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Periódico UNAL
Tribugá and the promise of a port that has produced much pain

On account of the violence,

Of the armed conflict,

I have to leave my land,

Now I am displaced.

Cantaoras del Pacífico (Women Singers of the Pacific)

On January 25 of 2001, the inhabitants of the settlement of Tribugá, to the north of the Colombian Pacific, were not woken up with the characteristic cockcrow, that day, bombs launched by mortars and machine-gun bursts were part of the rude awakening a community of 100 small brick and cement houses, where peacefulness fled like a bat out of hell.

That day, paramilitaries arrived and house by house, kicking down doors, took the men, women, and children from their homes. The armed men came asking for a supposed warehouse for provisions of the guerrilla hidden in some house they never found, but as a warning, they killed two of the men.

“We were cornered, we thought we were going to die, and nobody could help us, just God. I was on the second row and knew death was upon me and I was decided to go with her,” says a song of Andrés Murillo, one of the survivors of that military incursion that compelled the people to leave in panic to Nuquí, one of the 30 municipalities of the Province of Chocó, located at 30 minutes in a boat of Tribugá.

Several of whom were his neighbors never returned, and the few who dared, including himself, who besides carrying out farming activities is also an artist, live in some 30 houses, as the rest are broken down, invaded by humidity and vegetation, just the occasional chicken dares to enter in them.

Lurking violence

Fear came to stay in this gulf bathed by the Pacific Ocean and where the Atrato, San Juan, and Baudó rivers pass and are also neighbors of the Ensenada of Utría, a location where once a year, humpback whales come to breed. Due to its impressive environmental qualities, in June of 2019, the international Organization Mission Blue appointed the gulf as a hope spot for the planet.

In 2013, the assassination of five people due to battles between a self-defense group known as Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) guerrilla made the town vacant once again. Three years later, the Early Alert System of the Office of the Public Defender informed of a new occurrence: two illegal groups were in an expansion plan to take over the FARC abandoned territories after the signing of the Final Peace Agreement of 2016.

The document also reports that the municipality of Nuquí as well as other small settlements (Jobí, Coquí, Panguía, Tribugá, and Jurubirá) and above mentioned communities, were gravely impacted by the situation–which has not changed much since then–, as in September of 2020 there were new face-offs, this time between ELN and the Gulf Clan, looking to take control of maritime routes for cocaine exports that begins in the city of Tumaco (Province of Nariño), passes through the city of Buenaventura (Province of Valle del Cauca), through the waters of the Province of Chocó, to finally arrive in the Panama coasts.

In January of 2020, again, armed men took over the territories of the Wounaan Indians of Agua Blanca and killed a man who they deemed a “guerilla mole.” In the face of such a threat, 124 members, including 78 children, were displaced into the jungle towards the settlement of Tribugá and took over some abandoned houses and were supported with water and food from Afro communities the lived on the coast.

“We saw five armed men, they come frequently and we do not meddle with them; but they took one of our partners and killed him, that is why we decided to leave and we still live in fear and cannot return because they said they would also kill us,” claimed one of the spokespersons of the indigenous community to members of the humanitarian mission of the Office of the Public Defender, headed by the Carlos Negret, Public Defender, who visited the area.

Not long ago, the Public Prosecutor's Office arrested the presumed assassin of Colombian-Spaniard Juana Perea –a social leader and ecological tourism promoter–, which occurred in October of 2020. She was one of the few that spoke about the abandonment of the rural areas and the growing power of illegal groups, and recently against the construction of the port in the deep waters of the gulf, a dream of entrepreneurs and politicians of the Provinces of Chocó, Risaralda, Caldas, Antioquia, and Valle del Cauca, which took on more air with the inclusion into the 2018-2022 National Development Plan of Colombian President Iván Duque.

The intention has been so consolidated, that back in the 90s, the port society was formed. In 2006 during the term of former president Álvaro Uribe, the firm Arquímedes, a mixed economy business organization, was established, and since then, the main supporter of the project.

Government abandonment

Violence is not the only threat to the Gulf, the abandonment from the state is also ever-present. “Nuquí has two faces: on one side it is a spectacular location, as nature’s creation but lives with each and every one of its shortcomings,” said Amelia del Pilar Prado, a lawyer from Nuquí.

The electric power, besides being very expensive, is subsidized by the government through the Energy Solution Planning and Development Institute (IPSE, for its Spanish acronym). It is provided through an fuel-powered electric power plant, which breaks down frequently or does not get the fuel on time to operate correctly. On the contrary, Nuquí has access to it 24 hours a day and provides 4 hours of power to 6 ascribed municipalities a day.

The water utility, inaugurated in 2017, hardly works, and according to the season, it is rationed. “Toward the end of last year, we had difficulties due to the rains, which increased the river flow, causing damage to aqueducts and the service is cut-off; during the summer season, it is also cut-off because the basins are dry,” said the President of the General Communitarian Council Los Riscales of Nuquí, Harry Samir.

In regards to education, there are three schools located in the settlements of Jurubirá, Arusí, and Nuquí. Since there are no higher education institutions when the youngsters graduate, those who have the economic resources go to Medellín, Cali, or Quibdó, but “for rural folk, going to college is not that easy, as the costs of room and board and access to public universities requires high-academic levels, which we don to have here,” said Amelia.

The only access to the municipality and its surrounding populations is by boat, as there are no access roads; and the form of arriving from other cities is by plane, through chartered planes which cost on average Col $500,000 (US $140.00). Some basic products come by artisanal boats, mostly from Buenaventura; and the prices are sometimes 4 times that of other cities in the country.

“A few days ago, I saw protests in Bogotá for an increase in the natural gas bill passing from Col $3,000 to Col $15,000, in Nuquí, a gas cylinder costs Col $235,000, and we have to buy it as it is a basic household need,” she adds.

According to the social leader, the pandemic put a ceiling to the unsatisfied basic needs of people. An example of this is the bad service provided by healthcare centers, where there are no IC units, oxygen, or general-use drugs, and during months they didn’t even have alcohol.

This was one of the municipalities that closed its airport, which helped to contain the spread of the virus for some months. According to data of the National Health Institute (INS, for its Spanish acronym), since March there have been 138 confirmed cases, 134 recovered and 2 deaths from COVID-19.

This decision had its consequences, as domestic and foreign tourists have not been back, directly impacting the income of households of a region that depends 90% on communitarian tourism, the other two economies are artisanal fishing and farming, which are practically for survival.

Every year, the municipality receives more than 20,000 tourists, 60% of them coming from Italy, Germany, France, and Spain.

Mosquera says, “Since March of 2020, the schools have been closed, with the aggravating factor that most of the professors of the three schools are elderly people.” This situation has made providing Internet classes difficult and currently, the actions to implement alternate actions are lagging. “How can we speak of connectivity from Bogotá, of being virtual if we don’t have internet access or even optimal cell phone services here?” she asks.

She adds, “The Communitarian Council has implemented educational strategies for reinforcing basic knowledge and activities for children, who having more time on their hands are more vulnerable to being forcefully recruited by armed illegal groups.”

How is the relationship between the Afro and indigenous communities in the territories of the Gulf of Tribugá? Anthropologists Aura Luz Ruiz Arango, Habitat school teacher tell us:

The port, a poisoned promise

In these territories of shortages, the people of Nuquí grew with the discouraging saying of “We’re poor, but we live in peace.” So, our adults were always saying we are poor but we are ok, while in other places, “people live well but with more insecurity.” However, over the years, it has been evident that this wasn’t right and we didn’t have to live that way, why were we discriminated against?”

In this scenario, and since they have use of reason, Amelia and Harry have heard of the intention of building in this spectacular location a deep-water port, presenting it to the people as the only possibility to access the development they desire: “Only through its construction we will have access to better education, healthcare, and public utilities, among others,” they agree and add that this promise has divided the community.

“The feeling of the Communitarian Council is that the port has not been thought for the ethnic communities that live near the gulf, as it does not solve their necessities; it is a private initiative, with private investors and obviously their main reason is not solving the healthcare, education or public utilities issues; the welfare conditions of the population should be guaranteed by the government,  regardless of the megaprojects envisaged”, says Harry.

If this were true, they say, the experience of Tumaco and Buenaventura would be different. Furthermore, another reason that the project is not for the locals is that it undermines the right of participation of the ethnic communities, “We have not been asked what, where or how we want it, simply we found out of the project out of the blue.”

Another reason for the uncertainness is that several families get their sustenance directly from artisanal fishing and do not know what will become of them, as their fishing grounds will be used for developing port infrastructures.

Regarding the demographics, the port is being thought for 50,000 people. According to figures of the Colombian Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE, for its Spanish acronym), in 2018 there were 16,223 inhabitants in Nuquí, which shows a clear disadvantage in aspects of politics, as afro and indigenous communities would pass to being a minority and not a majority as they currently are.

Amelia and Harry underscore the importance of the country understanding that a project as has been announced would imply a fracture of the community, saying, “From people to the mangroves, and all its roots; a whole community is something beautiful and when it all is lost, it will be very much missed.”



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