The Chocó is one of 32 departments (i.e. the political administrative region) of Colombia, is located in the northwest of Colombia on the border to Panama and is in terms of size (17,970 mi2) comparable to Lower Saxony, Germany. With approximately 440,000 inhabitants and a population density of 27 inhabitants per square mile, the Chocó is very sparsely populated (e.g. compared to Lower Saxony with 7.8 million inhabitants and a population density of 430 inhabitants per square mile). Most of the population are descendants of African slaves from the colonial era: more than 80 % of the population have Afro Colombian roots; about 10 % belong to the indigenous population, and about 5% are white or mestizo.
Economically, the so-called “primary sector“ is of major importance: forestry, fishing, mining and agriculture are the main occupational areas, wood and in particular gold are the main sources of income.
Especially against the background of the enormous gold deposits the dire poverty of the population in Chocó seems paradoxical. An explanation for this paradox can be found in the legal situation regulations: The mining rights are reserved exclusively for large corporations while gold mining is prohibited for everyone else. The fact that the majority of the population in Chocó nonetheless makes a living from illegal gold digging results in enormous profits especially for trade intermediaries. Quite often guerrilla groups like the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Colombian Revolutionary) or the ELN (National Liberation Army) finance their organizations through the earnings of those underground activities.
In the ongoing armed conflict of meanwhile 50 years, the region of Chocó became a pawn in the hand of different guerrilla groups. Civil war and the day-to-day violence prevented locals from building up any kind of reliable livelihood, prevented any sustainable economic development, destroyed any existing infrastructure and above all strongly degraded the ideological basis of a functioning society. This is still clearly noticeable even after the recent signing of the peace treaty between FARC and president Santos. Women are afflicted with the patriarchal and brutalized conditions of society and are frequent victims of sexual violence and structural injustice.
Aid organizations are still poorly represented due to the dire security situation. The Catholic Church is one of the few efficient organizations in the Chocó and is appreciated by all parties because of its neutrality. For many years the Church has been attempting to help locals in Chocó regardless of ethnicity and religious affiliation.