Welcome to Buenaventura and its Indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples
Container hoists at the port of Buenaventura, seen from our hotel balcony. | Eric A. Gordon/PW

BUENAVENTURA, Colombia — This South American nation’s port cities on the Caribbean Coast are fairly well known—Santa Marta, Barranquilla and Cartagena, the latter two much visited tourist destinations. On the Pacific Coast are Tumaco and the larger port of Buenaventura. These ports are seldom included on tourist routes. But Buenaventura was a major focus of the January 2023 Witness for Peace delegation I participated in.

Buena ventura” means “good fortune,” and indeed the port has contributed to the fortunes of Colombia’s elite who have desirable exports to ship out of the country—minerals, gems, agricultural products, including a hardly clandestine trade in coca, one of Colombia’s principal exports.

Colombia’s main port on the Pacific was founded as early as 1540, but was presciently destroyed by the Indigenous peoples before 1600. Later it was rebuilt as a major import-export site for trade with Mexico, Peru, North America and Asia. With the rise of important producing nations such as India, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Australia, the Asian market has now become as important as the U.S. and European. The port of Buenaventura accounts for almost 60% of all Colombian imports and exports by sea.

A Wan Hai truck headed for Buenaventura. | Eric A. Gordon/PW

The population of the city is estimated now at close to 450,000, and its makeup is unusual, even for multi-racial Colombia. The share of African-descent Colombians in the city is 85%, with whites and mestizos another 11.5%, and Indigenous 1.5%. The majority of Afro-Colombians can be traced back to colonial times when enslaved Africans were brought to this department of Valle del Cauca to work the mines and sugarcane and other plantations. As one might surmise, it is among Colombia’s poorest cities.

Water in this low-lying coastal area is the principal local feature, not only the ocean which brought prosperity (to a few), but the many rivers that flow around and into and through it. Along those rivers many communities of Maroons and Indigenous peoples thrived for centuries, living peaceably off the land.

The port must employ thousands of workers, one imagines, and this is true. At one time organized labor on the waterfront helped to protect the workers’ rights and interests. But today, unions are seldom spoken of. The neoliberal agenda foisted on Colombia by the U.S. through its “Plan Colombia” spelled out that unions were to be decimated and broken up. Both local police forces and, more generally, armed paramilitary groups operating as cloaked agents of the state, unleashed a decades-long reign of terror against labor officials and activists that paralleled the terror in the countryside against campesino and other land defenders. Today, the port relies heavily on mechanized loading and unloading of containers, and workers are subject to precarious work schedules at best. If there are still active trade unionists trying to organize, they keep their heads low.

After a several hours-long scenic drive in our van across the sierra, passing lakes, small towns, and majestic mountain scenery, we descended into the lowlands approaching Buenaventura. As our driver threaded his way through the city to our hotel right at the ocean’s edge, we could see the evidence of poverty just about everywhere we looked, one barrio after another crammed with substandard construction and meager commercial activity.

We wound up at the Hotel Tequendama Inn Estación, a refuge of real tropical elegance with colonnaded open spaces and a large swimming pool, located directly on the coast immediately adjacent to the malecón, the recreational seaboard promenade, now an attraction with rides, exercise machines, kiosks, fast-food restaurants and ice cream counters. The elegant hotel would be our home for two nights.

We noticed various UN personnel among the fellow guests: They were in town to attend a human rights caravan on the San Juan and Calima Rivers trying to draw attention to the displaced communities of the area. The hotel is immediately adjacent to the port: Tall cranes and container hoists tower over the skies just a few meters away, but behind locked gates.

Displaced communities the focus

Indeed, the displaced communities would be the daylong focus of our three Thurs., Jan. 19 visits to distinct sites in and around Buenaventura. A big port city naturally employs workers, houses their families and the auxiliary economy needed to support the essential purpose of the town—including our hotel, where major global importers and exporters have been lodging since the early 1900s.

But that only partially explains why the population of this port city is so big. North American corporations have their eyes set on mineral extraction in the area and have bought up leases that require the expulsion of Native communities—some of them, ironically, in the name of “carbon exchange,” dismissive of the fact that these Indigenous and Maroon communities already contribute about the least carbon impact of anyone in the world.

If the corporations can kick the inhabitants off their land, in many cases after prehistoric years of occupancy, then maybe one day in the future, when the world is no longer so fixated on carbon reduction or is simply not paying attention, they can start extracting fossil fuels, lithium, precious ores or whatever else they find there.

The riverine geography of this part of the country has over the years produced any number of small “tribes,” many with their own languages and cultures, who inhabit the riverbanks and make their lives there. Natives lived in communities upriver from Maroon settlements of escaped African-Colombians who also developed their own way of life.

The other reason displacement is occurring on such a massive scale is that plans are afoot to enlarge the port, and that means taking over these communal lands to the north. Just around the bend north of Buenaventura sits the Naval Base ARC Bahía Málaga, one of the military bases the U.S. either maintains or works together with the Colombians to enforce bilateral policy.

With all the ships passing the base every day, many loaded with coca leaves or processed cocaine, the military base apparently doesn’t notice. Bahía Málaga is now also being promoted as a new biodiversity hotspot, nature preserve, and ecotourism destination with deluxe resort facilities.

These are the principal reasons why Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities are being separated from their traditional territorios, many at gunpoint from various armed groups, and why they have flooded into the nearby city in search of jobs, food, protection and relief.

Proceso de Comunidades Negras

We visited an Afro-Colombian community center to meet with a dozen or so representatives, only two of them women, from some of these displaced communities. Each person testified, but the stories were similar:

“Colombia so desperately needs international solidarity. We celebrate the current government’s proposal for Total Peace, but it’s extremely difficult to implement. It’s impossible to dialogue with all these armed actors: Talking with one or two leaves out all the others. But we have hope in the government. We’re still victims of the conflict, still waiting for reparations from the past. And at every step we encounter new twists in the story. We have both confusion and hope. Disappearances, displacements, massacres, all sorts of abuses. How are we expected to live?”

A row of participants at the Afro-Colombian community center. | Eric A. Gordon/PW

“We are not living a dignified life in the city. Close to 40% of our river communities have been evicted. Those remaining are confined, and can’t work their lands.”

“We’ve tried to speak with Francia [Márquez], who hasn’t met with us yet. They have to consult with us because we know things they don’t. They need to coordinate with us. This government is transitory. Our whole education system is in ruins. The government needs to protect us, collectively not individually.

“In general, they’re killing us. We not only believe in God, but believe God. The national government does not respect that we are an important part of the Colombian population. Healthcare is critical. There’s no real alternative for those who grow coca. Despite everything we see, God is in control.”

Someone from our delegation asked, “Who are the overall beneficiaries of violence and displacement?”

“If they displace the population, anyone has a free pass—mining companies, drug traffickers, etc. It’s almost as though the protections of the Peace Accords never happened, with the complicity of state institutions, hotels, zoos, various contracting companies. To some extent the participation of the Black communities is window dressing. They accepted church representatives as sufficient to represent the Black community.

The war benefits the few: We are an economic niche from whom resources are extracted. One of those negotiating today is a bishop who hasn’t recognized our communal rights: He believes peace is just the absence of armed conflict. It needs to be a social investment, taking into account differences between urban and rural needs. Peace has to be with us, at the middle and lower ranks, not just at the top.”


“Yes, their main object is profit and resources. They claim to be preserving nature, but we are the ones taking care of nature.”

Hand-painted posters at the community center: ‘Territory is life and life is not possible without territory’ and ‘Because this land is ours, completely ours.’ | Eric A. Gordon/PW

“Coastal and riverine economies require the distribution of food, and that is intercepted by armed forces. Without the rural area, there is no city. And there’s an extortionary tax on foodstuffs entering the city. Many lives would have been saved if the measures implemented in our urban areas had also been implemented in rural areas.”

At the end of our session, one of the women came up with a visionary proposal: “Life is not possible without our territories,” she said. “If you’re going to deport me to Bogotá, then build a skyscraper for me and all my family and community to live in. That value is what our land is worth.”

The Nonam people from the San Juan River

A half hour drive north of the city took our delegation to a thickly forested area set apart from the road, where members of the communal group—Comuna 12—are currently living. Several of their leaders were not present today—they were back up on the San Juan and Calima Rivers with the human rights caravan.

The Nonam are one of the many Indigenous peoples who have been displaced from their ancestral homeland. Alexander and Luz explain how they were forced to leave last February. Their communal land rights were officially granted back in 1985, but over time their territorio was whittled away from them, until finally there was not enough to live on.

An offer came from the mayor of Buenaventura to stay on this land, with a few buildings on it, including the communal hall in which we gathered, but that support was temporary at best. The mayor stopped paying rent for the land and now the owner’s deadline to clear out had already passed. The community is worried about its future. Its fate is simply not in their control. Interestingly, here no one speaks of God.

“We try to keep up our dances and songs, so we don’t forget them,” says Marisela, “but we’re not used to living this way.” The meager subsidy of food and money they receive is far from adequate, but in any case, it’s not the food they’re accustomed to, and it’s difficult to cook meals here.

Nineteen families live here, with a total of 89 inhabitants. All contributed their work and talents to the community without monetary compensation, even the midwife and doctor.

“We’re not used to sitting on chairs—we’re used to sitting on the ground. We make articles of handicraft but have no place to sell them. Everything is money. At night I cry and wonder how unfair it is and how this happened. We’re waiting. We don’t want to split up, each one in their own house somewhere. We don’t know where we’re going or where will wind up. We had to leave all our things behind. It hurts to think about our gatherings with other communities, including the Afro-Colombians, that we can’t have anymore.”

Someone asked about the Nonam language. There is a Nonam Educational Institute which has issued a bilingual book to help teach the children, with stories in Spanish and Nonam, that’s used up to the 9th grade.

Nonam with their intricate basketry work. | Eric A. Gordon/PW

“We have an artisans committee,” one of the community members mentioned at the end, modestly inviting us to see their work. Several of us purchased beaded jewelry and woven baskets.

Later, as I thought about this small, specific cultural group and its possible eventual fate—expulsion, hunger, dispersion into the big cities, loss of language and traditions—the word “genocide” occurred to me. If it’s the appropriate term to use, well, it would hardly be the first and only time in the Americas.

The safest place in Buenaventura

Travel advisories for Buenaventura say to pay special care to your surroundings, always go out in a group, don’t call attention to yourself. It’s one reason we stayed at the Hotel Tequendama, by far the classiest digs we enjoyed on this delegation.

We’d already had quite a full day, driving to two community visits and intense conversations. But we had one more encounter before the day finished, a visit to the Naya Bridge Humanitarian Space (“Espacio Humanitario Puente Nayera” en español). It’s a self-constructed neighborhood of Buenaventura, not a literal bridge, but a figurative connection to the danger-ridden metropolis for refugees and displaced persons from the Naya River area a couple of hours away by boat.

Well regulated, well patrolled, with the tacit understanding that under normal circumstances armed police are not to enter the confines of this urban village, residents call it the safest place in Buenaventura. Although curiously, the day we were there, armed police were visible all up and down the main street.

Nora Isabel Castillo Panameño met us at a community center a block or so in from the entrance gate to the village. It’s a newly built structure, with a kitchen and meeting rooms. Marimbas, drums and other musical instruments indicate there’s a music school there and they have an ensemble that performs at public events. It’s a space for memory, for dancing, for refuge.

The village of Puente Nayera at the farthest edge of land. | Eric A. Gordon/PW

Nora spoke of the history of this unique place that, despite its poverty, nevertheless presented many (from a First World point of view) “charming” photo opportunities as the street descended toward the waterfront and the homes started rising up not on land but on stilts over the water. The farther you walk, you’re actually standing on a rickety structure balanced on pickup sticks over the waters of the harbor itself, with views of the ocean to die for. Inevitably, we heard, the place is destined for a major upgrade, with a hotel, restaurant and nightclub attracting tourists to this, as I say, picturesque locale. One tsunami, even one great tidal wave, could wipe out this community, at least the fragile above-water edge of it, in an instant.

But why are these people from the Naya River here? The community was founded in 2014 after living in their ancestral territorio through wave after wave of systemic violence by state actors. The government, the military, the foreign corporations and the port interests had other plans for the Naya River that required its depopulation.

Some 70% of the people in Puente Nayera are from the River Naya, starting with the first massacres in 2001. The rest are from nearby river communities. The population here is mixed Afro-Colombian and Indigenous.

Through the intervention of church groups, Witness for Peace and other international organizations, guarantees were secured for the removal of armed groups from Puente Nayera. In September of 2014 the community received recognition from the International Commission on Human Rights.

“Before we established our space here,” Nora recounted, “armed groups would dismember people alive here. Our compañera Marisol was assassinated in front of the whole community.”

“We still see unwelcome groups coming in,” Nora adds. “Your presence is important to avoid any incident. Supposedly, there’s peace in Buenaventura, but not really, not outside our gate.”

Nora Isabel Castillo Panameño sharing her community’s story. | Eric A. Gordon/PW

“There is hope,” Nora continues, “with the new government, as never before. The police are now part of the Ministry of the Interior, not Defense, so technically that’s an improvement, but so far there’s not much real difference. Witness for Peace was the first international organization that accompanied us to the International Human Rights Commission. So they helped raise visibility of what is happening in this territorio.”

With a conga drum standing invitingly nearby, at the end of the session our delegate Georie took hold of it and gave us a short improvisation. Not to be outdone, Michael, a teenager from the community, took it from there and added his own, very different touch.

A final reflection

As one of our final group “reflections,” conducted on Friday morning before we departed Buenaventura to return to Cali, Evan, one of our WfP group coordinators, asked each of us to name a single word or phrase that in our mind encapsulated our week-long experience in Colombia. The words we came up with were the following: awareness, complicity, Total Peace, urgency, territorio, bamboozled, legacy, vivir sabroso [to live joyously], solidarity, Mother Earth. Evan then asked us each to write something, or draw something, based on the theme of “vivir sabroso,” incorporating as many of those words or concepts as we could, and in 15 minutes we would share our work with the others. One person drew a tableau, others wrote a short essay. I put my pen to a kind of prose poem, and for what it’s worth, here it is as my personal summation to the delegation:

¡Vivir sabroso!

A resident of the Puente Nayera community sums up the main demand in today’s Colombia with his Total Peace t-shirt: ‘Let’s make a pact for life and for peace: For a Buenaventura with dignity!’ | Eric A. Gordon

¡Vivir sabroso! Lkhayim! we say, we Jews. To life! ¡A la vida!
Live it up, friends, life is short!

Could I have wished that simple wish to Luz, to Alexander, to Marisela? Bamboozled by their lying presidents and mayors, their territorio stolen from them, their sacred legacy displaced and dispersed to the four winds of Mother Earth—not their land, not their home. Someone else’s Mother Earth, perhaps.

It’s a matter of urgency, life and death, survival or disappearance.

How much complicity do we who “vivemos sabroso” share in this story? Is everyone equally complicit?

Okay, so now we have some awareness of who we are in this picture—partial, limited, translated, incomplete. But we get it, at least the basics, because we know some of the story from our own lives, from our own North American experience.

The world cries out for Total Peace! Can we do anything at all to bring it—to Cauca, to Colombia, to the hemisphere, to the globe we call our shared territorio?

It all comes down, in the end—here and there, then and now and still, as always and everywhere—to the basic call, hopefully not just a slogan:

¡Solidaridad pá siempre! Solidarity forever!

Readers can find more information about Witness for Peace here.

People’s World has an enormous challenge ahead of it—to raise $200,000 from readers and supporters in 2023, including $125,000 during the Fund Drive, which runs from Feb. 1 to May 1.

Please donate to help People’s World reach our $200,000 goal. We appreciate whatever you can donate: $5, $10, $25, $50, $100, or more.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.