for Afro-Colombians, it was also met with systematic acts of violence against Afro-descendants by illegally armed groups supported by developers who saw their power and economic interests being threatened by these changes. The Pacific Coast, which is the third most biodiverse region in the world and the area with the highest percentage of Afro-Colombians in Colombia, witnessed some of the most aggressive forced displacement of black communities in that country. Some reports from AFRODES (2007) indicate that as many as 79% of Afro-Colombians have been forcefully displaced from collectively owned territories. The same reports show that in 2006 alone, in the City of Buenaventura, which houses 47,536 displaced Afro-Colombians, 576 people were brutally assassinated.
In her dissertation, "Remaking the Black Pacific: Place, Race, and Afro-Colombian Displacement," Roosbelinda seeks to address the failures and unintended consequences of Ley 70's implementation. She is particularly interested in understanding the plight of Afro-Colombians to preserve their right to territory within a climate of ongoing violence and capitalist exploitation. Exploration of this topic has demanded a deeply engaged ethnographic approach, she says: "To fully understand the challenges, risks, and achievements of Black Communities in Colombia, I needed to immerse myself in their everyday life to know their territory, their struggle, and their community."
She spent two years doing fieldwork in Colombia, both on the Pacific Coast (a region located between the Pacific Ocean and Cordillera Occidental of the Andes where black communities have created settlements) and in Bogotá, immersing herself within the daily life of local community members and building alliances with a local community council. Cognizant of the dangers involved in conducting research in an area where the lives of political activists are threatened constantly, she managed her relationships with locals carefully and strategically, protecting the anonymity of her informants at all times.
The Association of Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), one of the most visible Afro-Colombian and human rights organizations in Bogotá, was a key research site. Roosbelinda worked with members of AFRODES to formulate and implement public policy and programs to improve the conditions of displaced Afro-Colombians. In an effort to document their experiences and give voice to the abuses they have suffered, she conducted oral histories and participant observation in a peripheral neighborhood of Bogotá where high concentrations of displaced Afro-Colombians have resettled and with a local community council of black communities near Tumaco a city on the littoral border with Ecuador in Southwestern Colombia.
Working in the midst of violent acts and racism has been a meaningful and motivating experience for Roosbelinda. "I am not a passive observer," she says, "I want my research to contribute to the political objectives of the organizations of the Afro-Colombian social movement that I collaborate with. I envision a form of engaged research that builds alliances with those who are most affected by the phenomena that I analyze." Through her voluntary work with Afro-Colombian organizations such as AFRODES and Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PNC), and her participation in academic settings like the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia and the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, she has sought to advance international awareness about the abuses against Afro-Colombians and improve their conditions. At the same time, she notes that the relevance of her research also extends beyond a specific context, shedding light on larger dynamics of politics, race, and diaspora: "My home and object of study is not Mexico but Latin America."
Roosbelinda Cardenas Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Research feature written by Virginia Montero Hernandez, UC MEXUS Resident Scholar