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Colombia’s Blacks Eke Out Livings in Isolated Region

September 18, 1995

QUIBDO, Colombia (AP) _ The women work their way through the stands of sugar cane along the broad, brown river, hacking all day with machetes. They are dwarfed by the trees of the dense jungle that closes them in.

The lush beauty of Colombia’s isolated Choco state is breathtaking.

The poverty of its people is disheartening. It is Colombia’s poorest state, a rain-sodden land with no paved roads, where four of five families have no electricity or running water.

Most of the 540,000 people in Choco live along rivers in shacks perched on stilts. The 18,600-square-mile region, which abuts the Pacific Ocean, has one of the world’s wettest climates, averaging 40 feet of rainfall a year.

The rivers are the center of life. The waters provide fish for food. Wood, bananas and other goods are floated downstream in narrow wooden canoes to be sold in the state capital, Quibdo, and other towns.

Choco contains Colombia’s largest concentration of blacks. More than nine of every 10 Chocoanos is descended from African slaves, and many believe their race lies behind centuries of government neglect.

But they are only slowly gaining an awareness of racial pride. For some, their role models are black civil rights leaders in the United States and South Africa.

``Black people in the United States have fought hard for change. We must do the same or things will never get better,″ said Angel Sarturo, a 24-year-old fisherman.

Before slavery was outlawed in Colombia in 1851, slaves marked the death of an infant with dance and music, celebrating that the child had avoided the hardships of bondage.

Survival remains such a struggle in Choco that when an infant dies, family members still mark its passing with a party.

There are many such celebrations. With little medical care, the infant mortality rate is 72 deaths per 1,000 births, compared to 23 per 1,000 in Bogota, the capital. It is 7.9 in the United States.

Germinia Santos, 38, who was cutting cane alongside the Atrato River, says she can barely feed and clothe her seven children.

``I work seven days a week, but it still is not enough,″ she said.

In Bete, a town along the Atrato, nurse Charlie Cordoba must make do with almost no medical supplies. He does not even have a motor-powered canoe to ferry the sick to a hospital in Quibdo. He and his patients must hitch a ride on a passing boat to make the three-hour river trip.

``If you get sick and don’t have money, you die,″ Cordoba said bitterly.

Last year the government ordered all children to attend school, but the authorities have not sent teachers to Bete and many other towns in Choco. Families must send their children to school in Quibdo for the entire academic year, which they cannot afford, or break the law.

Although Colombians in other impoverished regions have few services, but Choco is last in per capita income _ $55, compared to the national average of $119. More than 60 percent of its people live in extreme poverty, according to the government statistics office. Choco is also last in government spending on health and education.

Colombia has taken steps toward equality, at least on paper. The constitution, enacted in 1991, recognizes the rights of blacks and Indians. Blacks for the first time were allowed to reach the officer level in the military. In 1993, Congress allowed Afro-Colombian communities to lay claim to their traditional land.

That is not enough for Sergio Mosquera, a history professor at Choco Technical University in Quibdo.

In an effort to instill black pride and to forge a consciousness that Choco’s blacks are entitled to equal treatment, Mosquera teaches his students and the community about black movements in other parts of the world.

``My fight is to let people know who figures like Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela are,″ he said. ``When I show them the film `Malcolm X’ it is a revelation to them.″

Chocoanos must learn that the government in faraway Bogota will not act unless it is pressured to do so, the nurse Cordoba says.

``If the children of Choco think about change and fight for the future, then change will come,″ he said.

But in a vast jungle region where people are scattered in remote villages, there are no hints yet of any widespread social movement.

The lack of overtly racist laws has made it hard to get blacks to demand the equal treatment promised by the constitution, Mosquera says.

``In the United States and South Africa blacks always knew white people were their enemy because white people’s laws made it clear,″ he said. ``Here, there are no racist laws. But racism is everywhere.″

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