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Colombia's River of Tears

They call it the River of Butterflies.

From top: a woman pans for gold on the Rio Andagueda; soldiers on patrol in Bagado; men cross the river on a basic canoe; and a worker at a gold mine in Choco Province. Previous pages: the scars made by the diggers are evident  across large areas of the landscape
From top: a woman pans for gold on the Rio Andagueda; soldiers on patrol in Bagado; men cross the river on a basic canoe; and a worker at a gold mine in Choco Province. Previous pages: the scars made by the diggers are evident across large areas of the landscape

Occasionally I was to see a few of the insects, big, brash and beautiful, as our canoe made its way upstream through the khaki-coloured water of the Rio Andagueda towards the mining towns of Bagado and San Marino. Silent and fleeting, the butterflies' delicate presence hovers in marked contrast to the giant lumbering steel diggers that trundle to and fro on the banks of the river hewing out chunks of rainforest.

For time immemorial this same dense, humid forest has been the habitat of these butterflies and Colombia's indigenous people who live in Choco Province.

Mining for gold goes back a long way here, back before the Spanish Conquest that brought with it African slaves, the ancestors of today's Afro-Colombian population.

Even before these African slaves arrived, the Embera were here. Native American hunter-gatherers, this indigenous people's harmonious signature on the rainforest landscape is etched yet further back in time.

"When we remember our ancestors, we can see the future," one Embera man told me when asked what he thought the years ahead held for his people, in this country so long wracked by war and violence.

Explaining further, he said there was a need for his people to live in peace, at one with nature, but not shy of modernity.

In today's Colombia, that is easier said than done.

For a long time this has been a country with an infamous reputation, a place synonymous with cocaine and criminal cartels. Individuals such as drug lord Pablo Escobar and cities like Medellin and Cali have made Colombia the world's best-known narcostate.

So pervasive is Colombia's reputation that few people see past this towards any wider understanding of the country's problems. Not least among these is that Colombia has been subjected to Latin America's longest running conflict - going on 50 years - in which left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and Colombia's government and armed forces have slogged it out in a bitter and barbaric struggle.

Inextricably connected with this wider conflict is another battle for land and resources that impacts on the likes of the Embera, Afro-Colombians and peasant - campesino - communities.

"All the armed groups have taken our lives, and we have always been caught in the middle of the conflicts," was how one Embera man, a teacher, summed up his people's plight.

"The army say we are with the guerrillas and the guerrillas say we are with the army, so what are we to do? " he asks, the frustration clear in his voice.

Today, the Embera are one of the 34 Indigenous Peoples identified by the Colombian Constitutional Court as at risk of physical or cultural extinction.

Now one of their leaders, Criseria Bailarin, has arrived in Scotland to raise awareness of her people's plight. She will tour Scotland for 17 days before speaking at the Scottish Parliament later this month.

Like the Afro-Colombians, it is her people's misfortune to live in areas deemed to be of strategic economic and military interest. Areas such as Choco Province, where 10% of the world's plant and animal species can be found, but where in the villages and towns along the banks of the Rio Andagueda a vast illegal gold mining industry has sprung up.

"The Black Eagles have a big stake in those mines," says my guide, pointing from our canoe to a couple of JCB diggers working on the riverbank as we journey towards the town of Bagado.

A much-feared right-wing paramilitary group, the Black Eagles (Aguilas Negras), faced a government-sponsored eradication campaign against coca production that forced them to shift to illegal gold mining and the extortion of mining communities.

Payments from these mines serve to feed the war economy, buying Kalashnikovs, grenade launchers and other weapons, so fuelling the conflict across Colombia.

Those who stand in the way of the illicit mining trade are ruthlessly dealt with. Killings, disappearances, executions of indigenous and community leaders, enforced displacement are all weapons of groups like the Black Eagles to consolidate or expand their illegal gold mining activities.

Indeed, throughout Colombia, the disproportionately large number of indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups that make up the displaced population stand as testimony to the violence inflicted by paramilitaries and guerrillas alike. This lack of a rule of law becomes all too evident as we reach our upriver destination, the remote mining village of San Marino. On a hilltop above the village stands a police station overlooking one of the many illegal mines.

At another police sub station in the heart of San Marino itself, surrounded by protective sandbags and more akin to a military bunker, I put it to the officer in charge, Lieutenant Oscar Correa, that illegal mines were operating nearby. "We do not have enough personnel to fully police the area, and, anyway, the person who owns the land gives those mining permission to dig," he said.

The simple truth is that in most cases the police presence in places such as San Marino has more do with the existence of Colombia's second largest left-wing anti-government guerrilla group, the ELN (National Liberation Army), than it has to do with reining in illegal mining operations.

"I have been here four months. Last year a grenade was thrown at the sub station during an attack by the ELN but nothing more," admitted the lieutenant, who went on to insist the police were there "for anybody who needs protection".

The facts tell a very different story.

With many senior local officials profiting from the illegal gold rush, the local Afro-Colombian communities bearing the brunt of displacement or environmental damage receive virtually no support from the government. This in part explains the reticence and lethargy of the police when it comes to taking action. Faced with this situation the Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples have no choice but to take measures themselves to protect their rights even if it comes with considerable risks and sometimes bloody consequences.

Comprising 43 Afro-Colombian communities, Cocomopoca is a collective organisation that campaigns on their behalf.

As far back as 1999 it applied for a collective land title to retain ancestral Afro-Colombian land but for doing so suffered forced displacement, threats and killings.

"It's awful to live with so much fear. Guerrillas and paramilitaries killed people in my family," said one community leader, expressing the fears of many others.

While panning for gold has been used here for centuries, and causes very little damage, the illegal modern day industrial scale mining operations cause immense environmental damage.

Human rights, church groups and humanitarian organisations, such as the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (Sciaf) that works through Caritas Colombia, have stepped forward to condemn the illegal mining and support the land rights of those affected. For some time Sciaf, in collaboration with Colombian partner groups, such as Pastrol Social and Cocomopoca, have rallied behind the Embera and Afro-Colombian people.

Since 1996 when Colombia's new constitution recognised the territorial land rights of the Afro-Colombians, the Diocese of Quibdo, the largest town in the Choco region, has been working with Cocomopoca to gain legal rights to collective territories.

After 11 years the Colombian government finally recognised their right to just 73,000 hectares of land - fewer than 300 square miles. Though less than half the territories they asked for, this was still a major victory for Cocomopoca and Sciaf funding played a crucial role.

Though it was a significant breakthrough on land rights, back on the River Andagueda the threat from the illegal mining remains as menacing as ever.

Stepping on to the riverbank near San Marino, we see the massive tearing out of the rainforest by the earthmovers that also destroy topsoil while dumping tons of mud, silt and rocks into the water.

"People with the big JCB earthmovers come from outside, so we rent out the land to them," says one local man, who has embraced the illegal mining.

He receives 20% of any gold extracted but insists there is little damage to the land or environment. He says he does not allow them to use chemicals but "can't speak for the other mines" on that issue.

Activists from Cocomopoca, however, point to the way in which the river is slowly being blocked because of dumping and say the use of the highly toxic chemical mercury as part of the extraction work has reached dangerous levels in the river and leached into the surrounding soil.

"I remember not so long ago when much of this water was clear but now look at it: green, dark and people get sick from it," says the owner of our canoe. He has navigated and ferried people and goods on this part of the river since he was a boy.

After trekking through rainforest and crossing another small river near the town of Apartado in the north of the country, I met the inhabitants of an Embera community in a place called La Coquera. There I spoke with a woman called Ana, who, like many Embera people, was unsure of her age. I asked about the significance of the painted design on her face that many Embera women chose to have.

"It is the pattern of a snake, a local snake," she tells me, adding that for the Embera a close connection with nature is an integral part of the culture. "Everything has spirits for us, plants, trees, animals, everything in nature," she says, before admitting that while she retains many traditional beliefs she no longer believes in the spirits and neither do her children.

"We are happy here in the forest," Ana says, "but I want my children to have the opportunity to study outside at schools or colleges, but it is important they do not lose their cultural beliefs and remain as proud of being Embera as I am."

She goes on to tell me that sometimes the outside world comes to them and that the guerrillas pass through the village but, luckily, rarely interfere with the villagers.

Other Embera communities have been less fortunate, with many forcibly recruited into the ranks of the ELN or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) the largest of the country's Marxist guerrilla movements, which currently has a ceasefire with the government as peace talks continue in the Cuban capital Havana.

On that very issue another Embera man, a teacher in the village, tells me he is convinced that the Embera will only remain safe if they do not cause trouble and have as little contact with outsiders as possible.

"Our government is trying to find peace with the guerrillas, but we believe peace cannot be found in Cuba when there are still weapons everywhere here. That is why we have never armed ourselves with guns but carry only sticks," he explains.

As we talk, standing nearby is what passes for a policeman in Embera society, an "indigenous guard" who is responsible for keeping local law and order according to traditional customs. Appointed by the community, he does indeed only carry a stick hanging from a band at his waist and is rarely called upon to perform any duties.

"We have to live in peace. If we can't find peace within ourselves then how can we expect to find it with other people?" the teacher continues.

Faced with the continuing pressures of the outside world, a conflict that could flare up again at any moment and an illegal and legal mining industry that wrecks swathes of the rainforest, it is easy to be pessimistic about what the future holds for these communities.

Ironically, it is perhaps the past that may yet be the greatest ally of indigenous peoples in the fight for their land and human rights. By staying close to such traditional values they have at hand the very coping mechanisms and tools needed to face current challenges to their way of life.

As that one Embera man told me at the start of my journey in Colombia: "When we remember our ancestors, we can see the future." n

Some names have been changed to protect individuals.

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