Indigenous and African-descendant Colombians are denied access to clean water under a structurally-racist system that prioritises capitalist interests over human ones, says 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Francia Márquez.

In a recent report from Colombia’s national health institute, only 15.1 per cent of people living in the Colombian countryside (barely 900,000 people) have access to good quality water. Water is guaranteed mostly to the urban people living in the city. The population that does not have water is mostly in the Colombian-Pacific and in the Atlantic regions, which are territories populated by African-Colombians and indigenous peoples.

This is a sign of structural racism, which means that these communities do not see their rights guaranteed.

I will give several examples of this:

The first example is in the northeast region of the country, La Guajira, where we see the impact of the mining industry on water. This region has had a protracted humanitarian and hunger crisis, where there is a high rate of death of children, diseases and malnutrition, as there is no way to grow food. It is a place where there are children dying from lack of water. Women must walk for hours to get water.

It is in this region that we find the largest open coalmine in the continent – El Cerrejón. The director of relations of the mine, Carlos Franco, affirms that the mine uses more than 25 million litres of water per day. Residents of the northern part of La Guajira are only allotted 17 per cent of this amount of water for daily consumption by the government.

Not only do people not have access to water, the water they do have access to use is often contaminated. This is through the mining process, as well as through the fumigation of coca plants and through growing a single crop on the same piece of land season after season (monoculture).

A second example of unfair distribution and structural racism takes places in my own region, in the centre-west region of the country. Here we have the example of La Salvajina, a dam built in the municipality of Suarez. The dam was built at the beginning of the 1980s, in order to regulate the floods of the Cauca River and produce energy.

The construction of this dam has had very different effects for the African-descendant, indigenous and peasant farmer communities of the region as compared to the white communities.

The dam has an approximate capacity of 764 billion litres of water, in an area of 31 kilometres. Despite this huge amount of nearby water, vulnerable communities that are in the vicinity of the dam do not have access to potable (drinking) water. The communities get up every day and see this huge mirror of water, yet they do not have water in their homes or for their crops.

In contrast, in the nearby township of Popayán – the predominantly white capital of the region – there is over 94 per cent aqueduct coverage for the residents. Here, there is no water scarcity.

The worst thing is that there are not even reliable statistics on what happens in the field. There are no reliable studies that identify the magnitude of the problem, about what happens in African-descendant and indigenous communities. This, in addition to being a sample of the structural racism that still exists in Colombia, also shows how the monopoly of knowledge is used to hide injustices and prevent communities from becoming empowered to transform their realities.

A third example takes place in my home of La Toma, located on the left bank of the La Salvajina dam, where one can see the contamination of our water by mining. Here we also see unjust use of the water and land, and here we are leading efforts to change this.

In La Toma, we do not have clean drinking water. A preliminary study, carried out by Universidad del Valle in 2015 on the levels of mercury concentration in the water of La Toma, states that the concentration ranges between 50 and 1000 parts per million litre (ppm). The safe level of mercury in drinking water is 0.002 ppm.

That mercury in the water is the product of illegal mining that has been introduced into the territory. This is just the beginning, because there is also the threat of unconstitutional mining. By unconstitutional mining, I mean that these were titles given to companies after the communities were displaced by paramilitary groups. They are titles that were also delivered without prior consultation to the communities, violating all the collective rights of the communities.

In the region, 239 mining titles have been delivered, covering a total of 40 per cent of the territory. Between 2002 and 2008, 13 mining titles were delivered to domestic and foreign companies in La Toma. This happened after having had a strong presence of paramilitary groups in the region, which threatened and deprived the people of their lands.

La Toma has been inhabited ancestrally since 1636 and owned by the community. The companies, after receiving the titles, wanted to evict the community from the territories (with the support of the State). The community of La Toma therefore organised protests and legal actions in order to stay in the territory. In this resistance we have combined legal actions, protests, mobilizations, political advocacy at national and international level and coordination with other ethnic groups and social organisations.

We have also conducted mobilisations as women, which have managed to stop the expulsion of our communities.

For me it is very clear that access to water is planned from a vision of white supremacy. Priority is given to economic interests over the rights of communities. In the case of Colombia, it is clear that it is the indigenous communities and African-descendant communities that do not have access to water. The little water they do have access to is contaminated. There are also communities that do not have access to health systems. In Colombia, it will be impossible to make peace until this reality is transformed.

Water today is not for people, it is for big economic interests. In this situation, the European countries and the global North also have responsibility. It is their countries and their transnational corporations that receive the mining contracts. It is necessary to stop this and the policy of death, and it is necessary to come together to save life.

Translated by ALAI

The above text is extracts from the plenary session on ‘The Struggle for Water’, held at the 2018 Norwegian Social Forum / Globalization Conference in Oslo, co-organised by the Karibu Foundation, together with the Norwegian Social Forum, the Norwegian Solidarity Committee for Latin America, Fellesutvalget for Palestina, Attac Norway, Fellesrådet for Africa, and Fivas.

Originally published in Voices from the South Newsletter, October 2018, Karibu, Norway.