An obstacle to "progress"

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003

It is normal to think of Amerindians as victims. They are the historic victims of 500 years of colonialism and exposure to a “civilisation” that carries with it disease and destruction. They are also historic and actual victims of land-grabbing, by both the rich and the landless. And now they are the actual victims of the warring parties in Colombia, those who press-gang them, those who demand that they grow coca or who fumigate their habitat, those who force them to abandon their land and, beyond all that, those who extract the biggest profits - the logging, mining and petrol companies.

As custodians of a biodiversity that on this planet is surpassed only in Brazil, the indigenas of Colombia are not fatalistic. However, there is an urgent need for more than lip-service towards the indigenas and their environment. Some of Colombia's indigenous nations are in danger of extinction: some already consist of barely 100 individuals, two as few as 20.

That 84 indigenous nations still survive in Colombia is an achievement partly of the efforts of international advocates, but mainly of their own tenacity and their struggle through organisations such as ONIC (the National Organisation of Indigenous Colombians) and various regional groupings. The 1991 constitution of Colombia is regarded as the most enlightened in Latin America in its recognition of their claims.

Most Colombians are of mixed descent (European, African and Amerindian), but there are still around 700,000-800,000 Amerindians, nearly two percent of the population and speaking 64 languages between them. A system of 17 reservas (reservations) and 429 resguardos (where private landowners can only sell to the recognised trustees of the territory) means that indigenous communities continue to occupy about 280,000 km2 - more than a quarter of Colombia's land surface. The indigenas are spread through some 27 of Colombia's departments (provinces), but the major concentrations are in the basins of the rivers Amazon and Orinoco (90 per cent of indigena territory), with some other pockets in the north. Around 80 per cent of indigenas live in resguardos - or at least return there from their labours in banana plantations and the like - which have provided an opportunity for indigenous people to draw up and pursue their own community development programmes, known as “Plans of Life”.

Indigena representation

Participating in the electoral system has brought indigenas representation in Congress, the governorship of the department of Cauca and several mayorships. However, elected office in Colombia - indeed any form of leadership - carries great personal risks for those who refuse to be corrupted. Indigenas have also used a variety of non-magical means to struggle against projects that would despoil their sacred lands, such as logging, dams and oil prospecting. However, the hard truth is that indigenous communities - sitting on rich natural resources - are viewed as an “obstacle to progress”. Consequently legal guarantees, including the constitution itself, afford little protection, A number of times indigena groups have gained injunctions against a project, only for a higher court to overturn the decision. In 1999 then president Pastrana, cosying up to the multinational corporations, issued a decree weakening the licensing and impact assessments required for mineral, oil, logging and hydroelectric projects. Worse still, war has turned the areas inhabited by indigenas into strategic objectives, and threatens the very existence of some nations.


Indigenous peoples traditionally see various plants as sacred, including coca (the plant from which cocaine is manufactured), marijuana and poppy. They are used in rituals and celebrations, medically, or by a people's spiritual authorities. The mass production of coca and its chemical processing into cocaine is quitecontrary to these traditions, and yet an estimated 17 per cent of illegal crops in Colombia are grown in indigena territory (70 per cent of marijuana, 19 per cent of poppy and 11 per cent of coca).

When the Colombian coca industry took off in the 1970s and 1980s, it offered some indigenous people an income, but it accelerated the social and economic disruption of their way of life, and soon brought displacement and deforestation. The successful eradication of coca plantations in Peru and Bolivia put more pressure on potential sites for coca plantations in Colombia and the associated small laboratories. Many of those who refused to grow coca fled from their lands, some of the Kofan tribe to Ecuador where - as coca growing spreads over the border - in 2002, armed men have again forced them to abandon their homes.

Where once the notorious Medellin and Cali cartels controlled cocaine processing, now the industry has fragmented: behind a multitude of facades, there are now thousands of small businesses linked to the sale of coca, making the basic paste, refining the drug, and then distributing it. This decentralisation of processing and distribution has made it even more elusive, with the result that the US-funded anti-narcotics strategy now looks more towards what can be seen as a “scorched earth” policy of fumigation, spraying crops from a height that it is out of reach of the arms of guerrillas or narco-traffickers.


The campaigns of aerial fumigation hit hard against whole communities, contaminating drinking water, destroying crops other than coca, poisoning and killing livestock. In November 2000, after 10 successive days of aerial spraying over Inga indigenous territory in Narino (the department north of Ecuador), 80 per cent of children went down with an epidemic of fever, diarrhoea, and severe skin and eye complaints. In July 2001, a court suspended fumigations after a legal action initiated by an indigenous organisation with the government's Ombudsperson office. Unfortunately, this was soon revoked.

The fumigation campaigns funded by Plan Colombia are most concentrated in Putumayo, an area reputed to contain half the coca plantations in Colombia. It is also home for 17,000 indigenasfrom nine distinct tribes and an area of enormous biodiversity with 500 species of birds. OPIAC (the organisation for indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon) argue that developing alternatives to fumigation is part of the search for peace in Colombia. As policies inside Colombia, they advocate:

  • supporting alternative economic and social development, in particular the Plans of Life of the resguardos;
  • eradicating coca crops manually while guaranteeing the food needs of the peasant growers.

However, they also - like most Colombian civil society groups - argue that the scourge of cocaine needs to be addressed primarily where the drug is marketed or where the chemicals for its processing are produced, that is in North America or Europe.

Meanwhile, most independent observers reckon that fumigation in Colombia has in the past only succeeded in shifting where coca is grown, never in reducing the amount cultivated. Early analysis of coca growing since the Plan Colombia fumigations indicates that the quantity grown is still rising. Moreover, as Amazon Watch reports, for every acre fumigated, “three acres of rainforest are cut down as coca growers are pushed into more remote areas”.

Armed conflict

Although various indigenas have at one time or another taken sides in the armed conflict, the general picture is of indigenous peoples being caught in the cross-fire, their organisations vainly trying to have their neutrality respected. The Colombian guerrilla have long had strong bases in the territories of the indigenas: today, of FARC's 40 or so war fronts, 23 are in indigena areas. These have brought therefore not only the regular military but the attendant paramilitary forces.

In the south-eastern departments, from 1997 to 2000, indigena organisations complained that FARC was obliging each indigenous family to provide two recruits, aged 14 or upwards. FARC's objective was to have up to 3,000 indigenas, fighters who would be familiar with the jungles and well adapted to the physical conditions. The Latin American Association for Human Rights estimated that more than 1,500 indigenas were thus forced into the ranks of the guerrillas. On at least two of FARC's incursions in 1999, the majority of its fighters were indigenas.

The right-wing paramilitary's response to such recruitment by FARC was, where possible, to take reprisals against whole villages, as in the case of Kankuamus, who the paramilitaries killed by the dozen and relocated survivors to shanty towns.

Right-wing paramilitaries also press-gang indigenas: indeed, sometimes the indigenas do not know which armed groupit is that has come among them to steal their young people. Trapped between the various armed groups, the coca industry and the fumigation, many indigenas flee,some to join other indigenous communities, in Colombia or Ecuador, some to Colombian cities where a life of dependency, begging or delinquency awaits them.

Oil and the U'wa

Like other Amerindians, the indigenas of Colombia are threatened by the efforts of multi-national corporations to extract resources. One successful indigena campaign has been in the north-eastern cloud forest. The 5,000-strong U'wa tribe successfully resisted Occidental Petroleum's (OXY's) plan to drill for oil on U'wa ancestral lands, in the Samoré block. Perhaps best known for the U'was' vow to commit collective suicide if the drilling went ahead, this 10-year-long struggle used both the courts and nonviolent direct action.

Twice - in 1997 and 2000 - the U'wa succeeded in convincing courts to stop the project, only for higher bodies to overturn the decision. Meanwhile their nonviolent campaign faced violence and intimidation. In 1997, hooded men with rifles dragged their elected leader from his bed, beat him up and threatened to kill him if he refused to sign an “authorisation form” for the drilling. Three North American activists working with the U'wa Defence Working Group were themselves murdered in March 1999 (six FARC guerrillas have now been indicted for this). The family of one of them, Terence Freitas who had worked with the U'wa for two years, appealed that his death should not be used as a pretext to increase military aid or military action.

By 1999, it was clear that the campaign was having an effect. After OXY's partner in the operation, Royal Dutch Shell, pulled out (fearing “another Nigeria” - a reference to the scandals accompanying its operations in Ogoni land), OXY found that 13 per cent of its own shareholders - representing US$800 million in stocks - wanted a new risk assessment.

Back at the drilling site, however, non-violent protests provoked violence. In November 1999, the U'wa set up a protest camp. In the next year this brought violent raids by the police and military - in February, when three children drowned in the melee, and in June to break up nonviolent roadblocks preventing trucks reaching the site. In November 2000 the OXY rigs arrived, escorted by some 2,000 troops.

After announcing disappointing results from the drilling, finally at its 2002 shareholders meeting, OXY announced that it was pulling out - “for economic reasons”. Nevertheless the U'wa are still concerned that another oil multinational might take up this project, while Spain's Repsol is currently looking to develop another site located on traditional U'wa land, the Capachos oil block. Moreover, the militarisation of their region is linked more generally to oil operations, including OXY's Caño Limon pipeline. The oil companies are a substantial source of revenue for both the state and the guerrillas. The army deploys as many as one in four soldiers to guard pipelines and oil installations, while kidnapping oil industry employees is one of the principal sources of revenue for the guerrillas.

Intimidation and organisation

The pioneers in using the courts to defend the environment are said to have been another northern tribe, the Embera Katío in Choco-Uraba, a tribe of a few thousand. They successfully defended virgin rainforest against the loggers. Subsequently, however, they have been less successful. They did win an injunction against the construction of the Urra Dam. However, when this was lifted in 1998, the Emberas' banana plantations were flooded and their fishing stock devastated. They battled on to win compensation.

The Embera Katío were struggling not only against the dam builders, but also against pressures from both the guerrilla and the paramilitaries. Insisting on neutrality, they refused to let guerrillas use their lands, while at the same time they also resisted paramilitary pressure for them to start cultivating coca. It was apparently for this reason that in June 2001 three AUC (paramilitary) gunmen abducted the leader of the campaign against the dam, Kimy Pernía Domico.

Indigenas in Chocó are well aware that those behind the paramilitaries want to appropriate their lands. The paramilitaries have displaced hundreds of them, often with the army close at hand but refusing to intervene. On the occasion of Pernía's abduction, however, they decided to take the offensive themselves, nonviolently. In a symbolic search for this leader, more than 1,000 indigenous people travelled in convoys of cramped buses and wooden rafts to Tierralta, in the AUC heartland in Córdoba. The killings, however, continue: in September 2001, another Embera Katío leader, the head of the resguardo, was killed by paramilitaries.

One of the main objectives of the paramilitaries is intimidation - either forcing people to abandon their land or to stamp out autonomous organising. If there might seem to be a direct interest in killing particular obstructive leaders, there are many instances of more generalised intimidation - even to the point of shutting down mothers' meetings and children's meal programmes among the Wiwa and Kogi communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Nevertheless, there are signs of greater organisation among indigenas.

Maintaining neutrality

In October 2000, Floro Tunubalá became the first indígena in Colombia to be elected departmental governor, his campaign base being the 200,000 indígenas living in Cauca department. In June 2001, indígenas in Cauca joined Afro-Colombians and other peasant farmers in a 20,000-strong march across the department, protesting at violence against ethnic minorities and the presence of armed factions. Several tribes have their own volunteer patrols, perhaps most developed among the Paez peoples in the southwest Andes of Colombia. The Paeces consist of more than 16,000 families and have deployedan 800-strong vigilante force of volunteer civil guards in an effort to secure that their lands are free of both guerrillas and drug traffickers.

Without firearms but with traditional ritual sticks, they have rescued children recruited by guerrillas and destroyed cocaine laboratories. Amazon Watch welcome this resistance as an affirmation of Paez rights, and this may indeed be so as long as such resistance is firmly allied with a stance of neutrality. However, president Uribe wants no space for neutrality, and intends to mobilise up to a million civilian vigilantes against armed movements. In the face of Uribe's plan, the national organisation of indígenas ONIC wrote to the president in September rejecting the involvement of members of indigenous communities in any type of military or social service, voluntary or obligatory, proposed by the government. They specifically oppose participation in the proposed networks of civilian informers, arguing that this would compromise their neutrality and so increase the vulnerability of indigenous communities.