WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
5 Apr 2013 | Commentary | News

Rights of Colombian Indigenous Groups under Threat

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) wishes to bring to your attention the following developments concerning indigenous rights in Colombia.

Alarming Human Rights Situation for Indigenous Groups

The Colombia National Indigenous Organization (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, ONIC) presented a disturbing report on March 14, 2013, at the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the alarming situation indigenous groups face due to violence, displacement, discrimination, poverty, and institutional abandonment by the Colombian government. The report highlighted the critical condition of over 66 indigenous groupings that face cultural and physical extermination; many of whom have a population of less than 500 people. Their livelihood is affected by military operations and mining concessions in their territories, which in some instances totals 54 percent of an indigenous reservation.

There is substantial displacement of indigenous communities throughout the country; just in 2012, 44 cases of mass displacement of indigenous communities occurred throughout Colombia, displacing a total of 12,304 people. This situation is compounded by the institutional abandonment by the state that not only ignores the basic necessities of indigenous communities but also fails to take into account economic development for indigenous communities in a manner consulted by their leaders, leaving them isolated without access to roads and at the peril of armed groups and large extractive industries working in the region.

The report states that the presence of extractive industries and ongoing military actions in the Chocó, Risaralda, and northern Valle del Cauca area are creating a humanitarian crisis that is putting 31,685 Embera indigenous persons at risk of displacement. Although a decision by a civil court in Chocó has ruled that concessions to mining industries must stop in Embera territories, the indigenous population remains in a precarious situation.

Homicides of the indigenous community continue to be a serious problem. In 2009, the ONIC reported to the Inter-American Commission on Human rights that since the year 2002, more than 1,000 indigenous persons had been killed. That number continues to grow; in 2012, 103 people were killed. Among the causes of homicides are targeted killings, death due to military combat operations between legal and illegal armed groups, and death of minors due to malnutrition and lack of access to proper healthcare.

Worst of all, the report highlights the disregard for the decrees passed by Colombia’s Constitutional Court. Decrees such as 004 of 2009 and 173 of 2012, which were passed in order to address the situation of internally displaced persons, have lacked institutional support from the government of Colombia due to restriction of funding, lack of true development plans for indigenous communities, and continued military operations in indigenous territories.

The ONIC recommends that the Colombian government address the structural problems that cause forced displacement of indigenous communities and that it take steps to prevent further harm to the 66 indigenous communities whose population does not surpass 500 members. These communities are in danger of physically and culturally disappearing. The report recommends that concessions to extractive industries be halted and that existing concessions in indigenous communities are re-examined. Finally, the ONIC recommends that protective measures be implemented properly and in full agreement with indigenous peoples and their organizations.

Humanitarian Crisis for the Awá Community in San Juan de Pasto, Nariño

Recent military confrontations between the Colombian armed forces and the FARC guerillas have created a serious humanitarian crisis for the Awá community in southern Colombia. Between March 24 and 26, 2013, repeated military operations and escalating violence has resulted in the forced displacement of 227 persons (44 families in total).

This situation has created an environment of fear, uneasiness, and panic, in which indigenous communities in the area are suffering due to a lack of food, water, health and psychological care, good hygienic conditions, and clothes. Coupled with the assassination of María Adalgisa Canticus and Julio Cortes—two members of the Awá community—in the Watsalpí and Pipalta Palví Yaguapí reservation and the physical and cultural destruction of this group’s ancestral land, as well as violation of their collective rights, this situation has turned into an acute humanitarian crisis.

Public Statement on Return of Embera Katio to Ancestral Land

Given the long history of abuses by legal and illegal military organizations in their ancestral lands, the Zonal Authorities of the Alto Andagueda Reservation and OREWA Association issued a public statement on the situation of the Embera Katio population in Colombia. The leaders of this community are urging Colombian authorities to facilitate the return of displaced members and that they stop activity related to the internal armed conflict in their reservation.

The Embera Katio are asking authorities to change their concept of “security” to measures that enable the displaced population to return to their ancestral land. This group has declared that the internal armed conflict is foreign to the interests of this community, which wishes to live in peace. The parties to the conflict have shown no interest in truly protecting the Embera Katio’s autonomy, culture, and territory. The leaders are recommending that Colombia adopt a comprehensive development plan for the Embera and that they reiterate that they will not accept the Colombian government’s proposals to relocate its members.

Zonal Authorities of the Alto Andagueda Reservation and OREWA Present Letters to President Juan Manuel Santos and the Director of the Victims Unit Paula Gaviria

In a letter to the President Juan Manuel Santos, the Zonal Authorities of the Alto Andagueda Reservation and OREWA describe the abuse that they have endured over the past 40 years at the hands of the armed forces, paramilitaries, guerillas, and multinational organizations. They note that the presence of the FARC and ELN has led to a constant state of violence in their territories. As a result of the guerilla presence members of their community have suffered from recruitment, been utilized as informants by paramilitary and guerilla organizations, and become internally displaced from their ancestral lands.

The signatories also expressed their deep concerns about the presence of the illegal and legal mining industry, as well as, mining concessions in the Andagueda reservation, which now cover 80.63 percent of their territories. The mining operations play a role in generating forced displacement, violence, and contaminating the environment. They are concerned about the process of land restitution, in which displaced members of their community are not allowed to return, and the Colombian government’s interest in relocating displaced persons somewhere other than the Alto Andagueda.

In a similar letter directed to the Director of the Victims Unit, the members of the Andagueda reservation demand answers as to why a shelter for 600 Embera Kaito displaced persons was closed in Bogota, and why the members of this community are being relocated to the department of Risaralda. Given the fact that the Colombian government has not authorized the return of this displaced community to their ancestral land, it would only be just if the Embera Kaito community remained in the shelter.

In the letter, these indigenous authorities express concern about the relocation and ask the Colombian government to consult with the indigenous community before making decisions that not only fragment their community but also ignore Colombian Constitutional Court Decree 004.

Human Rights Violations of Nasa Sath Tama Kiwe de Caldono Communities

Despite the existence of an agreement between President Juan Manuel Santos and the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, whereby the collective integrity of the indigenous community was agreed upon, the Nasa Sath Tama Kiwe de Caldono community report that they are experiencing systematic violations of their right to life, dignity, physical integrity, and harmony of peoples. Leaders of the community explain that increased military operations in their territories have upped insecurity, displacement, murder, and incidents of torture in their community.

Recent incidents include death threats against community members and a 10 year old child being severely wounded by an explosive on January 17, 2013. They also report that Hermes Casso and Oscar Casso were tortured on March 17, 2013. On March 30, 2013, Alvaro Chocué Ramos was murdered. Members of the Colombian armed forces are linked to this killing.

This situation has prompted the Nasa Sath Tama Kiwe de Caldono community to organize a public hearing that will take place on April 23, 2013. The purpose of this hearing is to develop efficient measures that can guarantee justice and reparations for victims of abuses. Further, the strategies for the halting of violent actions in indigenous territories will be discussed. Members of the Colombian government, human rights organizations, and indigenous communities in Colombia and elsewhere are invited to attend.

Youth from Río Murindó and Chageradó Turriquitadó used as Military Informants

The assembly of the Río Murindó and Chageradó Turriquitadó reservation denounced the use of three members of their community as military informants. With the intent of obtaining military information within the reservation, the three youth recruited by Captain Julio Sierra of the 12th Infantry Battalion, of the XV Brigade with headquarters in Quibdó, Chocó, and trained by the XVII Brigade of the Army based in Carepa, Antioquia.

This incident has led the indigenous community of Río Murindó and Chageradó Turriquitadó to demand that the authorities respect Decree 004 that recommends that Colombia implement plans to protect the indigenous peoples who are at risk of physical and cultural extermination due to the internal armed conflict in Colombia. They also urge the authorities to halt the use of members of their communities as informants.

We appreciate your attention to these most important matters and urge you to act to protect the rights of indigenous communities. U.S. authorities should guarantee that the human rights conditions pertaining to Colombia’s receipt of military assistance are fully implemented and that Colombia investigates and sanctions those responsible for the abuses noted in this update. 

Representatives James McGovern and Jan Schakowsky are circulating a letter supporting the Colombia and FARC guerillas peace process. We urge all members of the U.S. Congress to support this letter with their signature.

U.S. civil society is encouraged to ask their representative to stand with Colombia’s victims and ethnic minorities in calling for a lasting and meaningful peace agreement. Click here to find out how to contact your representative.

Photo courtesy of “Unidad Indígena del Pueblo Awá UNIPA”