The Indigenous Struggle in the Chocó

and Terry Gibbs

Our indigenous guide maneuvered the dugout canoe cautiously through the shallow waters of the Río Opogodó deep in the rainforest of Colombia’s Chocó region. We had traveled almost 12 hours from the departmental capital Quibdó down the Río Atrato and up the Opogodó when we approached a collection of canoes moored on a pebbled embankment. After seeing few signs of human existence during the previous three hours, the sight of a small Embera indigenous village consisting of some 20 open thatched huts on wooden stilts was a magical vision. Walking up a green and muddy hill into the mist-enshrouded village was like traveling back a thousand years in time. But the sense of peacefulness that greeted us as we entered Egorokera proved to be mostly an illusion. The modern day reality for the Embera is far from peaceful as communities from this indigenous tribe struggle to cope with malnutrition, disease, governmental neglect, and constant confrontations with Colombia’s armed groups.

There has been little change in the way many Embera have lived their lives over the centuries. This is clearly evidenced in Egorokera where there are few modern amenities. A small outboard motor has replaced paddles for long trips in dugout canoes, large plastic barrels catch the rain for drinking water and some of the men wear t-shirts and long pants. Other than these few intrusions into the Embera world, everything else remains traditional. Entire families still live together in open-sided thatched huts in which fires are permanently maintained for cooking purposes. The Embera’s food primarily consists of homegrown crops and small game caught in the surrounding rainforest. The women adorn themselves in decorative purple body paint and traditional parumas—colorful wraparound skirts. There is no running water or electricity.

For centuries the Embera have, for the most part, lived secluded from the rest of Colombian society. But the violence that has ravaged the country over the past half century has intruded upon their isolation. This indigenous tribe has been caught in the middle of a conflict being waged by leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the Colombian military. In the Chocó, the armed groups are fighting for territorial control over a region that has been considered for a major canal project and is a primary corridor for drugs and arms trafficking. According to Harvey Suarez of the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), there is a “fight over territory with the [paramilitary] self-defense groups trying to gain territory from the insurgency and claiming a great part of those zones, not only for geopolitical interest, but also for economic interest.”

The conflict has prevented the Embera from addressing serious health problems in their communities. Indigenous children regularly suffer from diarrhea, fever and malaria, which is virtually epidemic in this part of the Chocó. A one-year-old girl had died from malaria one month before we visited Egorokera. Her sickness could have been treated if her parents could have taken her to the doctor in Vigia del Fuerte, or if they had been allowed to bring medicine to the village. Tragically, neither was a viable option.

The first problem the Embera face when deciding whether to make the six-hour journey by motorized canoe to Vigia del Fuerte is a lack of money to purchase fuel for their outboard motor. Even if they choose to paddle their canoes all the way to Vigia, they then face harassment at the hands of the state security forces. According to a young Embera named Loselinio, “Many community members are afraid to leave for fear of being hassled by the army and police.” Another Embera elaborates, “Some go to Vigia, but there’s a lot of interrogation there, so that scares us. They take away our documents, sometimes they tear them up, to illustrate to us that they are not worth anything.” Reflecting on how this affects sick Embera, he adds, “Some of us allow our kids or our women to die here, because of fear.”

It is also difficult for the Embera to obtain medicines in Vigia or neighboring Bellavista because the army and police limit the quantity of supplies they can take back to their villages. Loselinio claims, “The army prevents us from taking food and medicine to our communities because we are suspected of giving supplies to the guerrillas.” Suarez of CODHES corroborates Loselinio’s accusations of a military blockade in rural Chocó: “There’s a lot of pressure on the communities from the public forces. There’s fuel, medicines, and resource control by the public forces. There are some places where the confinement, the siege of communities, has created a humanitarian crisis… communities that are not able to leave, communities under siege, subjected to economic blockades.” In a June 2003 report, the Colombian office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights also accused the military in the region of imposing “severe restrictions on transport and the passage of supplies, medicines and other basic necessities.”

Guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have long been active in the region surrounding Egorokera, leading the army to believe that the indigenous are rebel sympathizers. Captain Javier Pastran, commander of the Colombian army troops based in Vigia, says, “The terrain is really difficult and the guerrillas—like the [paramilitary] self-defense forces—in these areas move around easily in this terrain where there are lots of indigenous communities that they infiltrate.”

Because the Colombian army restricts the flow of food supplies to Embera communities, many indigenous children suffer from malnutrition. The Embera primarily grow maize, rice and plantains for consumption, although they try to sell surplus crops in Vigia or Bellavista. They use the money earned from these crops to purchase salt, fuel, soap and other foodstuffs to supplement their diet. But the army’s restrictions on transporting food has resulted in the Embera surviving on a starch-heavy diet of yucca, rice and plantains, which has left many children malnourished.

The Embera also try to supplement their diet with meat through small game hunting and fishing, but there are not many edible-sized fish in the shallow Río Opogodó. Because of the presence of the armed groups, it is dangerous for the Embera to stray too far from their village in order to hunt and fish. There are paramilitary checkpoints on the rivers that connect the three indigenous villages in the region we visited, making it dangerous to travel between communities. Even though one Embera man in Egorokera claimed, “Guerrillas are less of a problem because they are more nomadic,” rebels operating in the area have harassed the village. An elderly indigenous man described one visit by a group of rebels: “Guerrillas recently came and uprooted our maize crops, claiming that the land on which they were growing was not Embera land.”

All the armed actors—army, police, guerrillas and paramilitaries—regularly target the Embera. Sometimes the villagers don’t even know which group is harassing them. Shortly before our visit to Egorokera, armed men had visited the village. One Embera said, “It’s been 15 days since they took two saws from us. We were cutting some wood over there; we were cutting it because it was a commission that we had received from the assembly in Quibdó. A group of paramilitaries or guerrillas said they were under orders from their superiors to take our saws. And so we were threatened and told that from now on we were not allowed to cut anything.”

Working out long term solutions to the various problems confronting the Embera will inevitably be a complicated and multi-faceted process. There are questions of the appropriate mechanisms to resolve the issues of health and security in villages such as Egorokera. The 22 indigenous communities of this region have a strong tradition of local governance with their own democratic methods of decision-making and problem solving. Any viable solutions will need to be rooted in the context of these existing indigenous cultural and political organizations.

In the long term, the lives of the Embera will not likely improve greatly until Colombia’s decades long war ends. The problems we encountered in Egorokera are not unlike problems faced by communities throughout the Chocó, where 80 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. Many, like the Embera in Egorokera, find themselves in territory controlled by one of the armed groups and are seen as sympathizers to that particular group. In addition, the national government’s policy focus on security has ensured that many of the concerns fueling the conflict related to poverty and underdevelopment go un-addressed.

However, in the short term much can be done. Pressure must be placed on the national government to confront the army and public security forces in this region concerning the harassment of the indigenous population. Commanders must be required to reign in their troops, reprimanding those soldiers involved in directly intimidating local populations. Although U.S. policymakers cannot control rebel activity in Colombia, they could have a strong voice in ensuring that monitoring of the armed forces and the police is taking place. This is key given that these actors are the chief perpetrators of the daily harassment against the Embera. Such measures would help allow the indigenous to engage in trade with local communities, to bring food, medicine and other supplies to their villages, and to ensure that the infirmed can access emergency healthcare when necessary.

After spending two days with the embattled Embera, we boarded our canoe and slowly made our way back down the Río Opogodó. The river grew wider as it neared the region’s principal transportation artery, the broad and fast-flowing Río Atrato. As we left the Embera’s world behind, we recalled the defiant words of one Egorokera resident: “We have been threatened for our territory… but we are still here. We have resisted for 500 years.”

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