CSU study aims to increase resilience, unity in Colombia’s Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities

story by Cyrus Martin
published April 29, 2021

Anchicayá River, Buenaventura, Colombia. Photo by Marcela Velasco/CSU College of Liberal Arts.

What happens to the values of conservation and sustainability in the face of perpetual conflict?

Marcela Velasco, associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, has spent several years researching that question. Much of her professional career has been devoted to ethnic politics and social movements, local governance and territorial politics, environmental justice and institutional change throughout Latin America, and Colombia in particular.

In 2018 and 2019, Velasco led a research study to better understand the complex relationships evolving among Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities along Colombia’s Pacific coast that have endured decades of violent conflict. She looked at the years leading up to and following the signing of peace agreements between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.

“The intent of our study was to see how the communities were dealing with the situation after the peace agreements,” said Velasco. “And what we found was there was a lot of trauma, a lot of concern.”

The study explores the impacts of ongoing conflict on the region’s largely isolated populations. Velasco partnered with the ethnic rights NGO Jenzerá Work Collective to train 36 young and emerging community leaders to conduct interviews with local ethnic rights advocates, traditional authorities and others.

Marcela Velasco smiling, outside on sunny day with blurred backdrop of trees, wearing prescription glasses, a scarf, and a blue puffy jacket.
Marcela Velasco

With a grant from CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability, Velasco was able to partially cover the cost of transportation, materials and other expenses for the Jenzerá students to conduct the survey.

The goal was to educate and equip community members with research skills to help them understand and preserve the sustainability of some of Colombia’s most marginalized peoples and the biodiverse ecosystems on which their cultures, economies and livelihoods depend.

History of conflict

Conservation is deeply engrained in Colombia’s Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, which have achieved a certain harmony with their natural environment through generations of traditional activities such as fishing, forestry and agriculture.

Velasco noted that these communities have better records of conservation than others in the region that have been more heavily impacted by conflict, especially conflict resulting from the encroachment of extractive logging and mining industries, as well as armed groups trying to cultivate coca for cocaine production.

For generations, the region’s inhabitants found refuge in the dense rainforest between the Pacific coast and the Andes Mountains, and remained mostly insulated from central Colombia’s dominant economy, development and political influence.

“These populations escaped colonization and slavery,” said Velasco. “They escaped control by Spaniards and later from other national elites and recreated these communities. And they conserved the forest.”

“In those parts of the region where communities have control of their forests, where the institutions and authorities are in place, there is conservation.” 

— Marcela Velasco, CSU College of Liberal Arts

Humanes Mar, Buenaventura, Colombia. Photo by Marcela Velasco.

The landscape and territorial dynamics began to shift in the 1950s and 1960s as new technologies evolved, making it easier for prospectors and extractive industries to exploit the region’s resources. Big businesses raced to clear-cut forests for timber and mine the area for gold, oil and minerals – activities that take a massive environmental toll.

As conflict intensified into the 1980s, the local communities organized a social movement to establish territorial rights over their lands. The Colombian government responded with legislation granting them formal ownership of more than 30% of the country’s territory, primarily in strategic areas to preserve its rich biodiversity and critical natural resources.

“In those parts of the region where communities have control of their forests, where the institutions and authorities are in place, there is conservation,” said Velasco.

In the 1990s, the region again became the site of armed conflict as more guerilla groups encroached. Some sought refuge, while others controlled routes to illegally traffic narcotics, weapons and people.

“Conflict became really intense in the region,” Velasco said. “You started to see almost a situation of genocide.”

The 2016 peace agreements between the Colombian government and the FARC resulted in a reduction of combat-related violence, but other types of violence spiked, particularly violence against leaders and institutions working to conserve natural resources and protect the rights of communities.

Despite the ratified peace agreements, forced displacement, land dispossession and violence still persist in the region.

Conservation through collaboration

Landscape photo of student trainees from 2018 Jenzerá Work Collective cohort. Lush green background.
Landscape photo of student trainees from 2019 Jenzerá Work Collective cohort. Lush green background.

2018 (left) and 2019 (right) Jenzerá Interethnic School for Conflict Resolution cohorts. Photos courtesy of Jenzerá Work Collective.

Working closely with Jenzerá, Velasco designed and oversaw the survey process with support from Indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders participating in Jenzerá’s Interethnic School for Conflict Resolution, which the organization created in 2007 to deliver educational workshops and training programs to the communities.

“The idea is to train the next generation of potential leaders, mostly young adults who are recognized by their organizations as having some kind of potential to eventually take on leadership positions in their communities,” Velasco said.

Jenzerá’s curriculum for the 2018 and 2019 cohorts was already focused on research methodology and community engagement, so the goals of Velasco’s study naturally aligned.

With the organization’s support, Velasco led the students through a series of trainings in collaborative methodologies and information-gathering. She facilitated meetings to help students adapt their research to local conditions by using accessible language, protecting privacy of sources, navigating security and travel restrictions and more.

Students in the 2018 cohort conducted the first round of interviews to understand locals’ views on territory, community organizing and decision-making, and the health of local ecosystems and economies.

“The results were incredible,” said Velasco. “What the students were able to do and the effect and the impact it had on them was really, really important.”

Two student trainees practicing interviewing. Student on the left, wearing a red shirt, looks at an open book as the student on the right, wearing a white polo, points to the papers and open book on a desk in front of the other student.

Student trainees practice interviewing before conducting formal interviews with community members. Photo courtesy of Jenzerá Work Collective, 2019.

Replicating Velasco’s process and approach, Jenzerá took the lead on the second round of interviews in 2019, which assessed social and environmental trauma and sources of social resilience.

“We were able to reach more people, and the people were much more supportive,” she said. “The students felt empowered and learned a lot about the history of their communities, their environment, their livelihoods and the problems in their communities.”

Participating students asked 20 open-ended questions of 195 individuals who were recognized for their knowledge of organizational history, culture, politics, conflict resolution, health or production. Interviewees included teachers, health promoters, communicators, community leaders, midwives, and natural resource managers and producers, among others – representing 45 communities across four departments (Colombia’s equivalent of states).

Both rounds of interviews revealed that the communities continue to confront similar challenges: unemployment, lack of social and economic support programs, diminished and fragmented communications between neighbors, environmental degradation and the presence of illegal groups. A particular vulnerability was noticed among young people with limited access to quality education.

Pathways to peace

After coding and analyzing raw data from the interviews, Velasco compiled a 30,500-word report with quantitative and qualitative indicators on local perspectives around conflict and the environment. Ultimately, Velasco sees the report serving as a tool to support and inform community leaders as they navigate emerging challenges.

Velasco is working with Jenzerá to share her insights with Colombian authorities and the communities surveyed to guide and inform further coordination and collective resiliency.

“It was a truly collaborative process,” Velasco said. “Without [Jenzerá’s] trust and conviction that this could work, I wouldn’t have been able to do something like this and cover so many communities.”

While the impacts of Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement were in some ways counterproductive and even detrimental to Colombia’s Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, Velasco hopes the study’s findings will empower and inspire local leaders toward collective action to help conserve their land, resources and health for future generations.