Colombia: The victory

of a Afro Colombian community in the fight for their territory

On May 8th, something historic happened. The government of Colombia finally acknowledged that a black community owns the Caribbean islands it inhabits. After waiting for eight years, the community of Isla Grande and Isleta, in the Rosario Islands, managed to obtain a title that gives them Collective Land Tenure. They never thought they would have to go to the high courts, or that would become an example of the demands of basic rights of ethnic groups, but they did! By Paula Rangel Garzón1, Margarita O. Zethelius, and Carlos Duran.

This story begins on two islands in the middle of Colombia's Caribbean in the height of its natural beauty, with the strength of the black community that inhabits them. Two pieces of land, defined by coral reefs that delineate the edge of firm ground. 

With the Constitution of 199, and Act 70 of 1993, the islanders decided to demand ownership of their territory by Collective Land Tenure. This implied that the island inhabitants would officially own lands previously coveted by many people, especially the most powerful, who wanted to build their homes on the islands for pleasure or hotel projects. So, it would not be an easy task. And indeed, it was not . 

The self determination and ethnicity processes were strengthened when the community began to participate in programs such as environmental education workshops, carrying capacity investigations, definition of navigation routes for protecting the coral reefs, participative investigation on marine and terrestrial species, the creation of cooperatives for garbage recollection, artisan fishing, wood and coconut handcrafts, and ecological guidance for tourists.

This strategy included cultural animation methodologies, where music concerts, games, plays, and performances, became the best ways to generate consciousness to a massive public, composed of inhabitants from the whole protected area (Fiori, et. al., 2001).
The best way to encourage the participation of the whole community, was by empowering them through an environmental approach, that made them think about their welfare and future in their territory.

Several organizations and people that believe in the rights of these communities, supported a beautiful process of reconstruction of the history of the community. Using this information, and with all the legal arguments in 2006, Ever de la Rosa, representing the Community Council, requested of the INCODER (governmental organization responsible for land use), the Collective Title (Land Tenure) of Isla Grande, and Isleta. However, in the process, a legal intricacy appeared. 

Due to a 1912 law, and two resolutions (Incora 1984 and 1986), the island could not be awarded Collective Title. Faced with the dilemma of applying a law from hundred years ago that hindered the decree, and the protection of the constitutional rights of the group requiring collective land tenure, INCODER chose the first option and completely slowed down the application process. 

Then the Community Council went to court to demand the primacy of their constitutional rights. Represented by Dejusticia and GDIP Andes, the group filed a guardianship for a substantive response to respect their right to petition, due process, consultation, physical and cultural integrity, and autonomy. The writ was denied twice, but finally the Constitutional Court ruled in their favor. 

Although it took five years to deliver judgment, the Court ordered (, the INCODER resolve application background qualifications, and warned that a purely legal decision, as it had taken previously, could be unconstitutional because it endowed effectiveness of fundamental rights. 

Based on this order in May, INCODER titled important parts of the islands to the community, also removing the legal barrier to rescind the law as unconstitutional, and gave prevalence to the Constitution to implement fundamental rights. 

Just as the group stated in May 1968: "let's face it, we demand the impossible", in May 2014, a strong black community with excellent leadership, achieved what seemed impossible to many: even the least of the demands. They achieved that the constitutional speech of protection of ethnic and cultural diversity was to materialize. With that solved, this case has also brought a solution to other communities, especially in the Caribbean, that might be in the same situation. 

Now the islands are not only the referent of a Caribbean paradise, but also of the struggle for Collective Land Tenure. This is a very important event, not just for this community but for all the afro-colombian communities. Lots of hope is spreading all around!

Paula Rangel Garzón from Research Centre for Law, Justice and Society


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