Editor’s note: This is what environmental justice looks like. Not NGOs dictating what lands will be set aside for 30×30, which is just greenwashing colonialism. It is the people whose land it is making those decisions and the governments enforcing them.
An Indigenous community in southwest Colombia established a protected reserve in the face of illegal logging, mining and coca cultivation being carried out by criminal groups.
The Eperãra Siapidaarã peoples are especially interested in protecting the extremely poisonous golden dart frog, which they historically used in their darts while hunting.
Despite establishing the reserve, the community has more work to do to fend off violent non-state armed groups.
One of the most poisonous animals on earth, the golden dart frog carries enough toxins in its body to kill 10 people. If it enters the blood stream, the toxin paralyzes the nervous system and, in only a few minutes, stops the heart from beating.
The golden dart frog (Phyllobates terribilis) is found only in southwest Colombia, where mountains and rainforest meet the mangroves of the Pacific coast. For centuries, the Indigenous communities there harvested the toxin for their hunting darts. But in recent years, as criminal activity has spread through the area, some communities have begun to worry that the frog might disappear.
“The advancing agricultural frontier, mining and the expansion of illicit coca crops impinge on the life of the frog because it’s endemic to that one area,” said Luis Ortega, director of the environmental group Fundación Ecohabitats. “All the time, there’s less and less habitat for them.”
For some Indigenous peoples in the area, such as the Eperãra Siapidaarã of Timbiqui, the golden dart frog is more than a hunting tool. It’s also a central figure in their culture, and the reason their ancestors were able to survive after being relocated to the coast during Spanish colonization.
During that time, the frog’s poison helped save the community by giving it an easy way to hunt. Now, it was the community’s turn to help save the frog.
The best way to do this, the Eperãra Siapidaarã decided, was to establish a natural reserve that they would protect and maintain themselves.
“We have the working spirit to defend this territory,” community leader Carlos Quiro told Mongabay.
Quiro and the Eperãra Siapidaarã had already worked with the Colombian government on land titling issues in their territory as well as to help preserve mangroves and other local ecosystems. But these measures weren’t stopping the habitat destruction.
Non-state armed groups, including paramilitaries and guerrillas, have been deforesting the Chocó Biogeographical Region for decades. In recent years, they have pushed into Eperãra Siapidaarã territory to plant coca for drug production, sometimes leading to violent land disputes between rival groups.
In 2009, Colombia recognized the Eperãra Siapidaarã as one of the Indigenous peoples at risk of extinction due to the country’s ongoing armed conflict.
There are also three legal gold and silver mining operations upstream from Eperãra Siapidaarã territory, which satellite data suggest have advanced well beyond their concessions, according to Fundación Ecohabitats. Some residents noticed that the fish pulled from local rivers were becoming smaller and scarcer than in previous years, likely as a result of the pollution.
The makings of a reserve
In 2017, community leaders started meeting with Fundación Ecohabitats, the Cauca department government and the Ministry of Interior about developing a protected area for the golden dart frog. It would not require demarcating new land, they proposed, but instead absorb more than half of the community’s existing territory.
With funding from the Rainforest Trust, meetings were held for the next two years to discuss where the community wanted to establish the reserve and what conservation initiatives they should prioritize. In addition to protecting the golden dart frog’s habitat, residents were interested in stewarding the area’s many watersheds and developing a land use plan that would allow them to continue harvesting forest resources for their cultural, medicinal and spiritual practices.
Younger members of the community were trained in geographic information systems to assist with mapping the boundaries of the new reserve and carrying out patrols, while others studied tourism and business in hopes of turning their artisanal forestry practices into a sustainable source of income.
In September 2019, after years of work, the community officially announced the establishment of the 11,641-hectare (28,765-acre) K´õk´õi Eujã Traditional Natural Reserve — Territory of the Golden Dart Frog.
So far, it hasn’t stopped non-state armed groups from engaging in violent confrontations over control of coca production near Eperãra Siapidaarã territory. It also can’t do anything to prevent pollution from the illegal mining operations upstream. But with the newly established reserve, residents say they feel they have more of a fighting chance.
“There are areas abundant with plants for medicinal use,” Quiro said, “and there is also another area, another mountain range, where there are many trees that are useful for families, so we are benefiting from that. They are very important to the Eperãra Siapidaarã.”
The reserve contains 41 plant species and 11 bird species endemic to Colombia, according to the community’s preliminary research. It is also home to dozens of rare and threatened species, including the night scented orchid (Epidendrum nocturnum) and Licania velata.
The community is still training its rangers in data collection that will help it better understand how these different species are faring in the reserve. Right now, there isn’t hard data on the golden dart frog population or whether it has improved since the reserve was founded. Empirical evidence suggests that it has rebounded, community members say, but they want to know for certain.
One of the Eperãra Siapidaarã’s next goals is to collaborate with biologists and the local government on scientific research projects that will strengthen their understanding of the forest ecosystem, and then to use that work to make better decisions as a community.
In October and November, for example, the golden dart frog begins reproducing. Quiro said he wants to learn more about that process and what can be done to ensure it isn’t interrupted.
“It interests me a lot,” he said. “To understand that experience and, equally important, to share it with the younger generations.”
By Matt Rendell
This story weaves the indigenous cultural revival of the Muysca people of Suba in Colombia, together with the transition to more sustainable living. It is contributed by award-winning author Matt Rendell who spoke with Muysca social activists and grew to know the community through his work as a cycling journalist in the riding obsessed country, and the elite cyclist, Nairo Quintana, who is probably the best known international Muysca advocate.
As the climate emergency bites, sustainable new social and cultural practices are urgently needed. Lasting change may require not just temporary good intentions, but permanently reconfigured identities. Around the world, groups are already working hard on such a project. On a steep hillside in an area called Suba above Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, a new group of Colombians are claiming ancestry from the ancient Muysca people – indigenous people whose land this was when the Spanish invaded in the 1530s – and proposing a complete regeneration of their culture. They intend to restore the language and return the landscape to its previous mystical role, bringing what remains from history alive with new myths and rituals. The group believes it has much to teach the rest of the world about understanding how we are all indigenous people with a need to connect to shared places, traditions, and rituals.
The Cabildo Indígena Muysca de Suba – the local organisation spearheading the Muysca revival – has its centre in the town square, where traditional crafts such as weaving are taught, and the beautiful fabrics produced are used to raise money for the project. This small but ambitious organisation is trying to reverse the identity loss caused by urbanisation through restoring the Muysca collective memory. Its leader, anthropologist Jorge Yopasa, explains how much of the knowledge is still available:
“We read what the anthropologists say, and the historians and archaeologists, but we also talk to our grandparents. Oral history yields surprising results. What the anthropologists say they were doing in 1680, our grandparents remember doing in 1960 or 1970.”
Numerous small vegetable plots form urban gardens across the slopes, alongside traditional round houses with conical roofs, traditionally made with wood, clay and reed, but now often made from recycled materials. These houses face East in memory of how, in pre-Columbian times, such dwellings might be arranged in large enclosures in the form of a vast cosmological clock. The East and West-facing doors turned the buildings themselves into a three-dimensional calendar detecting equinoxes and solstices. The people who live here are researching their own indigenous history, re-planting their traditional foods – such as quinoa – and reclaiming and cleaning up what they see as their land. This is an environmental, social, and spiritual effort. They wish to reverse what they see as the erosion of the spiritual dimension that came with urbanisation. They hope to undo the negative, impoverishing impact of science and Enlightenment thinking that the sociologist Max Weber described in his famous expression, “the disenchantment of the world.”
The Muysca have already been under attack for hundreds of years. But Muysca quinoa and the Muysca language are on their way back, and linguists are using old, colonial dictionaries, and surviving, closely-related languages, to revive the old tongue. Nearly five centuries after the Spanish conquest, the Muysca revival is real.
Protecting the world’s indigenous inhabitants has been shown to be an effective way of safeguarding the natural world – particularly if knowledge held by the older generations can be saved in time to be passed on. Awareness of this is growing slowly and there are currently active campaigns by indigenous peoples to support elders whose intimate knowledge of the Amazon is threatened by Covid-19. But there is another indigenous group that are often forgotten: the original dwellers in the spaces now occupied by the world’s cities, dispossessed by modern development of their land and culture, and only now rediscovering and reviving their cultural specificity as a spiritual, environmental, anti-consumerist cultural force for good.
Modern urban sprawl has taken over indigenous territories all over the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Only now are they beginning to reconstruct their identities, and build, as they do so, a new way of working-class urban existence that encompasses and absorbs youth culture, environmentalism, the rejection of consumerism, and the re-spiritualisation of the cosmos. The modern Muysca call this “el proceso” – the process.
Of course, the Muysca are a small group who are unlikely to be able to shift national policy. But openness to their culture could bring with it an understanding of other ways of being in the world. For example, the pre-Columbian system worked on gift-exchange rather than currency. And before the arrival of the European invaders, gold was not used as currency of exchange, but as a means of communicating with the gods. It was mixed with copper, moulded into shining religious figurines called tunjos and, within hours of production by the Muysca metalworkers, buried in the earth or dropped into lakes in a passion play of the visible and the invisible. The urban Muysca today are not rich in gold as their ancestors were. In fact, they lie right at the base of Colombia’s social pyramid. But their decision to take an active role in retelling their own history is interesting. Today, the Muysca elaborate new stories of their ancestral past, integrating, revising, and occasionally forgetting ‘official’ versions imposed by representatives of the State.
Context and background
After years of urban expansion, during which Bogotá engulfed the remaining of the Muysca people, it finally annexed Suba in 1954. By then, much of their identity had been forgotten. But, according to the academic Pablo Felipe Gómez, who has spent twenty years studying the urban Muysca movement, “Most of these elders never recognised that they were Muysca. Their identity lay dormant in the memory because of the historical processes that had overwhelmed them. No one ever told them that they were indigenous!”
When Carlos Caita, the first governor of the Suba cabildo or indigenous council, began studying land titles in the 1980s, he realised that they went back as far as the abolition of indigenous reserves and collective indigenous property in 1875, when the land had been distributed among five resident Muysca families. After its annexation by Bogotá, the families who had not sold their lands were dispossessed by unscrupulous surveyors and lawyers, and the Muysca, bereft of both language and traditions, disappeared into a historical dead-end as manual labourers or caretakers of other people’s property.
In 1990 descendants of the five families resident on the nineteenth-century Muysca reservation began legal proceedings to recover their lost estates. In 1991 Colombia adopted a new Constitution that undertook to recognise and protect its ethnic and cultural diversity. Under the framework established by this new Constitution, the Ministry of the Interior gave the group of five families its blessing, thereby transforming it into the first urban Muysca community. Before long, the descendants of peoples expunged from history centuries before began to assert their indigenous identity. Between 1991 and 2006, four Muysca councils were given state recognition and Muysca was one of 101 ethnic identities listed in the 2005 national census. However, since 2006, the State has refused to certify further groups, perhaps seeing that the community in Suba had tripled its membership in a decade, and that new organisations were emerging. The rebuilding of their cultures proposed by these groups, reviving ancient myths, rituals and elaborating new ones, also meant bringing back their language, which was forbidden in 1770 by royal decree, when Spanish became the dominant language for social, religious, economic, and political reasons.
Leaders who are inquisitive about the past and about culture – in this case anthropologists – undoubtedly helped the transition, along with some favourable legislation in the form of a Constitution that was trying to renew itself in order to include formerly excluded people. This interest in the past includes the chronicles of the Conquest, which contain accounts of Muysca legends taken down by the priests who accompanied the Conquistadors. These have been scoured to identify possible sources from which to shape a modern Muysca culture. However, to renew a culture and reconnect it with the land, detailed knowledge from the past plus a generous dose of imagination to fill in the missing gaps has enabled the Muysca people to rebuild – and to regenerate when rebuilding is no longer possible.
The local food illustrates this process. The area’s name Suba means “quinoa seed.” The Conquistadors long ago replaced quinoa, a Muysca staple, with wheat. But the old ways, once outmoded, have a way of coming back, and local people are beginning to grow vegetables and medicinal plants of spiritual significance to the Muysca. These include sweetcorn, potatoes, coriander, uchuva – known in the UK as physalis and in North America as golden berry – and, of course, quinoa, which has taken the better part of five hundred years to become the latest superfood. There are other examples of how modern life rejects the past, stigmatises it, then rediscovers it with a premium price tag attached. For example, the crop hemp, once enormously important in Europe for making rope, clothing and a huge range of materials, has returned after decades in the wastebin as an alternative, more sustainable crop for making designer clothing and as an insulator in eco-builds.
Perhaps the extreme poverty of Colombian urban life for many has turned people elsewhere to look for a better kind of life – particularly with the knowledge that it was not always this way. Young Muysca talk about how their grandparents used to eat trout from the Bogotá River. To do so today would be unthinkable: millions of gallons of industrial chemicals, farm run-off, household detergents and human waste drain unfiltered into it, while it has become a sewer to Bogotá’s 8 million inhabitants, and for hundreds of thousands more along its basin. The river has become so toxic that inspectors require oxygen masks and special clothing. The Muyscas are part of the environmental movement pressing for a clean-up. Many are active in public and development policy, fighting to save the environment. These people recognise how urban life separates economic life from nature and separates people from their spiritual selves; they want to create a new way of urban living that will not destroy the planet. This is something we have seen in other places, from London’s National Park City movement to efforts to pedestrianise cities and grow food in cities.
Ana Villa has fearlessly confronted agribusiness multinationals and armed groups that have tried to take over the land where rural communities and Indigenous people live in the Colombian plains.
She risks her life fighting for the rights of vulnerable communities in the municipality of Cumaribo, a region that serves as the intermediate zone between the savanna and the Amazon rainforest in eastern Colombia’s Vichada department.
The communities’ support has empowered her to continue her fight in a dangerous region for environmental defenders.
Featured image: Ana Villa has made several trips to Bogotá to report safety and environmental breaches in the Colombian plains. Image by Ana Villa.
Ana Villa has traveled dozens of times on the highways of Vichada department in eastern Colombia, in service to her rural community. These trips can take up to 18 hours and cross an extensive savanna that’s the ancestral home of Indigenous communities and today hosts landless peasant farmers, or campesinos, who arrived in the area several decades ago. More recent arrivals, coming in the past 15 years, include agribusinesses, agroforestry and oil companies.
Villa defines herself as a “woman of character,” and her persistence has been key when dealing with land rights and environmental issues on behalf of her people in the municipality of Cumaribo. “Anita,” as her acquaintances call her, has not been afraid to confront the multinationals that have come to the region to establish large monoculture plantations, or the violent criminal groups that seek to dispossess rural and Indigenous communities of their land.
In 1991, Villa and her family arrived in Cumaribo seeking better opportunities and fleeing the violence that displaced them from their home in Cubarral, in Meta department, also on the Colombian plains. In 1996, she bought Las Azucenas, an estate that, in her words, “was only savanna and cheap,” but had no property title, like many other plots in Vichada.
Cumaribo is the largest municipality in Colombia by area, at 74,000 square kilometers (28,500 square miles) — more than three times larger than El Salvador, and more than twice the size of Belgium. It’s located in the Orinoquía region, the basin of the Orinoco River that forms an intermediate zone between the savanna and the Amazon rainforest. It’s in this region, with its enormous water wealth, where farmers like Ana Villa have sought out opportunities to build a dignified life. Large companies have also been attracted to the region, drawn by the extensive stretches of fertile soil in which to set up their industrial farms.
“There are two kinds of leaders: born leaders who seek to defend their community, and leaders on paper who claim for themselves and never seek collective gain,” says Luis Torres, a rural community leader from Vichada and friend of Villa’s. “She is a born leader. We admire her and that is why she’s in charge of everything.”
Villa has been active across a range of platforms to report the abuses that rural and Indigenous people living in Vichada experience. She has received threats from criminal groups for trying to help dozens of families obtain land rights. On one occasion, armed men cornered her and she confronted them. Besides her reports, she has also stood up to large agribusiness multinationals trying to take over land in the region.
This is her story.
“I started to worry about environmental issues when I saw that the streams on my farm were drying out,” Ana Villa says. “I filed a complaint after they sprayed the entire river basin with glyphosate. Since then, I started to fight for water.”
Her leadership and drive to protect natural resources soon extended beyond Cumaribo. Villa has taken her claims and protests to Yopal, the capital of the Casanare department, also in the Colombian plains. In 2014, the eastern region of Colombia was gripped by an intense summer that caused water shortages.
Some communities in the affected departments took their grievances to Yopal to demand answers from Corporinoquia, the departmental environmental authority. Leading environmental activists, including Villa, met to demand the resignation of Corporinoquia’s executives. They argued the authorities had taken little action in times of drought and didn’t follow up on complaints from communities about water contamination by the oil and agroforestry industries. “You go and report [it] and nothing is done. We wanted them to quit because they weren’t doing what they were supposed to do,” Villa says.
Martha Jhoven Plazas Roa, at the time the director of Corporinoquia, said in the authority’s 2014 accountability report that Corporinoquia had responded to most of the complaints and had carried out proper environmental controls in the region. She said that of the 1,123 complaints the corporation received in 2014, it handled about 1,000.
However, according to Villa, in the almost seven years since then almost nothing has changed; the complaints have not yielded the expected results, and companies continue to pollute the water. Making a request to the environmental authority is more complex today because its headquarters in Cumaribo has been closed since the end of 2020. Anyone trying to engage with Corporinoquia must travel at least five hours to La Primavera, another municipality in Vichada.
Being the leader of her community entails many responsibilities for Villa, including taking care of her neighbors’ and colleagues’ requests, and being the face of the claims against municipal administrations, public force, settlers who want to take over lands, multinational agribusiness companies, and even criminal armed groups. Addressing all this has put Villa in danger on several occasions. In 2014, while backing the protests against Corporinoquia’s management, she received her first death threat. “A man called me and said that my community had to obey him and leave the companies alone,” she recalls.
A year later, in 2015, while she was on her way to a meeting with villagers petitioning for their land rights, she was intercepted by armed men. “I don’t know what happened to me at that time. I had a lot of [anger] and I started telling them everything that crossed my mind: that they were used to killing people tied up because they were cowards. I told them that if they were going to kill me, they would have to kill me right there,” Villa says. Some residents of Cumaribo who witnessed the incident came to her aid and forced the three armed men to leave.
But Villa also speaks firmly to villagers if she sees that they are the ones damaging the environment. “The truth is that community members are targeted to plant coca. Sometimes they don’t think about the future,” Villa says, noting that the difficulty of growing food crops often pushes rural people to cultivate the more lucrative coca plant for the illegal drug trade. “In several meetings, I have told them that we must not cut down the forests, that we [should] plant the savanna and take care of the forests in Vichada because they are very small, and from there, streams that make up the river basin are born. If we cut down the forests, we are going to kill the fauna, we will destroy everything.”
“We trust Anita and that’s why we’ve asked her to stand up against it all,” says Torres, the community leader. “We take care of each other because those of us who claim land are targets of threats.” Villa says the community’s support is her source of strength, and that she’s not afraid to exercise leadership in a dangerous region for environmental defenders because “the community has my back, we all take care of each other.”
2021 brought good news for Ana Villa and her family. After more than a decade of claims, they received the property title to Las Azucenas, the farm they bought in 1996. This win provided another impetus for Villa to continue supporting 13 families in her municipality who are also seeking official titles to the lands they have inhabited for decades.
Villa has played a fundamental role in the community since 2014, when she witnessed families from a village in Cumaribo being displaced from where they lived. The villagers have sought official ownership of the land from the National Land Agency (known by its acronym in Spanish as ANT). Villa says she witnessed armed men arrive claiming to be the owners of those properties. One of the displaced villagers, Nepomuceno Pilón Caicedo, later became Villa’s friend and partner in pushing the families’ claims. “We are settlers. When we arrived there was nothing. We built our houses there and eventually the village,” Caicedo says. Villa has helped them contact lawyers for advice and collect information to request ownership of the lands. “I help the community members with information, contacts and writing documents,” she says.
Her activism has made Villa an expert on land issues. “When I started as a leader in the Community Action Council, I joined the Norman Pérez Bello Claretian Corporation as a volunteer and I began to learn about land claims and what to do in those cases,” she says. The Norman Pérez Bello Claretian Corporation is an organization that assists vulnerable communities, rural and Indigenous people fight for their rights. To date, Villa has helped 20 families in various villages who are in the process of formalizing ownership of their lands with the ANT, or by making requests to the Land Restitution Unit, the government agency in charge of verifying that applicants have lost their lands due to Colombia’s long-running armed conflict, and taking these cases before specialized judges.
An official with the Norman Pérez Bello Claretian Corporation describes Villa as a very active leader who has been present in various political events to report what is happening in her community and the abuses that villagers and Indigenous people who live in Vichada are going through. “Ana helped us a lot to build and establish a protection and self-care system in rural areas,” the official says. “She is a woman who has always made an effort to report and make her voice heard as a campesina who defends human, land, ecosystem and environmental rights.”
In 2013, Villa and other social leaders created the Association of Community Action Council of Vichada (Asojuntas Vichada), which was the beginning of the reports regarding the irregular accumulation of vacant land by various companies on the Colombian plains. This is one of the major battles she has fought.
In the council, she met Luis Guillermo Pérez Casas, a lawyer. Together, they began to document how the company Colombia Agro, which at the time was owned by the U.S. multinational Cargill, had accumulated about 50,000 hectares (nearly 124,000 acres) comprising more than 40 campesino properties. Cargill had done this with the assistance of Brigard Urrutia, a law firm, it was later revealed.
Colombia Agro had created dozens of paper companies, each of which would buy a piece of land and thus evade the limits on accumulating vacant land. Under a 1994 law, no individual or company may own more than one property that has been vacant. The legislation seeks to guarantee that state lands are handed over to underprivileged villagers and distributed to a few. In Vichada department, no more than 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) can be granted to a single applicant.
Cargill, one of the largest agribusiness companies in the world, has had a presence in Colombia since the 1960s. Communities in several countries where the company operates have complained about its business and environmental practices, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. environmental campaign group Mighty Earth.
Ana Villa and the lawyer Luis Guillermo Pérez showed how Cargill, with the help of Colombian officials, had acquired land larger than the urban and suburban areas of Bogotá, spanning 47,700 hectares (118,000 acres). Villa says she began investigating the case when several foreigners arrived in the region to buy the land that the government had already granted to villagers after a process that took decades. She says many of the villagers sold their land at low prices due to the difficult conditions of violence in which they lived. The outsiders, after a few months, resold the land to Cargill for much higher prices.
Villa says that while the company was obtaining titles for properties in Cumaribo, rural and Indigenous communities who had been trying for years to obtain land titles continued to wait in vain. Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto were able to verify that the ANT had denied several adjudication requests from Villa’s neighbors, who, as victims of forced displacement, had to go to the Land Restitution Unit. The unit accepted their cases and will present them before a judge.
In 2013, Villa and Pérez’s complaint reached Colombia’s Congress, via the offices of Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo and Representative Wilson Árias. The two congressmen that same year initiated a debate in which they stated that the then Colombian ambassador to the U.S., Carlos Urrutia, was a partner in the law firm advising Cargill. Villa traveled from Cumaribo to Bogotá and participated in the debate in Congress, testifying about what she and other leaders in the area had documented.
After the debate, Urrutia resigned as ambassador, but Cargill and its subsidiary remained in the area as owners of the properties where corn and soy crops were being cultivated. Villa continued to be the spokesperson for the rural and Indigenous communities who complained daily about the effects of the agrochemicals used by the company.
The fight against environmental pollution
In Cumaribo several rural and Indigenous communities have complained to Corporinoquia about Colombia Agro’s environmental behavior between 2013 and 2015. Villa has led several of those claims to protect the health of Indigenous people as well as the ecosystems of the area. “They all drink the water from the river, that’s what they bathe with. Fish died some time ago. We went with the engineer Julián Quintero” — a former Corporinoquia contractor who has helped Villa draft the environmental complaints — “and we even saw dead rays, and the Indigenous people got sick,” Villa says.
The mismanagement of Colombia Agro’s waste has been recorded in several visits made by Corporinoquia. Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto requested information on these visits, and the environmental authority said it has carried out five inspection processes since 2013, in which it found that Colombia Agro did not have permits for the discharge of industrial wastewater.
In two visits, it found an “open-air disposal of solid and hazardous waste” on two properties,” as well as “the illegal capture of water (surface and underground) and discharge of domestic and non-domestic wastewater to the ground, without the respective permits” on three properties.
The complaints against the company’s environmental impact escalated into a criminal prosecution in 2016, after a villager living close to the company reported the aerial spraying of crops using the herbicide paraquat. According to Colombian environmental regulations, this chemical may only be used manually. The newspaper El Espectador reported in 2015 that prosecutors had charged various officials from Colombia Agro with environmental damage, including former manager Juan Aquilino Pérez and the contractor in charge of aerial spraying.
Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto were able to verify that Aquilino Pérez and other company officials and contractors were charged in 2016 for the illegal use of resources, aggravated damage to renewable resources, and environmental contamination. As of March 2021, the criminal process is still ongoing and no ruling has been handed down.
According to the residents of the area, the prosecution for environmental damage caused Colombia Agro to reduce its operations in the area in 2017. However, Ana Villa says that in 2019 the company returned stronger and resumed its agribusiness project. To find out if they are still operating in the area, we searched for the ownership titles and confirmed that they continue to belong to Colombia Agro through the companies it created to acquire them. By reviewing documents from the Chamber of Commerce, we were also able to confirm that Cargill is no longer associated with Colombia Agro.
The documents show that, in 2016, the parent company that owns Colombia Agro went from Black River SAS, which was a Cargill subsidiary, to Proterra, a company created by former Cargill officials.
Robert Philipp Hutter, who, according to his LinkedIn profile, worked for Cargill in 1999 and is the son of former Cargill president Heinz Hutter, is also the president of Proterra. According to its website, Proterra is a private equity fund manager, and while Cargill no longer owns it, the multinational still “maintains its relationship with Proterra as committed limited partner to the Funds.”
Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto were able to establish that Matthew David Waller, partner and head of finance and operations of Proterra, has an ongoing criminal case with Colombian prosecutors for damage to the environment, related to the Colombia Agro case and its properties in Vichada.
We contacted Cargill representatives in Colombia to ask if the company directly managed the properties, if it had resumed the agribusiness project in Vichada, and if it had made adjustments to comply with Colombian environmental regulations. But Cargill only said that since 2015 it has had no ties with the companies that own the land in Vichada. We tried to contact Matthew Waller from Proterra and officials from Colombia Agro, but got no response.
There is no clarity on the presence and performance of companies like Colombia Agro in the region. Ana Villa says she fears the agribusiness projects have been reactivated, which in the past, and according to reports from Corporinoquia, have caused damage to the natural resources of Cumaribo.
Also, the presence of criminal armed groups in the region has increased over the past year. Several Indigenous and rural communities have reported threats against leaders who defend their rights to own land and have a healthy environment. Even the Ombudsman’s Office, with its early warning system, raised concerns in April 2020 about the increase in criminal armed groups and threats to social leaders in municipalities in Meta and Vichada.
Several neighbors have warned Villa about the dangers of traveling to certain areas. She says she’s become very discreet while traveling to relay community requests to government agencies. “My life has changed a lot since becoming a leader, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. I know that there are many complications such as threats and risks, but I have dedicated myself to the people most in need, to the people who live in the most remote and abandoned territories,” she says.
Despite all this, whenever she is needed, she is willing to travel, if necessary for more than 25 hours. That doesn’t matter to her, she says. She insists on finding solutions that help improve the living conditions of her rural community and of the Indigenous people who trust her work.
MERCERSBURG, PA, USA: Today, the Colombia Supreme Court of Justice issued a decision declaring that the Amazon region in Colombia possesses legal rights.
The Court declared that the “Colombian Amazon is recognized as an entity, a subject of rights” which include the right to “legal protection, preservation, maintenance and restoration.”
The Supreme Court’s decision builds on the precedent set in November 2016, when Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the Atrato River possessed legal rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration.” The Supreme Court refers to the 2016 decision in its ruling.
The Colombia Supreme Court ruling focused on the devastating impacts of deforestation and climate change on the Amazon, and the need to make significant change in how the region is protected.
In making its finding that the Amazon has rights, the Court cited the Constitutional Court’s 2016 opinion, in which that court wrote that it was “necessary to take a step forward in jurisprudence” to change the relationship of humankind with nature before “before it is too late or the damage is irreversible.”
Transforming nature from being treated as property under the law, to be considered as rights-bearing – and thus in possession of legally enforceable rights – is the focus of the growing Rights of Nature movement.
Throughout history, women, indigenous peoples, and slaves have been treated as property under the law, without legal rights. Legal systems around the world today treat nature as property, and thus right-less. Under these systems, environmental laws regulate human use of nature, resulting in the decline of species and ecosystems worldwide, and the acceleration of climate change.
The first law was passed in Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, in the United States, in 2006. Today, dozens of communities in more than 10 states in the U.S. have enacted Rights of Nature laws. CELDF assisted in drafting the first Rights of Nature constitutional provisions, which are part of the Ecuador Constitution of 2008.
Mari Margil, CELDF’s Associate Director who heads the organization’s International Center for the Rights of Nature explained, “The Court’s decision is an important step forward in moving to legal systems which protect the rights of nature.”
She added, “The collapse of ecosystems and species, as well as the acceleration of climate change, are clear indications that a fundamental change in the relationship between humankind and the natural world is necessary. We must secure the highest legal protections for nature through the recognition of rights.”
About the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) & the International Center for the Rights of Nature
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s mission is to build sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature. CELDF’s International Center for the Rights of Nature is partnering with communities and organizations in countries around the world to advance the rights of nature.
Today, CELDF is partnering with communities, indigenous peoples, and organizations across the United States, as well as in Nepal, India, Australia, and other countries to advance rights of nature legal frameworks.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos may have received the Nobel Peace Prize, but peace has not come to Colombia. Social leaders and members of indigenous communities have been targeted in a wave of assassinations that has swept through the countryside during this supposed “post-conflict” era–and the state has failed both to stem the killings and to curtail the spread of illegal mining and drug trafficking.
Indigenous guards are elected by their communities and mandated to protect Indigenous lives and territory without the use of arms. Throughout both the civil war and the undeclared battle for territory and resources that has followed it–and carrying only the staffs that serve as their mandate of office–Indigenous Guards have been killed by non-state armed groups of the left and the right, by the forces of the state, and by mafias unaligned to political ideologies. Yet they have also succeeded in arresting heavily armed opponents and submitting them to the justice systems of indigenous territories and the state.
Today new challenges arise as communities consider whether Indigenous Guards should be paid and become professionals, and whether or how they should integrate their function with that of the Colombian police.
No region of Colombia has been more affected by the newest wave of assassinations than the department of Cauca in the southwest. The reservation of Juan Tama lies on the border of Cauca and Huila departments, high up in the Sierra Central. Juan Tama contains a training ground where Indigenous Guards from Nasa, Misak, and Yanakona communities regularly meet to challenge each other and themselves.
Intercontinental Cry recently had the opportunity to visit Juan Tama during one of these spirited competitions.
Indigenous guards gather for the meeting that precedes the race.
Over the course of one single day, teams of indigenous guards must go through an obstacle course that has to be completed while racing against the clock. This particular event saw a competition between Nasa, Yanakona and Misak reservations from across Cauca and Huila.
“Guardia!” In advance of the race the indigenous guards come together, forming lines for each participating reservation, that meet in the center to form a star shape. The responsibilities and values of the Guardia are pronounced, and the aims of the competition clarified. This event saw a competition between reservations from across Cauca and Huila, including reservations of the Nasa, Yanakona and Misak peoples. All Photos by Robin Llewellyn
The obstacle sees regular competitions with indigenous guards from several reservations taking the opportunity to improve their teamwork and strength.
Guards practicing on the assault course before the competition.
Children play on the assault course as guards practice before the competition.
An Indigenous Guard takes his time completing an obstacle. When racing against the clock, it becomes much more difficult.
The life of an indigenous guard is not for the faint of heart. It comes with great personal risk and an even greater responsibility, as Fredy Chikangana, a poet and ‘Amauta’ (An Amauta is a Qechua word translated to mean, “messenger from the ancestral knowledge of the Yanakona People”) from the Yanakona reservation of Rioblanco, would tell us in a later interview.
Fredy Chikangana told us that, “[B]eing an indigenous guard is a great responsibility in terms of the community and the territory. It is not just a matter of carrying the staff of office without commitment: there is a mission and it has to do with culture, with maintaining harmony in the community and maintaining harmony with Mother Earth.”
“To be an indigenous guard is a question of knowing to accompany the good work of the indigenous authorities, but if an authority fails, one also has to remember one’s ultimate obligation.”
The first team that raced against the clock. This particular obstacle consists of barbed wire strung between posts.
“The ancestors had various names for the indigenous guards of their day,” Fredy explained. For instance, there is ‘Aukaruna’ which is the Qechua word for a warrior, and ‘Aukas’ who were the vigilant beings of the forests.”
“To be a good indigenous guard one needs to have physical and mental readiness. It’s not just strength, it’s also the capacity to solve problems for the wellbeing (“buen vivir”) of the community.
A good indigenous guard also understands their culture–and they “[know] how to look at different approaches to be able to help their community.”
“He or she who is an indigenous guard must above all have caution and respect for the other, but also decisiveness when one has to act to defend the territory and the community,” he continued. “There are male and female indigenous guards in the same way there is the moon and the sun. Everyone knows how to enter a dialogue with their own gender, but in defense of the land, culture, and Mother Earth all are equal and act as if woven together.”
“To be an indigenous guard is to narrate between generations, to protect the rights of all.”
Balance, athleticism, and dedication are developed throughout the course: this obstacle is only ruled completed when the guard lands and launches in one movement into a forward role through mud.
Belsi Rivera is an indigenous guard in the Nasa reservation of Nasa Kiwe. She took part in the struggle for control of the Cerro de Berlin Mountain in Toribio, Cauca, that was occupied by the army. She also works with children for the educational institute of Nasa Kiwe.
Belsi told us, “The Nasa People have a history of struggle and resistance that is based in love for Mother Earth; she is the fount of energy because according to our cosmogony we are part of her and we see her reflected in our authorities such as our governors and our indigenous guards, and more specifically in the staffs of office that are carved from chonta wood that symbolizes both territory and legitimate authority. The staffs are bound by three hoops, each symbolizing a realm within our world-view.”
“The first realm is that of above, where the ‘sxaw’, the great spirits, live. The second is the middle realm where the animals and trees share the territory of the Nasas (known as the people who are children of water and the stars). The third realm is that of below, where water lies hidden and where minerals exist and must remain.”
“There were times in the past when the people struggled against the colonists who had come to evict and assassinate us, and we took up arms to defend ourselves,” Belsi continued. “This negatively affected our ideas and our respect for life, so we renounced arms and looked again to restore equilibrium. The struggles continued with the great idea of protecting our Mother Earth, and gradually we developed the idea that there needed to be people solely dedicated to being protectors, even though all people can and should pursue such goals. The ‘kiwe thegnas’ or indigenous guards have the permanent responsibility of establishing control and protection of the territory and of defending life and our Mother Earth.”
Another team races to complete the exercise.
“The indigenous guard is very involved in protecting the community when it seeks to liberate Mother Earth from the mono-cultivation of sugar and pine plantations, and to return that land to the community which was stolen from our ancestors. When we speak of the Liberation of Mother Earth, many call us criminals, but they don’t understand the importance for us of these spaces, and that to have them appropriately used is necessary for our harmony and spirituality. These lands are today owned by non-community members who have enslaved the collective goods for their own profit, and spread contaminants in the pursuit of making capital.”
Members of the community watch the race. The crossing the bog on a pole proved the most popular spectator attraction.
Jesus Bacca Guijano is an indigenous guard in the Nasa reservation of Munchique los Tigres, who has sought to protect water sources from the impact of mining and an unauthorized waste dump, both controlled by businessmen of the Sadovnik family. When Bacca led opposition to mining as president of the local JAC (neighborhood action committees – Junta de Accion Comunal), one of the Sadovniks sought to paint him as a member of the ELN guerrilla group. Bacca was detained but found not guilty. Today, the current governor of Munchique los Tigres is enabling an institutional process that would ensure the continued operations of the Sadovniks’ mine and dump sites. Bacca has continued to speak out against the plans; last month, reservation authorities placed charges of calumny against him.
“As indigenous guards, the staff is a symbol of resistance and of the survival of all the community: of all who continue to live committed to the reservations and the territories. To me it’s symbolic of every member of the community of Munchique los Tigres, not just the indigenous guards,” Bacca told us.
After crossing the pole over the bog guards enter a mud-tunnel. Obstacles develop strength but also test competitors with mental challenges such as claustrophobia.
“Our Nasa reservations are guided by planes de vida (plans of life – multi-year strategies for self-government) that are agreed in open sessions of the community, and our plan de vida says that we were born of water. Our mandate as indigenous guards is to liberate land [members of Nasa communities are involved in a struggle for land with local sugar haciendas, as well as with owners of operations within reservations such as the initiatives of the Sadovnik family] together with the members of the community who don’t have land. We are also obliged to liberate the sources of water, and the people understand this well. People can’t be legally persecuted by the indigenous authorities for liberating the land when it’s our mandate.”
The latest charges against me haven’t been investigated in front of a communal assembly; they’re just another example of the attacks that are causing disharmony in the territory and in members of the community. Frequently, we who have denounced the rubbish dump have received death threats from the paramilitaries such as the Aguilas Negras and Clan del Golfo. The governor is the legal representative of the community, and the governor must consult with the community in an open assembly. We haven’t seen this which has caused disharmony.”
Competitors race towards the finish line.
“As indigenous guards we must not receive funding from the state because we’d lose our identity; however it would be a good idea to have projects that would assist not ourselves but our families, so that if there is little work available they could still feed themselves when we are away serving with the indigenous guard.
I believe in a concept of the territory as being open for those who come from outside, who come here and respect it and want to live amongst us as members of the community. All can be members of the community.”
As the day came to a close, the Indigenous guards formed in lines to hear their final times; but in the end, the scores didn’t matter. Everyone agreed that the value of teamwork was a lesson all competitors shared–and because of that shared learning, all competitors won.
Indigenous guards pose for group photos after completing the exercise.
Guards from a reservation in Huila gather for a group photo after completing the race.
Indigenous guards pose after completing the race.
A clean guard gets surprised by the muddied competitors.
Later on, the Guards debated about how to encourage greater participation of female guards in future competitions.
They also spoke about the importance of maintaining readiness so that they can respond swiftly and effectively to the violence that is now taking place.
Indigenous guards of a reservation in discussion after the competition.
“For Indigenous Guards” A poem by Fredy Chikangana
I only understand how to be a Guardian of the heavens,
For which one needs to know to be calm in the storm,
To have the clouds as good counselors and the sun as