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The Spirit of The Colombian Pacific

There are few destinations as ruggedly spectacular as the Colombian Pacific. It is a place where dense tropical jungle pours onto grey-sand beaches, where river deltas reach into the pacific and tiny indigenous villages cling to the edge of rivers.

For 100’s of years indigenous and afro-colombians have made this their home. But today their way of life is at risk: they have been pushed to the side to make way for forestry, mining and the coca trade. In collaboration with Palm Oasis Foundation I would like to share with you a series of photo stories that highlights the courage and resilience of the people that live here – you can alsowatch this short documentary to find out more.

Gateway to the Colombian Pacific

Welcome to Buenaventura – this bustling port town manages 60% of Colombian imports/exports. Suburbs sprawl into the jungle and little neighbourhoods balance on the estuary. But when night sets in everything falls silent and the curfew begins.

Governance in the town is not always easy. Armed paramilitaries vie for control of the port and local leaders seem to have an agenda of their own: today you can find the cities last 4 mayors in prison.

Despite this tourism is on the rise. Visitors come to see the whale migration, to visit nearby beaches and sample the local dishes.

‘The forest has music for those who listen’

‘The forest has music for those who listen’ – an old saying Rambo shares with me as we head up the Rio Bongo to his village Jooin Jeb. This village, made up of just 7 houses, is very organised: it has its own medic, fishermen, famers, teachers and a classroom where all 14 children aged 4-17 gather each morning.

Rambo works as a tour guide but he’s also a logger, farmer, fishermen and father of five. He tells me that he’s grateful for the family he has been able to raise but he worries for the future of his community: every year it is harder for him to manage his territory.

Pictures: (1) Journey up the Rio Bongo with Rambo, his wife and youngest son (2) The Wounaan community of Jooin Jeb (3) Rambo sharpening a recently purchased chainsaw (4) Rambo’s youngest son, Jeime

Illegal Logging Station

Logging station in the Urabamba National Park. Reserves and protected areas have done little to curb the exploitation of the Chocóan Rainforest. Prominent village leader Fraeder Fernández tells me ‘logging here is strictly forbidden […] but people from Buenaventura come here anyway’. His story is far from unique: in the first half of 2018 the Armada Nacional (Colombian Navy) confiscated 5,600m3 of wood from this province alone.

Forestry is not the only business the indigenous and afro communities that live here have to contend with. Picture 3 shows the devastating environmental impact of mining. These are gold mines on the Rio Bongo. Small-scale gold mining in Chocó began in the 1980s and has proved to be a lucrative business for private enterprises and illegal armed groups. They arrive with their mechanical diggers and dredgers and move so much material from the river banks that the river loses its path.

In 2009 a government commission revealed that 4tonnes of mercury had been been washed into this river as a toxic bi-product of gold mining. This has led to failed harvests, water contamination and a loss of biodiversity.

The communities that live here are trying to seek legal action against mining and forestry companies but the battle has seen little success. Much of the problem lies in the fact that the Wounaan tribes are not represented in parliament. In the eye of the government many of their communities do not actually exist.

Ghost Towns of The Colombian Pacific

Protected by its remoteness, the Colombian Pacific has become a strategic holding point for militias such as the ELN and Clan del Golfo. In 2018 they exported more than 550tonnes of cocaine from this region alone (UN Office on Drugs and Crime). 1000’s of families have fled in the process.

Pictures: (1) Town of Docordo – Safe haven in the Municipio of Bajo Baudó.  Protected by its own military base, more than 60% of its population (4000) are refugees. (2) Fishing village of El Venado abandoned following violent demonstrations by the National Liberation Army (ELN) in 2017 and January 2018. (3) Lone fisherman on the Río San Juan (region abandoned in 2017)

The Spirit of the Colombian Pacific

In the summer of 2018, a group of brave villagers make their return to Pichima after fleeing the village just two years earlier. These villagers quickly become a symbol of hope and of change for the region.

Pictures: (1) The village shop open for business for the first time in 2 years. (2) Fixing nets after a night on the estuary. (3) The village gathers to watch the Football World Cup.

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