Citizens in Chocó began a strike today to protest widespread neglect of the department by the federal government. Leaders say that they pledge to halt their daily activities until authorities in Bogotá agree to listen to the grievances expressed last month — and many times previously — to the administration of President Juan Manual Santos.
Chocó, with a population of roughly half a million, has long been one of the Colombia’s poorest departments. Everything from health and malnutrition figures to infrastructure and public services remain tragically far behind more prosperous regions. Its largely Afro-Colombian citizens are, once again, demanding that all these issues are addressed and acted upon by the government, specifically asking for improvement in healthcare, education, roads, water supply, pollution, electrical and network connectivity, and unemployment.
Businesses, schools, and bus companies, among others, are participating in the Chocó strike. Dilon Martínez, executive secretary of the Civic Committee for the Salvation and Dignity of Chocó, has served as a representative, and he expressed the group’s concerns on Wednesday from the departmental capital of Quibdo.
“Quibdo has a very precarious water service, no sewage system,” Martínez told local newpapers. “And if the capital is like this, imagine how it is in the rest of the department.”
Martínez also highlighted a local road project that began in 1967 but remains inadequate, saying that the Santos administration has not invested “a single peso” into the project.
Poor electrical generation is another factor that leaves those living in Chocó vulnerable to all the other problems that have been created by decades of minimal development and rampant corruption. Martínez specifically named 11 areas with poorly working electrical plants that, he says, function properly for only five hours per day in the best of times.
“The inhabitants of these places remain in the Middle Ages, with oil lamps for light,” said Martínez, according to Semana. “Without energy, it is impossible to have development. Chocó is the department that has the most power disruptions in the country.”
Last month, Colombia’s Ministry of Health opened an investigation into the reported deaths of 51 indigenous children this year due to malnutrition in the town of Bojaya. At least 10 adults have also allegedly died in the indigenous community due to what Liberal Party Senator Sofía Gaviria Correa said can be credited to preventable causes like malaria and diarrhea.
“There are no health centers on the reservations,” said Gaviria. “And in the main town, where there are a few, indigenous patients are not attended to quickly, and the staff does not speak their language. In order to be attended to, indigenous communities have to travel in canoes for up to seven or eight days.”
In addition to the lack of healthcare, basic infrastructure, jobs, and education, the impoverished Chocó has also been devastated by the nation’s conflicts. Physical and sexual violence, in addition to the displacement of victims, have been commonplace throughout the department for decades as the government, paramilitaries, and guerrillas have waged war in the Pacific region’s jungles. In 2014, the national government said that some 72% of people in Chocó have been victimized by the violence.
Photo: Displaced Embera indigenous people in Baudó, Chocó. (Credit: © UNHCR/M.H. Verney, 2009)