Colombia – mythical land of the Golden Indian, “El Dorado.” Home to the magical cloudforests of the Andean Mountains. And one of the most violent places on earth. Our writer meets the embattled Embera indigenous people in the heart of the warzone.

After landing in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, flight passengers make their way to customs through long corridors of El Dorado Airport. They can’t avoid seeing the showcases displaying delicate replicas of ancient Native artifacts and photographic blow-ups of similar items. Travelers are informed that the original works, made of gold, are on display at the “Museo del Oro,” the Gold Museum.

For many centuries, the first peoples of the Americas have followed the tradition of placing precious or symbolic objects within the graves, for the use of the dead during their journey into the beyond. Dignitaries were buried with ornaments, jewelry and miniature figures. Europeans who first traveled to the Americas were amazed by the great attention given to the departed.

In 1553, explorer Pedro Liga de Leon expressed his disbelief: “In most parts of the Indias (the Americas), people spend more time preparing and decorating the graves where they will lie once dead, than improving the house they must live in while alive.”

Other reports were soon sent back to Spain about the so-called Golden Man, or “El Dorado.” In 1636, explorer Juan Rodriguez Freyle wrote: “On the lakeshore, a large raft is made of reeds. The heir is first unclothed then covered with gold dust, while the raft is loaded with gold and jewels. The Golden Indian makes his offering by shedding gold when he dives into the lake and by casting all gold and emeralds into the water. The raft returns to shore. Then celebrations start, ending with a ceremony where the new governor is acknowledged as lord.”

El Dorado soon became the name of a mythical land to be conquered by Europe. Spanish troops were sent to the Americas to take over territory, wealth and resources, both material and human. The “moral” claim behind the Conquest was to “civilize” the local population by converting it to Catholicism.

In the land now called Colombia, some Native communities surrendered. Others resisted fiercely and were eventually decimated. Many retreated into secluded regions. In the process of trying to survive disintegration, those not killed were often submitted to the brutality of slavery, disease, dispossession and assimilation. European invaders soon looted the graves and other sacred sites. They sent the gold overseas, where it was melted into crowns, scepters and chalices for the use of the colonial aristocracy or church authorities.

The Museo del Oro collection is what remains – consisting of sacred offerings left unplundered, found in the depths of sacred lakes.

Native presence

Colombia is a country three-quarters the size of Quebec. There are almost 900,000 indigenous people – over 2 percent of the country’s 40 million citizens – belonging to 82 ethnic groups who speak 64 languages.

There are also uncounted groups still living in the Amazon forest, with whom no contact has yet been made. Native lands (officially called “resguardos” or reserves) now occupy a quarter of the national territory. The largest are in the Amazon region, where the traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering depends on vast forested areas.

As in many countries, most Aboriginals live in distant regions where there are still many unexploited resources – forests, water, minerals, biodiversity, etc. Their territories -although recognized by the law – are now coveted by multinational corporations, the state and armed groups, all competing for control over resources.

Colombia’s Aboriginal communities have been dragged into a spiral of violence, as their lands are gradually converted to war zones.

“Because of poverty and violence, many families have to abandon their communities,” says Colombian Senator Jesús Piñacué Achiecué, who is a member of the Nasa (or Paez) indigenous people. “I see more and more Natives begging in the streets of Medellin and Bogotá.”

There are almost 2 million people internally displaced in Colombia, well over half of them children. Sadly, violence has not spared the cities either. Survival is difficult. Urban zones have been plagued with murders and kidnappings, many committed by right-wing paramilitaries or leftist guerrillas.

In Colombia, Aboriginals live in a great variety of lands. Among the country’s 14 departments, only one of them has no Native population. Scattered across the national territory, they live in the higher and lower slopes of the Andes, the tropical forests of the low-lands, deserts, grasslands and high-altitude pastures or “paramo.”

They also used to live in temperate mountain areas, but brutal takeovers have been happening over the last century, fueled by the demand for coffee. Higher ranges and valleys were once covered with forest. They used to be known for their magical virgin “cloud-forests,” which are high-altitude forests covered most of the time in clouds and are home to unique flora and fauna. But in some forested areas, trees have been cleared to plant opium poppies and coca plants, which are sold to heroin and cocaine manufacturers.

The temptation of a better income has been hard to resist for both Native and non-Native farmers living in extreme poverty. The consequences can be tragic. The lack of trees may worsen natural disasters, such as earthquake-triggered landslides. Also, power structures within the illegal drug trade weaken traditional systems of community cohesion. And the violence that comes with drugs increases social tension and division.

Land, self-government and cultural rights

“Over the centuries, we the Paez have resisted against the multiple forms of ongoing colonial violence – enforcement of a foreign culture and religion, expropriation, more recently political violence, and now the interests of drug lords and multinational companies,” says Senator Jesús Piñacué who is 36.

Before becoming a senator, Jesús Piñacué was a Native-rights activist in the southwest department of Cauca.

Interviewed in the Senate’s office building, he speaks proudly and calmly. “We are now trying to act within the political arena,” says Piñacué. Colombia’s new constitution, amended in 1991, calls for at least two Native representatives within the Senate, in an effort to reflect the Aboriginal population.

Piñacué ran as a candidate for the Native Social Alliance (known by its Spanish acronym, ASI). Thanks to strong support among Native and non-Native voters, he was actually voted in rather than designated for one of the two earmarked positions, becoming the third Native to occupy a seat.

Jesús Piñacué joined the Cauca Regional Native Council in 1980 and became an outstanding grassroots leader and eventually the council’s president. The council first fought for land against private landowners’ encroachment. The struggle met with bitter opposition and many died trying to defend the territory.

The Paez did not want to rely on protection from Marxist guerrillas already present in the area. In 1977, some of them formed the Quintín Lame Armed Movement, in order to protect communities trying to recuperate land.

At the same time, the Cauca Regional Native Council understood that the fight was for more than land. The new rallying cry, “Land, self-government and cultural rights,” would soon be adopted by Latin America’s growing Native-rights movement. The Quintín Lame lasted several years and dissolved in the late ‘80s, when Aboriginal leaders were invited to help write the new constitution.

“It has not been easy for our political movement to try to fit into the parliamentary game. To make things worse, we are faced with the actual president’s hostility to our cause,” says Piñacué.

“Dialogue with the government seems impossible. Issues concerning Native populations are simply not a priority. However, this is also not a time for armed resistance. What we need in this country is a space for dialogue, for mutual respect. The war is only spreading and deepening, and none of the combatants show any concern for minority rights. Native people in Colombia are the victims of both guerrillas and paramilitary violence.”

But Piñacué is still defiant: “We have never given up the fight for Native self-government.”

Building dams in a country at war

The morning flight from Bogotá to Montería, capital of the department of Córdoba, offers a view of the great Andean mountain ranges stretching towards the north.

We are in the northwestern region of the country, near the border with Panama and the Caribbean.

The ruggedness of the mountains makes travel by land extremely long and difficult. Two main rivers – the Cauca and the Magdalena -collect rainwater from the “cordilleras,” becoming powerful and dangerous currents. Once they reach the northern plains, they expand and lazily wind their way to the Atlantic

coast. Whoever lives close to the river knows the risk of floods. Many have also seen bodies floating downstream, ever since the war started 52 years ago.

A smaller river – the Sinú – can also be seen from the jet, before Montería. It’s snaking path is cut midway by the Urrá dam, whose waters have flooded 7,000 hectares of land. Of the flooded land, 7 percent belonged to a reserve of the Embera Kafio indigenous people, called the Embera Kafio Reserve of Upper Sinú.

The flooded land was 500 hectares of prime tropical forest, nestled in the last folds of the Andean Cordillera.

The Emberas are now fighting against a proposed second phase of the Urrá megaproject, which would flood 10 times more land. The dam is being partly financed by the Canadian government’s Export Development Corporation.

After hearing the Emberas’ call for international support, Canadian non-governmental organizations got involved. They expressed concern over the hydroelectric project and ailed for a close examination of the EDC’s activities.

Développement et Paix, based in Montreal, was instrumental in helping the Emberas at a critical time by funding some local development projects and by organizing an emergency support network with other Canadian groups such as the Interchurch Committee on Human Rights in Latin America and Probe International.

Before leaving Montreal, I phoned the office of the Grand Councils of Alto Sinú and Verde Rivers (“Cabildos Mayores”) to know if I could travel to the state of Córdoba to meet them and visit the area.

One of our concerns was safety. The region is often shaken by violence. Since 1996, several Embera leaders and activists have been killed by paramilitary death squads, as well as local priests and professionals who dared to support their movement. A friend with whom I stayed in Bogota knows the area and insisted I must be careful, for my own sake and that of others. Always move around with someone from the community, do not let your conversations be overheard, always be alert, etc.

In a way, the conflict has split Colombia into three – the official state, territories controlled by right-wing paramilitary troops and large demilitarized zones under leftist guerrilla management.

Córdoba and the neighbouring region of Urabá happen to be where the paramilitary first appeared and established permanent headquarters. The United Self-Defence Units of Colombia (AUC), as they call themselves, count an estimated 11,000 fighters. There is strong evidence that the Colombian army has actively supported the AUC, even for its bloodiest operations. Their guerrilla adversaries are the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Colombia’s First Nations organizations, including the Emberas, have adopted the position of “active neutrality” and have asked all sides to respect their right to stay out of the war.

But fighters of both extremes have not been listening, nor has the army. There is continuous trespassing in the Emberas’ reserve.

The conflict has cost 35,000 lives over the last 10 years. There are now 4,000 politically or socially motivated murders per year. According to a United Nations report, 75 percent of killings in the country are committed by the paramilitary, 18 percent by the guerrilla and 4 or 5 percent by state security forces.

Before landing, the plane flies over a patch-work of cattle ranches. Many of the owners are staunch AUC supporters. I was told by phone that an Embera would be waiting for me. I’d recognize him from the beads he’d be wearing.

Sure enough, a serious young man is there. We take a taxi to Montería and travel another 50 kilometres to Tierralta in a shared taxi ride, or “colectivo.” We hardly exchange a word. Four passengers squeezed in the back seat, three in front and everybody so quiet? Quite unusual, for a rather verbal culture. But today in Colombia, distrust is part of the basic survival kit…

On either side of the road, all I see are endless grazing lands, cattle herds and a variety of unfamiliar birds. Somewhere behind a small hill, there’s a hidden AUC camp that almost everybody knows about.

At first sight, Tierralta is a small, quiet tropical town where people enjoy riding bicycles. But we are in paramilitary territory. Those who live here know who’s who. Right-wing armed groups have key people here. The last few months have been calm, though. In fact, no Embera has been murdered since over a year.

The office of the regional council, or Cabildo, is in Tierralta – several hours away from the reserve – because there’s access to electricity and phone lines. In many nearby communities no such infrastructure exists.

The Emberas are busy preparing an important assembly of Native authorities that will mark a victory after years of struggle against the Urra dam project. We will soon travel to the village where they meet.

Meanwhile, I’m briefly introduced to Emiliano Domicó Majoré, “noko mayor” (governor) of Sinú River, to several Cabildo advisors, and to some “kapunia” (non-Native) technical consultants. (“Kapunia” literally means loose, free, unattached.)

Among the Embera advisors, I meet Kimy Pernia Domicó, who traveled to Ottawa in November 1999 to testify against the dam project before Canada’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

I also meet Miguel Domicó Garcia. He is president of the Territorial Council for Clearing the Reserve, which is part of the Cabildo. They have a sensitive job: to “clear” the reserve of armed groups, illegal wood-cutters and crops, and other encroachers.

Miguel introduces me to his young daughter Maritza. She accompanies him wherever he must go, he tells me. It’s hard for him to find time to spend at home. His marriage broke up because of his perpetual absence.

Miguel was a close friend of Lucindo Domicó Cabrera, a young Cabildo advisor killed a year before, a few blocks away from where we are talking. Lucindo had organized health programs and was an outstanding community leader, says Miguel. He talks with sadness of his friend’s death and the killing of other community members.

We talk almost whispering in the hotel room, while Maritza sits quietly, with an inquisitive look. We are speaking in the language of the conqueror, Spanish, not her own. Miguel’s great hope is the strengthening of Embera communities.

People of the river, forest and mountain

In his statement before Canadian Members of Parliament last year, Kimy Pernia said: “Until very recently, our river, its tributaries, marshes and wetlands were incredible rich in bio-diver-sity, with many, many species of fish and animals. We are the guardians of the last remaining tropical rainforest of the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

“In 1995, the Urra dam blocked and diverted the course of the Siriu River. Nothing has been the same since then. The dam has brought death to our people: death to the fish, death to members of our community who have seen their source of protein vanish and death to our leaders who have protested or challenged the dam.”

There are 2,400 Embera Kaho living in the Upper Sinü Reserve. About 1,600 belong to the Grand Councils of Upper Sinú and Verde Rivers. (Other Embera people who live along the Esmeraldas River chose not to join the struggle against Urrá.)

The Emberas have said they were not properly informed or consulted about the dam project, until the process had well begun. Hydro and state officials had talked with a handful of Emberas, not the whole community.

This is a violation of the Colombian Constitution, which guarantees Native people the right to be consulted about any project that may affect their territories and lives. The failure to consult also violates an international treaty signed by Colombia with the International Labour Organization.

Work started on phase one of the dam in October 1993- In December of that year, the community sent an emergency message of protest to Colombia’s President.

In November 1994,660 Emberas gathered in 42 canoes and traveled down the river in a symbolic “Do Wabura” (Farewell to the River). The expedition had two purposes: to strengthen collective awareness of the dam’s presence and to alert downstream dwellers who were poorly-informed: farmers, fishermen, Natives and non-Native.

But the wall still rose over the river and it became obvious there would be a considerable loss of biodiversity and radical shift in patterns of survival. The Emberas demanded adequate consultation and protection, as well as an independent environmental assessment and a review of the impacts on traditional lifestyles, health and transportation systems. By 1995, the Emberas had won some international attention.

When they started their protest campaign, little did the Emberas know how many interests lay behind the dam. Arrayed against them were not only foreign investors, but also local politicians, wealthy landowners and cattle ranchers. Some illegally acquired huge areas where marshes were expected to dry up downriver from the flooded areas.

Articles published in local and national newspapers branded the Emberas and their advisors as subversives, suggesting that they be left to drown when the waters rise. Right-wing senators said, “Colombians should rise up against Indians opposed to development.”

Paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño openly expressed his disapproval of the Emberas’ resistance to the dam, another way of saying he had included them on AUC’s hit list.

In spite of assassinations and attacks by the paramilitary, the Emberas persisted in their struggle. On Dec. 1,1999,168 Emberas started an 800-kilometre march from Tierralta to Bogotá, where they camped out in the gardens of the Ministry of Environment.

People brought them food, blankets, warm clothes, knowing how cold the city’s high-altitude climate would be for the Emberas. In

April, Native senators Jesús Piñacué and Francisco Rojas Birry joined them and started a hunger strike, along with two Native members of Congress. The squat lasted four and a half months.

On April 19,2000, the Emberas achieved an important victory. An agreement was finally reached between the private company Urrá S.A., the government and the Cabildos.

The document satisfies the major demands of the Emberas – suspension of Urrá’s phase 2, eventual dismantling of phase 1, a share of profits, relocation, a study on increasing the size of the reserve, the company’s support for fish repopulation and river transportation, an environmental plan of action and a committee to supervise the implementation of the agreements.

There would also be human-rights monitoring, protection of threatened leaders and advisors, measures against impunity, and – curiously enough – a guarantee that civil servants will abstain from false accusations against community leaders and members.

Not only were the Emberas delighted by the victory, but so were many other citizens. At last, a movement had won a fight without

weapons. It was almost too good to be true: will the agreements be respected?

True, lives were lost and disrupted in the process. Senator Jesús Piñacué was pleasantly surprised, but remained somewhat doubtful: “I wonder how foreign investors will react.”

The veins of Mother forth

We take a “colectivo” ride for the first stretch of our voyage to the victory gathering of Native authorities.

On our way, we pass by the dam that has caused so much harm. From the boat landing beside the dam, it’s almost three hours in a motor-driven canoe to reach the village, first across the reservoir, then up the Verde River.

The landscape is eerie. Dead trees emerge everywhere. There are muddy shores where the water level keeps redefining itself. I can imagine how people, both Native and non-Native, must have had to tear themselves away from the hills and valleys…

The canoe is communal property. It carries 15 people and is packed with goods. We stop on the way to pick up people and drop others off. A young Nokowera (woman governor) boards and is strongly applauded. She is splendidly body-painted.

Embera women and men of all ages, as well as children, paint their faces and bodies with a natural dye made from a fruit. The designs are intricate and varied, with their own symbolic meaning. After a few days, the painting gets blurry and ultimately vanishes. For collective events such as the meeting, participants want to look their best, so many wear a brand new painting with great pride.

Any group reaching a village is warmly greeted and cheered by as many people as possible, including some “alguaciles” (guards). There are two kinds: village guards who are unarmed, and forest guards who carry a spear. Both have gathered here and will be very busy the next few days.

Someone guides me to one of the common lodges. Over 60 people from other communities will also be sleeping here for several nights, in a complex arrangement of hammocks, mosquito nets and straw mats. The lodges are comfortable, built a few feet above the ground, the sides half-open underneath a thatched palm-leaf roof. Cooking is usually done on one edge, over an earth-beaten platform.

But for the huge meeting, cooking happens closer to the river, in very large quantities to feed the hundreds of guests. At meal-time, three disciplined rows are formed – men, women and children, each holding their dish, waiting for a generous portion of rice, yucca and barbecued meat.

I’m an object of curiosity for children and women. I feel they’re a bit distrustful, but after a few hours, they come to me and say a few words in their own language. Very few women speak Spanish. They examine my pale skin and a colorful bracelet I’m wearing, made by the Zuni people in New Mexico.

One of them offers to paint me, which is a great compliment. I understand the gesture also as a gentle way of including me for a short while. But I turn down the invitation, knowing 1 must return to Bogotá in two days to catch a flight to Ecuador. (I imagine the look of disbelief of the flight crew and the immigration officer.)

The Emberas are talkative and extroverted. I wonder if this is a particularity of coastal people, while mountain people are more reserved. Or perhaps it’s the feeling of celebration. I meet some Elders who remember the old times when fish was plenty. I see the village guards everywhere. They are tireless, chopping wood, serving food, controlling arrivals and even playing music!

People gather at the end of the day to listen to a musical group perform, while sunlight surrenders to obscurity.

Simon Majoré, a Cabildo advisor, tells me about the 800-km march to Bogota. “It was hard – 14 days walking, then 150 nights sleeping in the city,” he says. “The ministry was furious. Thankfully, other Native people and city folks came to join us. There was also international support.

“We are fighting for four principles – territory, unity, culture and self-government. Now we have won something. But people have died, because they spoke out.”

Kimy Pernia also remembers the squat at the Ministry of Environment, after the long walk was over. “The government would not listen to us, but we had a lot of support,” he says. “A friend of mine was killed in the process, however, as well as other important leaders. The government ended up signing, but it doesn’t always fulfill its promises. Let’s see what happens. If nothing happens, we shall go back to Bogota and call for international attention.”

He adds: “Please remember to thank Canadian organizations for having helped us when times were very difficult.”

The assembly starts the next morning, with almost 400 participants from 15 communities. Each community delegates its power to Nokos (governors) and Nokoweras. There are senior and junior governors.

The meeting begins with people being introduced and cheered. Next, participants listen to how the agreement was won. They talk in Embera, but I catch a few Spanish words describing the strategies used: “toma pacifica” (peaceful squat), “huelga de hambre” (hunger strike), “apoyo internacional” (international support).

The next days will be devoted to a debate on how to expand and strengthen the Embera territory, now that the agreement has been signed. The people will also discuss issues of self-government, health, education, management reports and development projects.

The air is full of enthusiasm. “What shall we do next? Let’s acquire land next to the reserve,” said one speaker. “Soon we will have 139,000 solid hectares. For whom? Not for anyone in particular, but for everybody’s use! Why? To consolidate our territory!

“But let’s make sure the agreements are respected. We must convince encroachers to leave our territory. We must protect our forest, defend our unity, our land. Let’s be vigilant. Our troubles may not be over yet. If we see illegal wood-cutting or coca plants, let’s not just stand there! Those activities are wounds in our territory. If we allow it to happen, if we just shut up, the coca plants will eat us alive!”

Our sons, our leaders are being killed

Nora Domico, a senior Cabildo advisor, and Ana Lucila Domico, a Nokowera, ask me to send a message to Canada: “As women, we take care of our children and we really need support for health projects, such as training workshops on how to deal with health problems resulting from the dam.

“Because of the Urrá dam, there’s not enough of the right kind of food, and new sicknesses have appeared. Also, we cry because our sons, our leaders are being killed. People from outside our community have come to harm us.”

For Colombia’s first nations, the sea, rivers and lakes are part of the sacred origin of life. Rivers are like the veins of Mother Earth, say the Emberas. The Great Tree released water for all beings to drink and live. As writer Ana Maria Falchetti wrote for an exhibit in Colombia’s Gold Museum: “Rivers become the paths of ancestors. The river lives, breathes and moves. The river has a memory; it tells stories of ancient times, when fish were people and when our ancestors traveled along the rivers, as paths leading to the world below.”

When I left the community, the rain started pouring heavily. 1 remembered Miguel rescuing a sloth caught in the branches of a dead

tree standing in the rising waters. When the canoe reached the village, he lifted the strange animal carefully up from the boat, carried it to shore and brought him to a tree he likes to live in.

The sad-faced and sluggish animal climbed the tree almost in a hurry. Miguel was delighted. I couldn’t help thinking, fearfully, that Miguel’s name may figure among the ones on AUC’s hit list.

Four months later, on September 16, Miguel and his daughter were on their way up the Sinú River with 18 other Emberas and a non-Native advisor. They were carrying equipment to help repopulate their river with fish.

Just before reaching the community, they were stopped by a group of men with guns. Two of the passengers were immediately released. Five days went by before the others were freed – fortunately – after the anxiety of not knowing what may happen to them in the hands of the paramilitary.

The same day as the kidnapping, three other Emberas were killed by the same troops, and another by the guerrilla. “The armed group refused to acknowledge our traditional authorities and claimed they would not leave our territory until they finished their mission,” said the Cabildos in a statement.

“Our communities are not involved in this conflict. We keep asking all armed groups, legal and illegal, to stay out of our territory and to not convert it into a war zone.”

On October 29, armed men from the FARC guerrilla killed two Emberas and told others they had a list of 60 community members on their death list. This is the Cabildos’ answer: “Until when will armed groups keep despising our lives, our territory, our culture? Aren’t all the abuses, attacks and calumny against us already enough? Once again, we reiterate our refusal to be linked to an armed conflict that is not ours and that others are trying to submit us to, under gunpoint. They will not silence our voices by intimidating us or by spreading death and desolation.”

A few months ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Colombia to deliver $862 million, most of it earmarked for training, advising and supplying the army. He said: “This is not Vietnam, neither is it Yankee imperialism.”

The aid was approved by the Congress as part of the U.S. war against drugs. It is meant to help “Plan Colombia,” a strategy that Colombian President Andrès Pastrana rewrote several times before it convinced U.S. legislators.

But the U.S. funds will flow into the coffers of an army known to have committed countless human rights violations and collaborated with death squads. The Colombian government’s military operations are geared mostly towards regions dominated by the leftist guerrilla, as if there were no drugs in paramilitary regions.

The aid package will make AUC feel strong and all the more secure. Carlos Castaño, their leader, claims that there are no innocents among his victims. There are only “suspects.”

We have seen that the Emberas belong to those he considers as “suspects.” They are therefore all the more in danger, since U.S. legislators have decided to support the Colombian state instead of civil organizations such as human-rights committees and Native councils.

I fear that Embera lives are now even more in danger…

This is the sixth of our seven-part series on First Nations peoples in Latin America. Montreal filmmaker Mary Ellen Davis is the project coordinator of this special series of stories.

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).