Encounters with Human Rights Defenders
Embera Eyabida Community Leader, Chocó Department
Portrait: Verónica Giraldo Canal, 2012.
August 29th, 2012
When I was a child, in the 1970s, we, the Embera Eyabida and Dobida Indigenous Peoples, were the only ones in our territory, in the North of the Chocó Department. We had no legal title, and simply lived on the land of our ancestors. Around 1980, settlers began arriving, cutting trees in the jungle to make pastures and preventing us from circulating. Then, in 1985, they started constructing the Pan-American Highway over our land. In 1988, we decided to form a reserve. A man named Joselito was elected Governor, while I was elected General Secretary because I was the only one who could read and write a little Spanish. My mother had sent me to school for a month in the Antioquia Department. My father had opposed it because he thought that I would lose my culture. He would only teach me our way of life: sowing, fishing, and hunting. After two years, I became Auditor of our community, and finally Governor.
One day, the settlers convoked us to a meeting to discuss about the territory. I went with fifteen Embera and we were surprised to see that members of a guerrilla commando were also present. They laughed at us because I was the only one who could speak Spanish, and I did not speak it very well. They asked us why we had established a reserve and told us that Indigenous people did not need more than a meter of land, enough to burry their cadaver. We were all terrified and I did not reply. They had a discussion amongst themselves and a guerrilla member finally said that our land was protected by the Constitution. I gathered my courage and spoke to defend my community because I had already attempted to read the Constitution, although I did not fully everything it. They finally let us go. However, settlers later encouraged more to come to the area, because they feared that we would expulse them.
In 1995, I was elected for a term of three years to the Municipal Council of the nearby town of Acandi to represent my community. One day, the paramilitaries arrested me with their guns and interrogated me for two hours. They asked why I cooperated with the guerrilla. I later realized that someone had registered me in the municipal election as a candidate of the Unión Patriótica. [The Unión Patriótica is a left-wing political party of whom many candidates were victim of political assassinations.] I didn’t even know that party. I was very scared and I had to clarify that my only objective was to defend the rights of the Indigenous. They finally understood and let me go, but they also told me they could have left me dead in the street. This mandate as city councillor helped me learn more by-laws and statutes, which would later be useful to continue defend our rights.
After these events, I was elected chief councillor of the Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas Kuna, Embera, Katío (ACIKEK) and I traveled to Medellin and Bogota to represent our nine communities of North of Chocó in meetings and assemblies. I raised the issue of our territorial situation, because many territories were invaded by settlers despite the fact that we had received titles from the Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform (INCORA). These problems persist to this day, especially in the reserves of Tanela and Cuti. In the latter case, houses of the town of El Gilgal were built inside the reserve. Some landowners told us that they were willing to return the land so long as INCORA bought it back from them, but this did not happen.
During the 2000s, I began denouncing to the authorities everything that happened in our territory: the invasion by settlers, the Pan-American Highway, the construction of a power line, the mining, and the forest clearing. For each complaint to the municipal or department authorities, I keep a record. When we received the support of the Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, we presented a legal action before the courts in Bogota. I then went to Spain, Italy, France and Belgium to testify to what we had experienced. It was very positive for my community and it gave me a great sense of freedom. The problem is that our current community Governors do not fully understand our legal action or the Court’s 2011 judgment. [In its T-129 of 2011 ruling, the Constitutional Court of Colombia orders that many activities interfering with the ancestral territory of the community be halted.] Because the situation has not improved since, the community Governors are still looking for ways to make the local authorities listen to us.
Throughout this period, my situation was very complicated and I was subject to threats from all sides. The military, the police and the paramilitaries accused me of being with the guerrilla, whereas the guerrillas said that I was an informant for the paramilitaries or the military. I simply tried to defend my people. I had to hide for three years inside the Chidima community. Once, after dusk, I felt that something was different with the sound of the animals and with the wind. I told my wife that it was better for me to spend the night outside and I went to hide in the jungle. The moon was full, I heard the growls of tigers around me and, in the middle of the night, the paramilitaries came to my house again. I saw them go inside and ask my wife where I was. I do not know why, but something saved me that night. I spent weeks in hiding enduring rain, mosquitoes and hunger. Sometimes, I cried and even thought about taking my own life. At night, listening to the sound of the wind, the trees, the river, is where I found strength. I thought: "If I have to face this persecution to defend our cause, then I am ready to fight no matter the consequence.” I made a decision: “Just as clear as I hear the birds and nights animals sing and roar, one day I will testify about what I endured for defending my community.”
My wife, my family and my community were very concerned and would tell me: “When will you find peace? What will happen to you?” Finally, one day, I could not bear it anymore and, on February 16th, 2011 I decided to leave my community of Chidima and move to the city of Quibdó. It was a hard decision, because my wife had passed away and I had to bring three of my children with me and raise them alone. My goal is to continue supporting my community spiritually and mentally from the city, and to transmit the relevant information to the authorities on their behalf. However, I received phone calls from people who identify themselves as guerrillas and told me that I had to go back to my territory because of some problems. I also heard that some people are looking for me in the city, which preoccupies me.
I wish to live free from persecution and return to my community to continue defending it. I feel that living in the city is like forgetting my community, my way of life, my culture, my diet, and my way of thinking as an Embera Eyabida Indigenous. This is why I have decided to return to my community next year. If the community so wishes, I am ready to take up a leadership position again. One of the difficulties is that I do not know if I should bring my daughter back with me so that she can remember who we are, or if she should stay for high school in the city of Quibdó to become one day a defender of our territory as well. I ask the spirits for wisdom and knowledge to make this decision. Another problem is that I do not have the resources to travel to my community. If God and Nature allow it, I will be murdered when I return to my territory. Otherwise, I will die one day of a natural death. If the Spirit continues accompanying me, it will be acknowledged on day that I simply fight for what is ours.
Since the 1970s, our Eyabida Dobida culture has undergone great changes. With the presence of settlers, young people think that our culture should be left to the past. This is why adults must set an example for the young. Without our land, we cannot live properly. Before, the river was large and full of fish. Now, the water is depleted. Wild fruits, fauna and flora are disappearing. An Indigenous without water, without forest, without traditional medicine, is not an Indigenous. Today, the Pan-American Highway project and mines were halted by the legal action that we presented, but the problems of territory invasion and forest clearing continue. For example, a cemetery of the communities of Chidima and Pescadito that was left outside the reserve legally constituted. This is very sad because grazing lands for cows surrounds it. We have always fought to prevent the settlers to cut the trees from the cemetery, because this is where the wise are buried and where their spirits remain. For this reason, we need our reserves to be officially expanded.
I feel that there is a lot of discrimination against Indigenous peoples in Colombia. The Constitution is very beautiful, but its words or the laws that were adopted are not respected. I think that the judges do not always understand our reality, and our territories remain unprotected. Plans for Colombian or international corporations are imposed on our territory without respecting Indigenous authorities, our elders or our land. We need more meetings with Government officials who do not know our communities, in order for them to respect the rights for which so many of us have given their lives.
My dream for the Indigenous peoples of Colombia is that they would stop realizing megaprojects in our territories without consulting our authorities and that they would let us live as we did before, being in the jungle without anyone telling us where we can go and ordering us to get civilized or educated about another world. I want them to leave us our own way of thinking and of projecting ourselves in the future, and I want our territory to be free of government projects: mining, megaprojects, power lines, roads, bombs, etc. I want the government to support us in our own projects. I dream of peace and respect for our culture.
The greatest lesson that I have learned from life is that, despite all the suffering and sacrifices that an Indigenous leader must endure to gain minimal respect, he has to continue to live according to his culture in order for his children to learn how we have struggled and eventually do the same. I will continue to fight whatever the consequence. Today, I thank God, Nature and the organizations that have helped me in life. It is crucial that the international organizations that have supported us so far do not abandon us, and that the Indigenous communities of Colombia be not left alone. I wish that more people from different countries of the world would learn about the situation of threatened Indigenous leaders and support us.