Though they returned to their land in late November, members of the indigenous Wounaan community of Unión Agua Clara are claiming that the city of Buenaventura and the government of Colombia violated their right to a dignified return. The minimal conditions for return agreed upon by state institutions are yet to be fulfilled, and members of the community say they are at risk of being displaced again.
On November 29, 2015, 63 families (347 people) of the indigenous community of Unión Agua Clara, accompanied by state entities, returned home. The “Territorio Humanitario y Biodiverso Unión Agua Clara” is a two-hour boat journey from Bajo Calima, Buenaventura. It is close to the district of Litoral Pacifico de San Juan but belongs to Buenaventura.
The return was supposed to be a moment of pride for the community of Unión Agua Clara. A year since their forced displacement to the Coliseo El Cristal, a stadium in Buenaventura, in a difficult physical and spiritual condition, the community was eager to reclaim their territory.
Walking the side of the large San Juan river, which separates the departments of Chocó and Valle del Cauca, it is hard not to be mesmerized by the idyllic scenery. The landscape is akin to paradise, surrounded by the greenery of palm trees; young children laugh, swim, dive into the river, and play with each other. Some are on a canoe, intending to fish for what would hopefully be dinner that night.
As the children gather near the river, all the adult members of the indigenous community are similarly congregated in one of the houses, grim and busy organizing a meeting.
Paramilitary threats caused displacement
While the territory of the indigenous Wounaan of Unión Agua Clara appears idyllic on face value, the reality is just short of that: the river passage is a strategic corridor for armed actors and narco-trafficking. Guerrillas such as FARC and ELN, naval military as well as paramilitaries all are present in the zone.
Over the years, the indigenous Wounaan community had witnessed the militarization of the zone, restrictions (and confinement) by armed actors and increasing incursions into its territory. They left their territory in November of 2014 due to increasing threats to from such activity.
“We displaced due to an accumulation of many events: our speedboat was robbed by paramilitaries, and masked men entered the community carrying arms and demanded to rest on parts of our land. We didn’t permit them and explained them the indigenous autonomy over this territory,” says a leader of the community, remembering these events. “As a community, we decided to leave.”
The failed return
In a November 25, meeting of the Committee of Transitional Justice, the municipality of Buenaventura with the community finally jointly defined minimal requirements for a safe and dignified return for the Wounaan to Unión Agua Clara. Within the framework of the Land Restitution Law 1448 of 2011, the local government of Buenaventura provided the community Unión Agua Clara with seeds, provisions, materials and transportation to their territory.
Due to the fatigue of being displaced in the Coliseo for longer than a year, the community agreed on these minimal requirements and returned four days after the meeting. However, while the local government claims that the return was a success and that the Colombian state abided with its obligation to offer protection to indigenous communities, especially victims of displacements, the indigenous Wounaan community claims that not even these minimal requirements have been fulfilled in its totality.
In particular, the community soon realized days into their return that the provisions given by the local government of Buenaventura are far from adequate. “To be able to stay, there needs to be suitable conditions,” says a member of the indigenous community.
There also remains the suspicion that after having been displaced for a year without receiving a response to their plight, the return was organized in such a rush at the end because the Coliseo was needed for the Games of Litoral Pacifico, which were due to start on December 14.
Continuing concerns on dignified living conditions
In a visit to Agua Clara, FOR Peace Presence (FORPP), accompanying the Interchurch Commission on Justice and Peace, witnessed the daily life of the community attempting to revive their territory to how it once was. It is clear that much work still remains. The community cannot do it by themselves and requires the support of the Colombian state in fulfillment of its obligations.
Upon return, the community discovered many of the homes deteriorated and their few belongings stolen. Many items had to be replaced and brought from town, which is expensive and difficult. Their crops were destroyed. The electricity generator that powered the whole community was stolen. The aqueduct that gives the community access to drinking water was broken, leaving the community dependent on rainwater and the river.
Exams by the health secretary of the local government of Buenaventura confirmed that the water of the San Juan river is contaminated. Since the return, around 30 children have gotten sick from vomiting and diarrhea.
“One year of displacement in the Coliseo, we got used to the water of the city, especially the small children are sick because they are not used to the contaminated river water,” says a community member. The community says there is a pressing need for medicine and the presence of state health agents in the zone. “We use our traditional medicine to cure, but if the diarrhea doesn’t stop in two or three days, we want to take our children to a doctor,” one community member says.
While the Unidad de Victimas (Unit for Attention and Reparations of Victims) in charge of ensuring the protection of victims under the Victims’ Law has provided a kit of food provision, the community says it is far from sufficient and does not take into account how numerous the returning families are. “We are running out of food,” says a community member. “The provisions that are meant for one month in fact last for less than a week. How should 11 pounds of rice be sufficient for a family of nine for one month?”
The seeds provided by the state for the community to grow new cultivations are by far not enough to ensure self-sufficiency for the next harvest. 600 plantain tree seeds were distributed to the 63 families, leaving each family less than 10 seeds to plant, which is not sufficient for them to revive their land. The canoes, promised in the minimal conditions for the return, have not been provided. “Without a canoe, we are immobilized. We can’t fish, we can´t reach our fields,” says a community member.
As the situation becomes dire, there is still no sight of state agents apart from the navy. Military naval boats pass and stop frequently, once offering to provide medical aid to the community. But the community is apprehensive about accepting aid from the military.
“Taking aids from the army means involving themselves within the conflict,” says a member of the Interchurch Commission on Justice and Peace, who advises the indigenous Wounaan of Unión Agua Clara. “The community denounces presence of all armed actors, and so any communication with one can be perceived as collaboration and risks accusations of being informants.”
Concerns on Protection of life
Aside from material needs, one of the most pressing concerns of the community is the continuing presence of paramilitaries in the zone. Just four days after their return, they witnessed paramilitaries entering their community and threatening their leaders – a worrying situation that exposes risks for their life as civilians. With armed actors nearby, it is no longer safe to fish or hunt freely, and the community is restricted in its movements.
Many indigenous communities organize guardia indigena to protect their territory and seek the retreat of armed actors.
“If boats of an armed actor seems too close, the guardia indígena would usually go with our speedboat, sometimes the women of the community, to ask for the armed actors to move further away. This is our way of protection,” says one member of the community.
However, without a speedboat, the community is unable to protect itself or to escape in emergency situations should tensions with armed actors escalate.
The Colombian state has the obligation to offer protection to its citizens, especially in such a vulnerable situation. Part of the agreed minimal conditions was to provide the threatened community with a speedboat.
It seems that the National Protection Unit might offer relocation of the leaders as means of protection. However the community sees this as inappropriate as it threatens to break the fabric of what defines the indigenous community: unity.
“I will die here, defending the rights of my community,” says one Unión Agua Clara leader.
Adilah Nasir is currently an accompanier for FOR Peace Presence and holds an Advanced LL.M. in Public International Law from Leiden University in the Netherlands.