Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Displaced Embera Indians a Long Way from Their Land

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Aug 9 2011 (IPS) - “I give something, you give something,” an Emberá indigenous craftswoman displaying her beautiful handiwork on a sidewalk in the Colombian capital told this reporter, saying she would pose for a photo in exchange for selling a pair of earrings.

Emberá craftswomen on a street in Bogota.  Credit: Helda Martínez/IPS

Emberá craftswomen on a street in Bogota. Credit: Helda Martínez/IPS

It was hard to get her and her fellow craftswomen to say much more. Language is one barrier; fear is another. When asked why they left their land to live in this city of nine million people, Teodora Valencia responded: “Because of the cursed violence.”

Would she like to return? She hesitated. “Maybe, I don’t know. We can sell our crafts here,” she added, before clamming up.

Of the indigenous people who have fled Colombia’s nearly five-decade civil war, which is waged mainly in rural areas, the Emberá are the group that most stands out for flocking to large cities.

There are some 300,000 Emberá, whose ancestors were nomadic, in 17 of Colombia’s 32 departments or provinces, but mainly concentrated in the west: Chocó, Antioquia, Caldas and Risaralda departments. There are also Emberá in neighbouring Panama and Ecuador.

They are the most widely dispersed native group in this South American country, according to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC).

Indigenous people officially make up 3.5 percent of Colombia’s 46 million people. The immense majority live in remote mountainous or jungle areas, where they are often killed and forcibly disappeared and displaced in the armed conflict.

There is no agreement among experts and authorities on how many distinct indigenous groups have survived in Colombia. ONIC puts the number at 102, of which 87 are officially recognised.

Indigenous people comprise two percent of the victims of forced displacement, who number between 3.7 million according to official statistics and 5.2 million between 1895 and 2010, as reported by the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a prominent human rights group.

Depending on their culture and location, native people flee the war in different directions: in the mountains they escape to even higher ground; in the rainforest they flee to more inhospitable jungle areas; or they join the ranks of the urban poor on the outskirts of cities, like a number of Emberá have done.

There are an estimated 900 displaced Emberá living in Bogota.

There are several different language families among the Emberá, including Katío, Chamí, Waunana and Birá. “There are also the Emberá of the upper Andágueda river, in Chocó, which are a different linguistic group,” Gerardo Jumí, a member of the Chamí Emberá, told IPS.

Jumí, who has an undergraduate degree in the social sciences and a master’s degree in political science, was a senator between 2002 and 2006 and is now an adviser to the president’s programme on indigenous peoples.

He began his career as a teacher at the indigenous school in Dabeiba, a town in the northwestern department of Antioquia, and he is intimately familiar with the roots of the violence that affects the Emberá and that has pushed them, especially the Katío, to the cities.

He explained that although many survive in the cities by panhandling, they see what they do as a job, “because they don’t know the concept of begging.”

Summing up the history of the displacement of the Katío ethnic group in the 20th century, Jumí said “The Emberá settled in different regions to plant crops and raise livestock. In the 1970s, the Katío of Caldas (in west-central Colombia) found gold, which brought them wealth and better living conditions, but also violence.”

Landowners from the neighbouring department of Antioquia, with the backing of police, invaded their territory and seized the mine and surrounding lands from them.

Then the leftwing guerrillas, which emerged in 1964, arrived: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), followed later by drug traffickers and far-right paramilitary militias.

The Emberá, traditionally a peaceful group, tried to defend themselves with machetes, bows and arrows, and shotguns. But their economy was destroyed and the young people began to be recruited by the armed groups.

“Now there is talk about people trafficking and organisers of begging rings,” said Jumí, referring to people who force the indigenous refugees into such activities in the fleabag pensions where they tend to live in the cities.

The Interior Ministry has investigated the allegations and has taken measures against some of those organising the begging rings, but it is a complex situation.

Many Emberá live in “territories without a state presence, which can only be reached after hiking through the bush for a week or two. These are communities that lack the most elemental means of survival,” Jumí said.

They thus go from complete isolation from western civilisation to the hardscrabble existence of bewildered victims of forced displacement in poor urban neighbourhoods, further complicated by the fact that many of them speak little or no Spanish.

In their home territories, there is “so much violence, and the state is incapable of making any public investments,” he said.

Nevertheless, Jumí is hopeful. In October 2010, President Juan Manual Santos attended the Second Congress of the Emberá Nation, held in the western Valle del Cauca department to draw attention to the plight of the ethnic group and “emphasise the need for respect and guarantees for human rights, dialogue and prior consultation about” mining, oil, large-scale agricultural or logging activities, “that affect us, as the constitution states,” he said.

One key issue discussed was “that the Emberá deserve to return to their land, an idea supported by the ONIC, to which we belong. We called for shared political, moral and ethical responsibility,” Jumí said.

Can that be achieved? “A leader has to be optimistic and never stop fighting. The state has outstanding debts – it has failed to obey the mandates of the 1991 constitution and important Constitutional Court rulings, which recognise the autonomy of indigenous peoples and stipulate that they must be previously consulted about decisions that affect them,” he said.

One of the major advances made by the 1991 constitution was to recognise indigenous peoples’ right to collective property of their ancestral territory, and their right to self-government within their reserves.

Of a total of 796 reserves in Colombia, 20 percent belong to the Emberá, in different departments.

But “in the 20 years since the 1991 constitution came into force, there have been more political killings of indigenous leaders than ever,” said Jumí. “And Congress has shelved 18 different draft laws that would have carried out territorial rezoning. So this is just beginning, in the midst of the huge expectations created by President Santos’ promises” of land reform and restitution of land to the victims of forced displacement.

Besides the armed conflict, there are other threats facing native groups in Colombia, global rights watchdog Amnesty International said in a report published Aug. 5 ahead of International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, celebrated Aug. 9.

According to the report titled “Sacrificing rights in the name of development: Indigenous peoples under threat in the Americas”, “Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities are particularly hard hit by the on-going human rights crisis in Colombia. These communities face killings, threats and other human rights violations and abuses committed by the security forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla forces.

“On the one hand, human rights violations and abuses are committed as part of efforts to secure military control of regions. On the other, they are often committed to advance powerful economic interests and undermine the capacity of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities to oppose the development of these interests on their lands,” the report adds.

“In January 2009, the Colombian Constitutional Court issued a ruling highlighting the situation of Indigenous peoples whose cultural and physical survival were at risk either from the dislocation caused by displacement and dispersion or as a direct result of violence and declining numbers,” it says.

The report states that “The false and dangerous dichotomy of development vs. Indigenous peoples’ rights is widespread in the continent. It is based on the flawed argument that extractive or other development projects that serve national interests by increasing national wealth and generating jobs cannot be ‘obstructed’ by Indigenous peoples who are ‘just’ a fraction of society.

“Thus, when Indigenous communities organise themselves to demand respect for their rights, the state and other actors accuse them of blocking the growth of the entire country,” says Amnesty International.

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