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Girl Power, Chimila and Mokana Style. Experiences with the Duty to Consult in Colombia: Part Two

December 2, 2011

N.B. Please see Part One (Magic Realism of Miami Vice?) for the background to this post.

My second consultation was in the north of the country, outside of Santa Marta.  These consultations were with the Chimila and Mokana people of the Caribbean coast.

Beach Shot, El Rodadero

The meetings were held in el Rodadero, a tourist town just outside of Santa Marta.  Everyone involved in the consultations, the government representatives, the representatives of the indigenous organizations, and all of the indigenous people, all stayed in the same hotel.  Though we’ve had many interesting accommodations during these consultations, this place was really a dive.  One thing I came to appreciate during my travels for these consultations is the varying degrees of quality of food.  It really made me appreciate the differences in quality of food available to people, in particular what we serve “poor” people.  At times during this experience I felt like I’d been eating in a soup kitchen for a month.  What’s so bad about that you ask? Sure, people do it every day but experiencing such poor quality of food made me realize that going to a soup kitchen for food is something much more than just being unable to afford to feed yourself.

As with the other consultations, all of the meals were included during these consultations.  The government of course foots the bill.  The sad thing about this was that the food was so awful the government representatives starting eating out right from the start.  I felt too guilty to do this, having the majority of the indigenous people eating this awful food while those who could afford it went to restaurants. I tried to hold out, but there was only so long I was willing to do it when with every spoonful that went into my mouth I could feel myself getting sick. Finally when not only the representatives of the government, but also the other representatives of the indigenous organization started eating at restaurants, I gave in and started eating out as well.

As for the meetings, these consultations could not have been more different from our consultations in Cucuta.  The people here were actually excited about the new decree and the law.  The atmosphere was completely different, there was none of the tension that there had been in Cucuta and the people were all hailing our boss as the father of the indigenous people. He is actually an indigenous leader from the Darien Gap area (once known as the most dangerous place in the world), also located here on the northern Caribbean coast.

ONIC's Consejero Mayor (the Boss) addressing the room at the consultations in Santa Marta

Unlike the consultations in Cucuta, these consultations went pretty much according to plan.  There were none of the protests against the consultation or suggestions that it should be downgraded to a “socialization” of the law.  We basically followed the prepared agenda; the first day was spent on presentations teaching people about the law and the second day we moved to small group discussions on the various parts of the law.

There are a couple of points that really stuck out from the Santa Marta consultations. One is the fact that we can’t just paint “indigenous peoples” with one brush. Even working within an indigenous organization, everyone always refers to “the indigenous people” and how they have a completely different view of the universe (cosmovision) than non-indigenous persons. Obviously this acknowledgement is a step in the right direction but these consultations made me realize the importance of acknowledging that every “indigenous group” is not the same. The fact that a people is indigenous does not mean they all have the same needs or goals. Certain indigenous groups, like any group of people, will have different opinions than others, and it is important to recognize this as well.  The opinions of the Chimila and Mokana peoples could not have been more different from the U’Wa and Bari in Cucuta. Of course many of their base needs are the same but given their distinct histories and cultures, their opinions on the law and their proposals were very different. This was a very important realization for me during this consultation, and something I didn’t even realize I had been doing.

Indigenous Authority Addressing the Room, Santa Marta Consultations

Man translating from Spanish to the Chimila language, explaining a slide during the presentation about the heightened effects of the armed conflict on women. Day 1, Santa Marta Consultations

Crowd listening to presentations, Day 1 of Consultations, Santa Marta

Day 2: Commissions

The most touching part of this consultation was by far and away the commissions on the second day.  In Cucuta we had not made it this far in the agenda and missed out on this experience. These small groups or “commissions” dealt with all of major themes of the decree (restitution of land, specific effects on certain vulnerable groups, etc.). I sat in on the Women’s Commission and it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.  These women, their stories, and their willingness to share those stories, truly impacted me. It also threw me into a crisis about women’s rights that hits me about once a year when I am working with these issues, hearing stories from victims of domestic abuse etc. that leaves me wondering if men aren’t in fact a completely distinct species (This may seem harsh but I’m in good company: Strombo Interview with Michele Landsberg and Stephen Lewis ).

At first the women were slow to volunteer to tell their stories but after a couple women went ahead, more and more took the microphone and by the end women were lining up to tell their stories. When people came to tell us we had to wrap it up the women refused, one woman put it best when she said I haven’t said my words. The commission seemed very healing for these women, what an opportunity for the women of a community to get together with women of all ages, all sharing their experiences.  I thought to myself, aside from the armed conflict, imagine how amazing it would be in any community to have everyone there in an open and supportive environment like that to just share their experiences. How important, especially for young girls to hear the experiences of the older women and know they are not alone in whatever they are facing.  The commission was only women and the one time when an elderly man came by he was shooed away by the women.  These commissions are crucial because as I saw at the Cucuta consultations, although there may be many women attending the events, barely any take the microphone and speak during the meetings when men are present.

These women are from an area that has been largely affected by the armed conflict but also by many multinational corporations operating in the area.  Almost every woman that was there shared her experience and every single one of those women was a victim on some level. The speeches were powerful, the stories touching.  There were many widows there, now single mothers, some with 4 or 5 children, whose husbands had all been killed by paramilitaries. Many of the widows appeared to still be in their 20s. The women told horror stories of what the groups had done to them and their families.

Women's Commission, Day 2 of Consultations, Santa Marta

One interesting point that contradicted all of the other consultations was that when asked, these women said that there really wasn’t too much sexual violence against them by the armed groups and paramilitaries.  This was surprising given earlier discussions we’ve been part of and story after story, statistic after statistic from this armed conflict and others.  Who knows if for some reason, the women in this region have been largely spared from what is sadly a common practice during armed conflicts, or if they were just not comfortable enough to discuss these events.

What they did want to talk about and what they said was extremely prevalent in their community, was sexual violence against them by their “companeros” (family members, acquaintances, members of their own communities).  As much as they were all victims of the armed conflict they were also all just victims of life.  They told story after story of sexual and physical abuse against them by their husbands or other “companeros”. This is what they wanted to talk about, not the armed conflict.  Sadly there were the same stories of domestic abuse I had heard time after time while working for other NGOs around the world.  Every country I go to the stories are the same, of varying degrees, yes, but similar experiences all for the fact of being women. However as much as these women were victims they did not sound like “victims”, they spoke of empowering themselves and each other and fighting back.

Women sharing their stories of life and the armed conflict in Colombia.

Chimila and Mokana women participate in small group discussions during Day 2 of consultations of El Decreto Ley, in Santa Marta.

At the end of the commission they were asked to come up with proposals, both specific proposals for this law and in general what would help to improve the situation of women affected by the armed conflict. They talked about the need for psychological assistance and how once a woman endures the realities of armed conflict she is no longer the same and how it not only affects her but she transfers that pain to her children. They proposed further education for girls and women and asked for compensation to be able to support their families. But the overwhelming response was: to improve the position of these women in their communities there must be an end to the armed conflict. Full stop. Only then could the position of women be improved.

Some parting shots to lighten the mood..sort of. Ominous rain clouds over the beach.

Entrepreneurialism alive and well at the beach: Welcome to Colombia.

Self-Portrait, hiding from the afternoon rains.

Lunch break on the beach, this guy is making me ceviche.

Guilt aside, some of the best ceviche I've ever had.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2011 5:02 pm

    Most informative update on your activities in Columbia. I look forward to the next post with interest. Your loving Aunt Marlene.

  2. December 18, 2011 7:46 pm

    Hi Alison — just spoke with your Mum and told her how much I am enjoying reading of your experiences. Looking forward to the next
    episode – Wishing you and Kevin a Very Merry Christmas and all the
    best for 2012. Your Aunt Pauline

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