The loss of territory and the impact of Covid-19 on Afro-descendant communities in Latin America

By Jesus Natividad Pérez Palomino & Ana Laura Zavala Guillen, University of Birmingham, UK

In these times of Covid-19, international organisations, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have called for immediate protection of the Afro-descendant communities in Latin America. The reason is simple: these communities have historically been subject to racial discrimination and structurally impoverished, becoming a vulnerable group along with women and children, indigenous people, migrants and refugees in this pandemic.

Nevertheless, despite this emphatic call to action, to date there are no reliable data to help one understand the particular way in which the pandemic is affecting Afro-descendant people in their territories. In the case of Colombia, the State’s chronic absence has led the Afro-descendant community of San Basilio de Palenque to take matters into their own hands. For this reason, based on their unique history of survival connected to marronage, this community recreates ancestral territorial practices implemented, in the struggle against slavery during colonial times, to protect itself from the Covid-19 virus.

In the Americas and the Caribbean, marronage was the act of escaping from slavery in cities, large farms and mines to build free communities of Africans and their descendants away from those who claimed ownership over them. As their ancestors did in order to protect themselves and their freedom during the war against the colonial authorities and traders in the seventeenth century, so the community has fenced off its territory or Palenque in an attempt to collectively isolate itself.

Palenque is the name by which the communities of fugitives from slavery were known in Colombia. Unfortunately, territorial isolation has never proved sufficient, either in colonial times or in this new reality, to protect itself against certain threats, such as the current pandemic brought on by Covid-19. 

Maroon territory under siege

Jesús Natividad Pérez Palomino, a Maroon local leader of San Basilio de Palenque, explains that, when his community started to close its borders as a result of the pandemic, the loss of lands became evident and worrying real. San Basilio de Palenque has suffered from a silent and progressive loss of its ancestral territory since a peace treaty was signed with the Spanish invaders in 1714, winning its freedom 137 years earlier than the other enslaved people in Colombia

As Zavala Guillen’s doctoral research explains, the Palenque’s territory has been dramatically reduced in size at the hands of the State, armed groups, business companies and white landowners over centuries. This territorial reduction on top of climate change – periods without the rain necessary to sustain the traditional crops of rice, corn, and yucca – have brought San Basilio de Palenque to a food emergency on a previously unknown scale.

Furthermore, a water emergency is also affecting the community. Rural Afro-descendent communities in Colombia have traditionally built settlements on riverbanks or by the sides of other water reserves. In San Basilio de Palenque, many of the water supplies are at present threatened and others have disappeared completely, for the reasons outlined above, such as the reduction of the ancestral territory, the felling of forests, and climate change.

Food and water emergencies have inflicted themselves on the community as a challenge for survival, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. This emergency also represents a further opportunity for those who have continuously sought to appropriate their agricultural reserves when members of the community are forced to sell their lands to overcome extreme poverty.

Photo courtesy of Dr Ana Laura Zavala Guillen

Covid-19 as an accelerant of racial inequalities

The Covid-19 virus has deepened the racial inequalities that have affected San Basilio de Palenque for centuries, while endangering their cultural practices. For example, the current food emergency cannot be mitigated by the women of the Palenque, who, by selling goods on the streets of Cartagena de Indias and other towns, are the breadwinners for their homes, but who now find their work frozen by the restrictions on mobility and the isolation that currently prevails along the Colombian Caribbean, one of the areas most affected by Covid-19

Nor can this emergency be alleviated by other members of the community who live, due to structural poverty, as part of the diaspora in such countries as Panama. They are unable to send remittances back home to San Basilio de Palenque: their already-precarious work as migrants has been suspended, as they explained to us after our research trip to their districts in Panama City in last February.

Furthermore, in times when hygiene and hand-washing are the most effective measures to avoid spreading the Covid-19 virus, due to the water crisis, families are forced to store water in tanks, as piped water is only provided for 5-6 hours per day. Each day, only two of the four sectors in the town can be fully stocked. Nor is the water fit for human consumption. Some families boil it and others would normally leave it in the sun for two or three hours, in order to render it potable. The local school, Benkos Biohó, hosting more than 750 children and young people, has unsafe water in insufficient quantities, putting at risk the health of those in their charge.

Social distancing, supervised rigorously by the maroon guard (or security force led by members of the community themselves since the times of war against colonialists), also has an impact on cultural practices.These practices are developed collectively and portray a world of community rites and ceremonies of the most intimate nature for San Basilio de Palenque. Examples of these rites and ceremonies are group bathing in streams, where culture and traditional knowledge are handed down from generation to generation; the Lumbalú funeral rite; and support group meetings, also known as Kuagros. The impossibility to maintaining these practices has negative consequences on the social and mental wellbeing of the community. 

For San Basilio de Palenque, overcoming the health crisis triggered by the Covid-19 virus means – now more than ever – continuing the ancestral struggle for territory, space to grow crops, for access to water and to live out maroon culture in these present times. This struggle was assumed by the community’s ancestors in colonial times and now takes place against a State that cannot even guarantee safe water, when the health and life of one of the last maroon communities in Colombia is at stake, amidst a pandemic that only makes racial injustice more profound. 

In Latin America, with exceptions in Brazil and the Colombian Pacific region, geography as a science has an unpaid debt towards Afro-descendant communities in terms of how their spaces are understood. Such analysis would lead to a greater appreciation of how crucial territory is for the communities, and therefore how it can be better protected and community members’ lives enhanced. 

About the authors: Jesús Natividad Pérez Palomino is an anthropologist, a maroon leader of the community of San Basilio de Palenque and a member of the Black Social Movement in Colombia, the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN). Dr Ana Laura Zavala Guillen is a human rights lawyer and a post-doctoral fellow in the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham. She is currently researching the geographies of dispossession and resistance of the descendants of fugitives from slavery in the Americas and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) [grant number: ES/T007540/1].

Suggested further reading

Bledsoe, A. (2017). Marronage as a past and present geography in the Americas. Southeastern Geographer 57 (1):30–50.

de Leeuw, S, Hunt, S. Unsettling decolonizing geographies. Geography Compass. 2018; 12:e12376.

de la Fuente, A., and G. R. Andrews. (2018). The making of a field: Afro-Latin American studies. In Afro-Latin American studies: An introduction, ed. A. de la Fuente and G. R. Andrews, 1–24. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, N. (2015). Freedom as marronage. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.

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