Carmenza Morales

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1996
This description of Carmenza Morales's work was prepared when Carmenza Morales was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.


Carmenza Morales, a lawyer, promotes social stability and justice by empowering minority communities to defend their property rights and initiate economic development on their own terms.

The New Idea

Along Colombia's coast, Carmenza Morales is giving people who would ordinarily be pushed aside by an expanding tourism industry a chance to stake their own claim to tourism's profits through the exercise of their legal rights. She capitalizes on a new Colombian law that establishes a mechanism for indigenous and ethnic communities to secure title to collective lands that their ancestors have inhabited continuously over time. Then she organizes the community of "new" property owners to plan and generate together a form of development that benefits the local people and enhances the community. Carmenza's work grows out of her concept that the law can empower people to be active citizens if they understand how to exercise their legal rights and are organized to work together. Her idea, Carmenza believes, is especially applicable to indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities with tourist potential along the Colombian coast. As a test case, she is applying her ideas to the 605 families of Bocachica on an island near Cartagena, blocking government plans to give land to private developers while the courts confirm the community's historical property rights. Carmenza's goal is to extend this unique community empowerment and development program to other poor people in tourist areas and in areas with collectively held land, such as San Andrés, Colombia's Pacific Coast, La Ciénaga, Santa Marta and Cartagena.

The Problem

The island of Tierra Bomba lies in Cartagena Bay, a short boatride from the city, and it is a very attractive site for tourist resorts. Five miles long and three wide, it has long undeveloped beaches; there are no cars on the island. It is inhabited by three old settlements totaling 5,000 poor Afro-Colombians who have no titles to the land. The city of Cartagena, assuming the rights of eminent domain, has announced its intention to sell the land to private developers who will build hotels and other amenities to add the island to the other tourist destinations that are proliferating along Colombia's Caribbean coast. Tierra Bomba, before Carmenza began her work there, was emblematic of many poor Colombian communities that, as urban and tourist development springs up around them, cannot develop themselves because they cannot match the resources and skills that many wealthy individuals and corporate interests possess in abundance. They do not own the land they live on or have access to capital. Few have the confidence that comes from education or entrepreneurial success. Thus, most new development favors outside interests and does not involve the local residents. If they are lucky they may derive some "trickle-down" benefits in the form of jobs, but often they are displaced and dispossessed. Historically, Colombian society has held no remedies for such threatened communities. Recent changes in the law, however, offer a new foothold. Constitutional changes in 1991 and negotiations leading up to the GATT-which included the participation of Ashoka Fellow Diana Pombo-produced new legal instruments in Colombia to recognize collective ownership rights to land: this trend reflects a growing political sensitivity to the vulnerabilities and the rights of indigenous and ethnic peoples, whose land use is traditionally communal. Colombia was one of the first Latin American countries to enact such domestic legal reforms, which were geared to the Indians who constitute about three percent of its population. In Ecuador, by contrast, the indigenous population is 45 percent of the total, and in Bolivia, 70 percent.

The Strategy

Carmenza's strategy, which her work on Terra Bomba embodies, integrates three elements: (1) develop a process that will implement the new law; (2) organize the community around the process designated; and (3) institutionalize the bottom-up community development model so that its services can be adopted by other communities. A picture taken at Bocachica in 1996 shows an Afro-Colombian woman in a red sweater lifting a piece of paper. The paper is her title to her property, but the process to secure it was complicated, and Carmenza has walked with the residents of Tierra Bomba the whole road of implementation. While the law acknowledged collective property, it also stipulated that new titles would be granted only to individuals, and they must be able to document that their ancestors had occupied the land in question. For the residents of Terra Bomba this was a setback: the official records went back only as far as a land reform program in the early part of this century and included no names of individual people who were living there then. Everyone knew their ancestors had lived there in common over an extensive past; Africans were brought to Colombia as slaves beginning in the sixteenth century, and many were kept along the coastal areas and remained there after emancipation in 1851. Their history satisfied the law if they could document it. Carmenza found the "paper trail" in records from the period when Colombia secured its independence from Spain in 1819. The records from that time listed island residents; their names were identical to the present-day islanders and those of their families who have spread over to the mainland. Together they control the whole island under the new constitutional provisions. Carmenza has challenged Cartagena's claims in Colombia's court at the national level. She has the professional support of five lawyers from the "Public Interest Defense Foundation," a public-interest law group founded and led by the late Ashoka Fellow Germán Sarmiento. Meanwhile, Carmenza is organizing the community at the grass-roots level. The people had essentially been squatting on the land; they had never developed the water system adequately, had no vision for their undeveloped land, nor indeed formed any structures for community decision making. Theoretically each individual who secures title under the law could then sell it for a personal profit. However, Carmenza is helping them to see the potential for improving their lives more profoundly by working together. She has learned from earlier experience that the process of community organizing is vital for the success of her vision. From her modestly staffed office in Cartagena, Carmenza is in daily contact with Bocachica, which is on the move. Neighborhood leaders have formed an advisory board whom Carmenza is training to guide, provide feedback and resolve conflicts. Civic groups have formed: women, senior citizens, micro-enterprise growers, public health, research and producers of local history videos. Residents are learning how to set goals together and come to joint decisions about how to balance the potential economic benefits of tourism with a good local quality of life. Carmenza has suggested a plan to sell twenty percent of the land to outside developers, which, if the island wins the case, will pay for infrastructure improvements for the rest of the community. Plans are already under way for water development and health and education improvements. The islanders have established networks with environmental and ecotourism groups; they are setting up bicycle trails and are making plans for bird-watching parks, using input from Audobon International. Their organizing has included consultation with human rights groups to inform themselves of how to respond to threats they have received. Carmenza has taken an indefinite leave from her ordinary legal practice to consolidate and expand this work. Her first step to institutionalize it was to create a community-owned development corporation that can provide services for people in other suitable areas. Carmenza expects that Bocachica will provide both legal precedent for communities' property rights and a model for comprehensive locally controlled development. She is committed to spreading this concept throughout the region and has been invited by communities all along Colombia's coast to tell them about how they can adopt it.

The Person

My father inspired me since childhood to become a lawyer, says Carmenza, and she continues the law practice he began. She has always been motivated by the public interest; while a university student she was an activist defending citizens' rights to a public education. In twenty years of professional life, Carmenza has expressed her passion to use the law for public good through work defending workers' rights and, more recently, the environment. With the Foundation, Carmenza successfully pursued a class action lawsuit favoring 600 fishermen damaged by a pesticide spill. "I like action and dynamism, whose powers I believe cure," states Carmenza. This sentiment is reflected not only in her defense of individual worker's rights-she has litigated some 700 cases, most successfully-but in her work on urban development. For instance, she has been instrumental in reviving Carnival in Cartagena's historic colonial section and setting up a system for families willing to open their houses to tourists for lodging. Her work also has a reflective side. "Listening and acknowledging others helps me understand the interior order of things," she says. This contributes without a doubt to her clear and creative vision of how to encourage development that benefits the inhabitants of poor neighborhoods along Colombia's coast.