President Obama, Shakira and Lutheran World Relief

A few weeks ago, President Obama came to Cartagena, Colombia, for the Summit of the Americas. He was joined by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Colombian singer Shakira and two Afrocolombian leaders in a ceremony with great importance for LWR.

In 2008, LWR began working with the Afrocolombian community of Palenque just outside the colonial city of Cartagena. Palenque holds a special place in the hearts of Colombians and all Latin Americans. It was founded in the 16th century by escaped slaves. It became the first free community in the Americas, after African slave Benkos Biohó led negotiations with the Spanish crown for liberty centuries before the rest of Latin America achieved independence. Today, a statue of Biohó (pictured above) raising his arms in a gesture of freedom toward the sky, shackles broken around his wrists, decorates Palenque’s central plaza.

Palenque holds a wealth of culture and is rich in history, but it also suffers from poverty. Four years ago, LWR began working with Palenque to alleviate hunger. The project included a hefty goal that both parties felt was essential to long term, sustainable growth: land titling. LWR set out to help Palenque secure a collective land title to more than 8,000 acres, one of the first and largest collective land titles recognized on Colombian´s Caribbean coast. And it was just a fraction of what was recognized by the Spanish crown as Palenque´s territory;.

For years, LWR worked with our partners in Palenque to help secure this title. It was a long road up a giant hill, full of administrative and bureaucratic pot holes.

Sebastian Salgado (L), leader of the San Basilio de Palenque community and U.S. President Barack Obama. By USAID/Colombia, on

But when President Obama took the stage last week in Cartagena, he held in his hands Palenque’s official land title! The Colombian government asked our President to present Palenque council leader, Sebastian Salgado, with the title his community had been struggling to attain for hundreds of years.

In his speech, President Obama stated, “This is a historic day with… centuries in the making. For generations, many of you have lived on these lands, toiled these lands and raised your families on these lands and now, from this day forward, will at long last hold title to this land.”

Acknowledging the conflict in Colombia, President Obama added, “We all understand that peace is not simply the absence of war. True and lasting peace has to be based on justice and dignity for every person. And that´s why today is so important. Giving you and so many Afrocolombians title… is part of ending this nation’s conflict”

His sentiments were echoed by Colombian singer and philanthropist Shakira. Palenque’s leader Mr. Salgado added, ”This title will guaranty that our next generations will have a place to cultivate life.”

Pundits have commented that the Summit of the Americas didn’t achieve much, but for LWR and our partners in Palenque, a victory was won at the summit. And although we never would have guessed it, we learned that Obama, Shakira and LWR have something in common: the belief that justice and dignity are critical to peace in Colombia, and that a secure land title is key to helping rural communities cultivate prosperity.

LWR stands in celebration with the over 14,000 people that will benefit from the collective land title granted to Palenque last week.