Colombians demonstrate outside Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace, in Bogotá on Oct. 5, 2016, in support of a peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that voters had rejected three days earlier. (Photo: Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images)

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When Peace Is Dangerous

With Colombia’s half century of conflict winding to a close, indigenous groups in the country met to strategize how to protect their lands from new threats: oil and mining companies.
Oct 21, 2016· 8 MIN READ
Alexander Zaitchik has written for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Salon, The Nation, and The New Republic. He lives in New Orleans.

SANTA SOFÍA, Amazonas, Colombia—“Enough with the origin stories! We all know where we come from. We’re wasting time.”

The exasperated plea came from the far back of the earthen floor. Heads turned, followed by a smattering of extended hums, the local manner of showing public assent. What the man said was true. The assembled tribal leaders had not traveled to the southeastern corner of Colombia to hear long-winded recountings of ancient legends, the indigenous equivalent of U.N.-conference diplomatic preambles. The riverside cumbre, or summit, had convened to discuss the peace treaty making headlines around the world. The unprecedented meeting, held in September in a tribal hamlet near the forested borders with Peru and Brazil, focused on the looming disbandment of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and how the end to half a century of guerrilla war would affect life in the Colombian Amazon.

The gathered leaders all supported the peace deal, the fruit of four years of intense negotiations in Havana. But the cumbre was no celebration. Unlike the residents of Bogotá and Cali who filled apartment building windows with exuberant pro-peace signs, the tribes view the post-FARC future with wariness. Largely excluded from the talks in Havana, they see stability as a door to new threats in the rainforest, more than half of which is designated indigenous land. (Though Colombians rejected the terms of the deal by a narrow margin in an Oct. 2 plebiscite, both the FARC and the government are committed to forging an official peace.)

“It’s positive that FARC and the government will end the fighting, but we have centuries of experience with land grabs and displacement,” said Clemencia Herrera, an activist from the Huitoto tribe who splits her time between the rainforest and Bogotá, where she runs a shelter for displaced indigenous women. “It wasn’t long ago that we were enslaved by the rubber barons. Now we expect multinationals will come here for the minerals and the oil. This is a direct threat to the land and our way of life. We’ve come here to build a common front.”

Tribal leaders gathered in Colombia's Amazonas department in September 2016 to discuss the potential effects of the disbandment of the FARC guerrilla group on efforts to expand oil drilling, mining, and other development in their areas. One of the assembled pointed to a map projected on a screen during his presentation. (Photo: Alexander Zaitchik)

If Colombia’s tribes are not sanguine about the deal, they have good reason. State officials have made plain their vision for the southern and eastern jungle provinces—a vision that fits into the broader neoliberal restructuring of Colombia’s economy, whose transformation is now entering its third decade.

The government’s chief negotiator in the peace talks, Frank Pearl, is a former minister of environment known for boasting of the rainforest’s “enormous riches” awaiting foreign investment. In the previous government, Pearl approved a resolution from the National Mining Agency for the creation of a 17-million-hectare mining district covering the regions of Chocó, Orinoquía, and Amazonas. The law provides a mechanism for mining companies to override legal barriers to exploiting protected land, including indigenous rights enshrined in the 1991 constitution. (Before leaving office, Pearl issued another resolution promising to force companies to adhere to strict environmental standards.)

It’s not just mining that looms on the rainforest’s green horizon. This past April, the president of Colombia’s state oil company told reporters that with the threat of kidnappings and conflict lifted, he hoped to penetrate remote regions of the country “with greater strength.”

These and other statements herald the delayed arrival of a commodities boom that has transformed Colombia and the region. The tribes are bracing for impact.

This illegal gold mine in the department of Cauca, Colombia, was raided by Colombian Armed Forces on Aug. 9, 2016. Indigenous Colombians fear the end of a 50-year-long guerrilla war will lead to more incursions into their lands for resource extraction. (Photo: Luis Robayo/Getty Images)

Over three days that began shortly after dawn and stretched late into night, leaders from dozens of tribes strategized every aspect of this common front. The talks took place in a kind of thatch-roofed amphitheater filled with plastic chairs and lined with a perimeter of hammocks. A multigenerational affair, elders were given deference in the discussion. Babies nursed in their mothers’ arms. To keep everyone refreshed in the heavy heat, women walked the aisles with communal bowls of fermented yucca juice. The presentations, aided by a screen and projector, ranged from the mechanics of integrating tribal hierarchies to overviews of the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America, a massive Brazil-led development project to build a network of roads, tracks, dams, and ports throughout the Amazon.

“Megaprojects like IIRSA greatly disturb us,” said Paulo Estrada, a Muruy tribal leader from the group Defense of the Peoples. “They are planning to build through our territories, with none of the consultation required by law. With the guerrilla groups and paramilitaries out of the way, they can move ahead faster. The cumbre is about coming together to retake control of our forests. Any action that affects the harmony here is harmful. The government has no right to tell us how to manage our land.”

Although the conflict has served as a fire wall against large-scale investment in Colombia’s Amazon, degradation and pollution are not unknown. Factions in the war have long funded their operations with small-scale gold mines, bleeding mercury into the land and water; wildcat logging has robbed the area of most of its cedar. But industrial megaprojects have mostly been limited to other parts of the country. Many of these projects are on indigenous land, their impacts carefully observed by the tribes of the southern rainforest. The El Cerrejón mine, on Wayuu territory in the northeastern department of La Guajira, produces most of Colombia’s coal. It has also produced Colombia’s highest-profile environmental disaster. The mine has covered the land in toxic waste and rerouted the Wayuu’s water supply, contributing to the deaths of an estimated 5,000 children by malnutrition.

We see what happened to our cousins in Peru and Ecuador when they opened the forest to industry. We know we are rich.... We have all of the little minerals they use in cell phones.

Jose Zoria, Yagua tribe member

Colombia’s southern tribes have also been observing events in neighboring Peru, where mining and oil projects have caused widespread contamination of indigenous land up and down major Amazon tributaries like the Marañón and the Tigre.

“We see what happened to our cousins in Peru and Ecuador when they opened the forest to industry,” said Jose Zoria, a soft-spoken young leader from the Yagua tribe. “We know we are rich in gold, silver, copper, uranium, titanium. We have all of the little minerals they use in cell phones.”

Rather than bring in tractors, drills, and explosives to extract those riches, the tribal leaders who gathered last month are organizing around an alternative development model—one consistent with their culture and the health of the forests on which that culture depends.

Indigenous groups and their allies have long maintained they are the natural stewards of the planet’s rainforests. In recent years, research has begun appearing that backs up these claims with data. The World Resources Institute has studied the economic and environmental benefits of securing indigenous land title in Latin America. In every case, it found dramatically less deforestation, fortunes worth of carbon capture, and the rise of sustainable industries. Together, they add up to economic benefits greater than those gained from short-term extraction and industrial agriculture.

During a side event at this month’s World Bank Group meeting in Washington, D.C., the WRI released a study titled Climate Benefit, Tenure Costs: The Economic Case for Securing Indigenous Land Rights in the Amazon. The authors found that deforestation rates inside Colombia’s tenure-secure indigenous forestlands are one-half of those outside. The resultant carbon sequestration is equal to 4.6 metric tons of stored carbon every 20 years per hectare of forest. Local benefits, meanwhile, include sustained job creation, cultural cohesion and survival, and a reduction in social conflicts caused by contested land use. The cost to the state is essentially nothing: about 0.1 percent of the total benefits derived.

“Securing land rights for sustainable use by the forest’s inhabitants is the ultimate low-cost, high-benefit investment,” said Juan-Carlos Altamirano, a resource economist and coauthor of the WRI report. “With industrial mining and agriculture, the wealth is sucked out for short-term gain, leaving the land depleted, polluted, and useless.”

Over decades of providing their own security in a remote and dangerous environment, Colombia’s southern tribes built institutions well suited to protecting the forest in the post-FARC era. Among them is the Indigenous Guard:

(Photo: Alexander Zaitchik)

Officers of the regional organization, which augments state forces in the area, provided security during September’s cumbre. Formed two decades ago in response to growing violence and extortion by rebel groups, paramilitaries, and narco gangs, the units patrol indigenous areas night and day for illegal activity, including mining and logging.

Over plates of fried fish and mashed yucca one afternoon, I discussed the tribes’ monitoring capability with Louis Sunia (pictured above middle), a 54-year-old Indigenous Guard member from the Kukama tribe.

“We have 1,200 guards in the Amazon region and are building capacity,” said Sunia. “We recognize the Colombian government, but we will control our future. Any industry on our land must be consistent with our way of life. When mining companies come, they take the natural wealth and destroy the culture. They send us to work in the mines, leaving us with nothing when the ore is gone. The young forget how to work in the traditional ways. This is also true of the so-called green companies the government promises they will bring here.”

Sunia’s comments reflected a general tone of defiance at the cumbre. It’s a defiance that highlights the irony of President (and 2016 Nobel Peace Prize winner) Juan Manuel Santos’s plan for Colombia: By green-lighting extraction and agribusiness in forests newly cleared of rebels, it all but guarantees a new generation of land-use conflicts in the region. Land reform was at the heart of the FARC’s insurgency, and the issue will not be resolved by a peace pact. The tribes not alone in predicting this outcome. “Mineral exploitation would augment conflicts between the government and indigenous communities,” said Carlos Alfonso Velásquez, a retired army colonel and security expert at the University of La Sabana. “The tribes prioritize ecological care, and the government needs taxation from mining, which is potentially huge.”

Securing land rights for sustainable use by the forest’s inhabitants is the ultimate low-cost, high-benefit investment.

Juan-Carlos Altamirano, World Resources Institute

In Colombia, less than 0.05 percent of the population controls nearly half the total land. Signing tribal lands over to foreign companies will add flash points to what is a growing list of social tensions. In June, to pick just one example, a demonstration shut down the Pacific port of Buenaventura. “The protest was largely a product of the Colombian government’s unwillingness to fulfill promises made during a previous round of rural protests, which followed the 2012 implementation of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement,” wrote Forrest Hylton, who teaches Latin American history at Northwestern University, and Aaron Tauss, assistant professor of international political economy at Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín, in a 2016 report for the North American Congress on Latin America. “The concessions hinged on mitigating the disastrous effects of mining and extraction projects, large-scale industrial agriculture, and free trade agreements.”

There is a deeper subtext to the tribes’ fury over the government’s plans for the country’s rainforest regions.

During the conflict with the FARC, some indigenous communities joined the People’s Congress, a radical political movement aligned with the National Liberation Army, the country’s second-biggest rebel group. But the tribes generally wanted to be left alone—by guerrillas, narco gangs, and paramilitaries. Mostly they tacitly allied with the state, similar to the way their Peruvian “cousins” allied with Lima in the conflict with Maoist revolutionaries the Shining Path. In both countries, tribal communities often served a vital intelligence function: knowledgeable about difficult terrain, they were the eyes and ears of the jungle. For decades, they suffered disproportionate impacts of the conflict, living in hostile proximity to rebel camps and associated narco networks. The tribes now see the planned expansion of state-backed extraction projects on their land as a betrayal.

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“Together with the Afro-Colombians on the Pacific coast, we experienced the worst of the conflict,” said Fany Kuiru, a Huitoto leader overseeing the translation of the peace treaty into 64 tribal languages. “We were displaced. Our children were abducted. There were killings. Extortion. We’re so secluded that the guerrillas came and did what they wanted. We fought as best we could, but the state and the media didn’t care about us.”

In a morbid illustration of her point, Kuiru gestures to a nearby concrete football pitch, where in 1993 an attack by guerrillas resulted in the deaths of three tribal children. On this afternoon, nearly a quarter century later, a group of children could be seen laughing and kicking a ball.

“Understand, we are glad the conflict is over,” Kuiru said. “But for us, this is the latest chapter in a peace process that started 500 years ago. It never really ends.”

Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.