Buenaventura – City of Good Fortune?

Buenaventura – City of Good Fortune?

The name of the city of Buenaventura means ‘good fortune’.  It’s a name with much potential for a city with much potential.  67% of Colombia’s trade passes through the port. 12 million tons of goods, both legal and illegal, are exported and imported through Buenaventura; it’s the gateway to the Orient; to Japan, the Philippines and, of course, China.

However, it’s been a long neglected city by the government; it is cut off from the rest of the country by the Andees and has been left to its own devices in many ways.  Ten years ago, the internal conflict between the FARC terrorist group and the state forces was at its height here, the FARC were cleansed from the city by the paramilitary forces that were recruited to deal with the terrorist threats although they still operate in the rural areas.  But the situation with the paramilitary forces got out of control so the government initiated a de-mobilisation of the paramilitary, and ‘officially’ the paramilitaries no longer exist here.  However, many of them are still active and are classed as ‘bacrim’ or “bandas criminals” (criminal gangs).  That’s how those in authority want them to be thought of – gangs of lawless criminals who are committing atrocious crimes because of gang warfare and control of their ‘turf’.

However, behind the violence there is another story emerging, as has been the case all over Colombia.  Wherever there is violence there are always economic and political interests in the land.

Over recent years, there has been much more interest in the port of Buenaventura, particularly from external investors and international companies, but also by interested Colombian stakeholders such as the government, big exporters and drug dealers.  It is in the interests of all these parties to expand the Port and modernise Buenaventura in order to attract investors, business and tourism.

So, plans are afoot to raise the profile of the city, to expand the Port and to build a boardwalk.  The boardwalk is planned for the whole of the seafront of ‘la isla’ (the part of Buenaventura that is connected to the mainland by just one road).  However, all along that seafront are the wooden houses built on land reclaimed from the sea.  The houses (built on stilts) are home to thousands of Afro-Colombians, most of whom earn their living from the sea.  There have been overt and covert attempts to remove them from this prime piece of land.  Some have been offered rehousing, but for a family that rely on fishing for their livelihood, a concrete block 9 miles from the sea, is not an upgrade!

Those who those who have led the resistance against displacement live with constant threats against them.  The neighbourhoods are scenes of brutal violence with the famous ‘chopping houses’ where people are taken to be dismembered alive and their body parts thrown into the sea. The residents live in constant fear with daily occurrences of disappearances, extortion and murder, all intended to intimidate them into leaving.  These atrocities are being committed by the ‘bacrim’, but the local people know that this is just a byword for the paramilitary who are ‘incentivised’ by those who hold the money and the power.

I am coming to the end of my time here in Buenaventura and I have come to realise that it is a city of good fortunes, but only for the rich and powerful!!

The one glimmer of hope is the Humanitarian Space in the neighbourhood of La Playita, which is right on this much sought-after seafront; it is a haven of peace within a city of carnage.  Everyone who I have spoken to says the same thing “We didn’t sleep at night through fear, but now we sleep secure”.  This little street is now known as the safest place in Buenaventura.  Thanks to the work of the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace, and the bravery of the residents of Puente Nayero, a precedent for peaceful resistance has been set.

These homes will be destroyed if the planned boardwalk is built.

These homes will be destroyed if the planned boardwalk is built.

Gearing up for an adventure

Just over a week to go and so much to do. I travel to Bogota on Sunday next week.  In an ideal world, I would like to see ALL my friends before I leave, but that’s probably not going to happen.  Things I must do include ‘buy malaria tablets’, download some music onto ipod, make sure I have all the emergency contact numbers and insurance details somewhere safe, get some currency – US dollars and …… what is the Colombian currency again? Oh yes, pesos.  £1 is about 4,000 pesos. Hmm -won’t be carrying many coins around then!

So, yes, my adventure starts on Sunday, and at the moment, most of it is unknown.  I am going to be volunteering with Comision Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Inter-church Commission for Justice and Peace),  or JyP as I will refer to them.  If you met Father Alberto Franco when he was in the UK last year, you will know of the brilliant work that they are doing with vulnerable and displaced communities.  So, I will be doing whatever is needed to support their work, including travelling to the communities to ‘accompany’ them and give them visibility and profile.  Hence the blog!!  Their stories need to be told – getting their message out to the world is what will keep them safe and change their circumstances.

While I am there, I will also be supporting them practically too – working with a school or a women’s group and I am really looking forward to getting immersed into their lives.  I know I will miss everyone here so much and it will be hard in so many ways, but it’s a great opportunity to make a difference.

So please follow my adventures and share it with others who may be interested.  I have also joined Twitter  @ColombiaJill so follow me there too for brief updates.