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March 30, 2007

Press Contact: Sarah Cline, Rapoport Center, (512) 232-4857, scline@law.utexas.edu.

Students Return from Colombia Fact-Finding Trip on Afrodescendant Rights

Progressive Land Rights Legislation Has Not Lived up to its Promise

Photo of trip on Afrodescendant Rights
UT students (L-R) Kendall Zanowiak (LLILAS), Rob Davenport (LLILAS), Josh Clark (LLILAS), Alysia Childs (Anthropology) and project assistant Elizabeth Walsh meet with a volunteer from CODHES, the primary Colombian organization that compiles information and statistics on displacement.

AUSTIN, Texas–In 1993, Colombia passed some of the most progressive legislation in the world for guaranteeing the collective property rights of an Afrodescendant minority population. The rights that were promised, however, are far from realized, as years of armed conflict, the expansion of agriculture and tourist projects, and narco-trafficking have all impeded the realization of the legislation’s objectives.

A multidisciplinary group of students from The University of Texas at Austin spent their recent spring break in Colombia investigating the effectiveness of legislative measures meant to protect Afro-Colombian property rights. In May, the eight graduate students–from the School of Law, School of Public Affairs, Institute of Latin American Studies, and Department of Anthropology–will submit a report on their findings to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as well as to U.S. policy-makers. Hoping to shed light on the obstacles faced by Afro-Colombians in exercising their communal rights to property, the students’ report will be used by the Commission to assess the situation of and prepare its special report on Afro-Colombian rights.

“Afrodescendants are thought to comprise close to 25 percent of the Colombian population, and it is impossible to fully grasp the devastation wrought by decades of armed conflict in Colombia without studying the impact the war has had on the territorial rights of Afro-Colombians,” said UT law professor Karen Engle, director of the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, who coordinated and accompanied the students on the visit.

Photo of trip on Afrodescendant Rights
UT delegation in Soacha, a displaced community south of Bogotá, during the Colombia Spring Break Project. (Photograph by Kendall Zanowiak.)

Arriving in the late evening of March 10, the students’ first day in Bogotá found them in a city essentially on lockdown due to President George W. Bush’s March 11 visit. Despite the extensive presence of military, police and protestors, the streets were eerily quiet, especially for a Bogotá Sunday, the day of the week that Bogotá residents generally spend bicycling, running and enjoying the city’s many green spaces.

Beginning Monday, the students spent the week meeting with Afro-Colombian and human rights organizations, Colombian government officials, representatives from non-governmental organizations, U.S. government representatives, and Colombian academics to attempt to understand the multiple perspectives on the development of the 1993 legislation. The delegation also visited Soacha, a displaced community on the outskirts of Bogotá, where a number of members of Afrodescendant communities from the Pacific coast area live. During their visit to the massive settlement, students had lunch with a community leader who had met with President Bush during his visit in hopes of raising his awareness of the effect of the Colombian internal conflict on Afro-Colombians.

A part of the delegation then traveled to Cartagena, to meet with Afro-Colombian community leaders and residents in the Caribbean, where communities are beginning to consider options for claiming collective territorial rights.

Photo of law student meeting with community leaders under a thatched-roof pavilion
LLILAS student Sylvia Romo meets with community leaders in the Islas del Rosario, the day after the Colombian government’s first attempt to evict an Afro-Colombian occupant from the land.

“Most of the work on the impact of the 1993 legislation has focused on the Pacific,” said Josh Clark, who is completing the second year of his master’s degree in Latin American Studies. “Many activists with whom we spoke demonstrated that the land tenure system on the Atlantic coast is extremely precarious, and local African-descent populations have very limited options for protecting their territories,” Clark explained. “Worse, it is the drive to develop megaprojects aimed at foreign tourists that threatens their livelihoods and forces them from familial and, in many cases, ancestral land.”

In addition to learning of the complex issues involving the human rights of Afro-Colombians, the students also learned interviewing and fact-finding skills. Now they turn to the final phase of the project, writing the report.

“I am so grateful for the opportunity to travel to Colombia. The experience was engaging and humbling at the same time, and I hope that with the report we will increase the pressure on the Colombian state to protect and respect all of its citizens,” said Paul Di Blasi, a second-year law student (2L).

Amber VanSchuyver, also a 2L, added, “The trip helped to solidify my interest in human rights law. It was extremely beneficial to learn about human rights in a real-life setting and to meet people whose lives have been directly affected by the issues that we are studying.”

The delegation’s students were accompanied by Rapoport Center staff and Colombian researchers. Their trip was sponsored by the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. It was co-sponsored by the Center for Sociolegal Studies at the Law Faculty of the University of Los Andes and the Social Studies Center of the Humanities Faculty at the National University of Colombia.

Related Links:

Colombia Spring Break Project: http://www.utexas.edu/law/academics/centers/humanrights/projects_and_publications/spring-break2007.php

Members of the Colombia Delegation: http://www.utexas.edu/law/academics/centers/humanrights/students/spring_break07_bios.html

Colombia Spring Break Photo Gallery: http://www.utlaw.org/photogallery/v/rapoport/album13/

Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice: http://www.utexas.edu/law/academics/centers/humanrights/