August 24th marked a historic day for Colombia. The negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC) reached a conclusion, resulting in the concretization of their peace accord. This is a crucial step towards putting an end to a 52-year war, currently one of the world’s longest running. That was not, however, the only agreement settled on that day by the Colombian government; the other agreement concerned the people of Chocó (“Chocoanos”).
Chocó is a province on the western coast of Colombia. While geographically large, its population is only around 500,000, the vast majority who are Afro-Colombian or Indigenous. Chocó is one of the richest regions in Colombia with regards to its natural resources (oil, gold, platinum), yet approximately two-thirds of Chocoanos live below the poverty line, and the United Nations has classified 42% as living in “extreme poverty,” making Chocó the poorest province in Colombia. Over a third of the districts in the region do not have reliable or continual access to electricity; poor and dangerous road conditions have resulted in many deaths; and there are numerous reports of Chocoanos, mainly children, dying from preventable causes, such as contaminated water and easily treatable diseases (for some recent examples, see here, here, or here). Furthermore, many Chocoanos have been direct and indirect victims of the decades of violence and war in Colombia.
Consequently, on July 20th of this year, the 206th anniversary of Colombia’s independence from Spain, not all Colombians were to be found celebrating. Instead, in Quibdó, the capital of Chocó, more than 40,000 people came out to protest the abandonment of the province by the government, choosing to hoist the flag of Chocó instead of the national flag. The Civic Committee for the Salvation and Dignity of Chocó, which organized this event, subsequently prepared the region for a non-violent, civic strike. “I see the strike as just and necessary,” said Andrés* from Istmina, Chocó, when we asked him about his thoughts on the matter. “The civic strike is necessary for the least favoured class,” he explained, “because Chocó has been forgotten for more than 500 years. The government mistreats Chocó and doesn’t give sufficiently.”
The strike commenced on Wednesday, August 17th, with the closing of all stores, businesses, and schools as well as the stoppage of transportation. This type of strike was not unfamiliar to the region. There have been five previous civic strikes in its history (1954, 1967, 1987, 2000, and 2009). “Like almost always in Chocó,” said Luisa* from Istmina, “everything that you want to achieve here has to happen through a strike. Whenever you want to ask something of the central government, there has to be a strike.” The national government responded to the strike, entering into negotiations with The Civic Committee over ten areas of concern, including health, economic development, public services and infrastructure, and territorial defense and security.
The Civic Committee made clear its refusal to end the strike until an agreement was reached concerning all areas of concern. The civil strike lasted eight days, finally ending on August 24th with the announcement of a settled agreement. Amongst many other things, the agreement included commitments to improving the major highways in and out of Chocó, increased funding for existing health infrastructure and the creation of additional hospitals, and providing electricity for the districts currently disconnected from the national electrical grid. (For those interested, the full agreement can be found in Spanish on The Civic Committee’s Facebook page.)
While this is a positive outcome for the people of Chocó, it is one that cannot be seen outside of the history of corruption in the province, which has included some of its Governors. “I think that the Chocoano people should have expressed to the central government a long time ago the feeling of being forgotten and abandoned that overwhelms us constantly,” Laura* asserted, “but this strike should have also been directed towards our local government leaders because of the corruption and poor management that they give the resources that the central government sends.” Likewise, Luisa* expressed, “The strike that just happened was for the same reasons as the other strikes, for education, roadways, health. Let’s say the [national] government does something to respond to the strike, but the money that arrives for the projects decreases from the central government and also in the hands of the local leaders. It’s a fight that won’t end if the behaviour of the government leaders doesn’t change. They say that with this strike there will be more vigilance, but many people say that they don’t believe in this strike because the money stays with the leaders.”
Andrés* presented a similar perspective, commenting that while the strike was necessary, “the only serious [area of concern] is the administration of resources. It’s like a double-edged sword. Resources are misspent. The national government has blame for this because they don’t investigate the functionaries, the government workers. The results are not seen like they should be.” As Laura* expressed, “This agreement will have a positive impact in the department if there is serious and consistent oversight on the part of the central government for all of the processes and works here in the Chocó. On the contrary, the same as always will continue happening: the government sends the resources for works in Chocó, and they aren’t enough or they disappear.”
Whether or not this civil strike and its subsequent agreement will result in significant, beneficial changes for the people of Chocó can only be known over time. Regardless, we think it is important to place this matter within the wider context of the Colombian desire for peace. All too often “peace” is used only in the narrow, negative sense of “the absence of war or conflict.” Peace can, however, also be understood positively as signifying well-being, harmony, health, security, prosperity, and just restoration. With a holistic understanding of peace that takes into account both the negative and positive dynamics, it becomes clear that the agreement between the Colombian government and The Civic Committee is, in fact, about obtaining peace. Accordingly, both agreements settled on August 24th by the Colombian government can be seen as peace agreements, and if there is to be the possibility of peace—of true peace—in Colombia, both are vitally important.
*Names have been changed in order to protect the identities of our participants. We truly and gratefully thank them for their time and insights.
By: Daniel Christie & Carrie Vereide