CARTAGENA, Colombia — Visiting US President Barack Obama on Sunday was to join his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos at a ceremony here to hand over land titles to descendants of the country’s runaway African slaves.
The ceremony in Cartagena’s old colonial district, was to take place on the sidelines of the Summit of Americas which both Obama and Santos are attending along with 29 other democratically elected leaders of the Western Hemisphere.
The attendance of the first black American president at the event was seen by White House officials as having high symbolic value, given the large Afro-Colombian population in the Cartagena region.
Representatives of some 1,000 Afro-Colombian families descended from runaway slaves were to receive ownership titles to more than 3,350 hectares (8,200 acres) of ancestral land they occupy.
The families hail from the nearby towns of San Basilio de Palenque and La Boquilla.
San Basilio de Palenque, located in a jungle area near Cartagena, was founded centuries ago by runaway slaves. Its residents speak a unique local language, called Palenquero derived from African languages. Cartagena was one main ports for the slave trade during Spanish colonial rule.
Colombia has South America’s second largest black population after Brazil, and the largest in the Spanish-speaking Americas, but the black community here is much less well known than the one its Portuguese-speaking neighbor.
Experts estimate that Colombians with African ancestry, including those mixed with white or native American heritage, comprise about 20 percent of the country’s population of 45 million people.
In addition to the Afro-Colombians who inhabit the Atlantic coast in places like Cartagena, blacks predominate in the Pacific region called El Choco, an area largely populated by descendants of enslaved blacks set free after Colombia abolished slavery in 1851.
The land restitution program in the spotlight on Sunday is one of the major challenges facing the Santos government which in 2010 passed a law aiming at returning nearly two million hectares to peasants, who had been expelled by right-wing paramilitary militias battling communist guerillas.
Over the past 15 years, between 1.2 and 5.5 million hectares of land are believed to have been seized by paramilitary militias, guerrillas and drug traffickers.
Some 4.2 million people have been displaced due to the internal conflict, making Colombia one of the countries with the largest displaced population behind Sudan and equal with Iraq.
Obama was to fly home late Sunday after the close of the two-day summit.