GUAVIARE, Colombia — In the north of the department of Guaviare, the Jiw say they feel trapped in their own lands. The 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) of the Barrancón resguardo, or reserve, are shrinking. Settlers have taken over the land, forest and waters, while the military has an army training battalion and a marine infantry river battalion nearby. There is also the dormant presence of the First Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the factions of the now-defunct separatist group that refuses to recognize a 2016 peace agreement signed with the government.
“We are surrounded,” complains Bernardo*, a Barrancón resident. “Above, coming from San José del Guaviare, is the military base, which invaded our territory and has left various victims due to unexploded ordinances. The settlers are along the road to Charras, to the south of the resguardo, and on the banks of the Guaviare River. The Land Restitution Unit [URT] promised to give us those areas, but nothing has happened.”
He repeats an eerie mantra: “They are disappearing us.”
Colonization and armed conflict have snatched away the lands of the Jiw, who are nomadic by nature. Today they appear on a list of 34 indigenous communities that, according to the Constitutional Court of Colombia, are in danger of disappearing. The “Guayaberos,” as they were known, no longer regularly hunt or fish. The forests have been turned into pasture and the rivers are disputed with the settlers, or “white people,” as they call anyone who is not indigenous. Nor do they farm much because there is “not enough” territory for them and most of it is “flood zone.”
“We want what is ours,” Bernardo says to the almost a dozen people who have gathered in a longhouse in Mocuare. Mocuare is the first of eight sectors of the Barrancón reserve, a small community of a little more than 830 indigenous people. “They divided up our land and now we do not even have enough to survive.”
He reminds his audience that the same government took their lands without consulting them and now has them close to extermination.
They all share his complaint. Before 1975, Barrancón spanned 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres). That was reduced by more than half to 2,500 hectares that year, through a resolution under INCORA, the government body that today is the National Land Agency. The agency needed to give land to 74 campesino families who had settled in the area. Since then, the Jiw argue, they have lost access to traditional use areas, such as Caño Bejuco, where they picked fruits and hunted peccaries and tapirs; Caño la Fuga, where they hunted and extracted raw materials for handicrafts; and Cámbulos Lake, an important fishing area.
“Before 1975, Barrancón only had 16 or 18 families, so INCORA took away our land. Now there are more than 200 of us because many displaced people arrived,” Bernardo says. He refers to the people who have come from the Jiw’s three largest reserves, which have historically been the most affected by conflicts between the paramilitaries, guerrillas, and state security forces.
The most displacements took place in 2008. According to a document from Pastoral Social Guaviare, the Ombudsperson’s Office, the local office of the U.N. refugee agency (ACNUR), and other organizations, currently 44 percent of the Jiw are displaced. Barrancón has been the main destination for displaced communities. Five of its eight sectors are inhabited by families fleeing violence.
Now there is not enough space for everyone and there is outcry over the disputed territory. Not just the 3,500 hectares that were taken from them, but also the forested areas that have disappeared where, when they were semi-nomadic, they traveled to find food and practice their ancestral ways. The Jiw hold the settlers responsible for depleting the environment. They blame them for deforestation, taking the fine wood, and overfishing.
“The environment is part of the worldview and reason for being of indigenous peoples,” said Fernanda Calderón, director of the Guaviare branch office of the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Northern and Eastern Amazon (CDA), the environmental authority in this part of the country. “We would like to restore the lands that have been deforested and converted to grassland, but currently we must first address some problems, like public safety.”
Calderón is worried about the huge challenge that lays ahead: currently 70 percent of Colombia’s deforestation is concentrated in the Amazon region, which last year reached 197,159 hectares (487,190 acres), according to the most recent report from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies. Caquetá, northern Guaviare, and southern Meta are the three main areas where the forest is disappearing and in most cases being converted to cattle pasture. Mongabay Latam traveled to the Barrancón reserve, where landscape that was once forest is now endless plains.
“There is land grabbing and deforestation for extensive cattle ranching,” Calderón said. “We do not have the operating or financial capacity to stop it.” She acknowledges that public safety makes it almost impossible for the CDA to exercise its authority.
She also recounts that on various occasions, public servants from the CDA have been summoned by chiefs of ex-FARC groups that did not accept the peace agreement. They have never attended these meetings out of fear for their lives.
The situation is not new. Criminal action against environmental defenders is feared by many other agencies and organizations. At the beginning of June, the CDA learned of a FARC pamphlet that threatened social leaders, environmentalists, NGOs and public servants in the departments of Guaviare, Meta and Caquetá, and declared them a “military objective.”
“They all speak of peace, but the conflict is [just] dormant here,” Calderón said. “The situation improved a little, but at the same time we cannot go out in our vests to safely control and monitor.”
“There is land grabbing and deforestation for extensive cattle ranching.”
Fernanda Calderón, director of the Guaviare branch office of the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Northern and Eastern Amazon (CDA)
San José del Guaviare feels oddly calm and appears a peaceful town. But the entire population knows, though they may not say it aloud, that some orders must be followed without question. Individuals who served as guides for Mongabay Latam reporters warned, for example, that since Holy Week visiting tourist areas is prohibited. Any question is an act of daring. “Best not to speak of the matter. Even the walls have ears here,” cautions a driver.
In this context, reducing deforestation is a titanic mission that, Calderón reiterates, must involve all state institutions working together. If the indiscriminate logging continues, in a few years the damage will be irreversible. The effects are already being felt. The Jiw experience it daily when they witness the disappearing forest and animals.
There are other complications.
“Deforestation brings water resource scarcity and the depopulation of wild animals,” Calderón said. “One example is the cats that end up with no habitat and must seek out populated areas. Then when they come to the plantations they are killed. We have many complaints of this type, but it is difficult to identify and catch the perpetrators in the act.”
The damage to the animals can be catastrophic.
Just 10 years ago, research by the CDA in conjunction with Fundación Omacha and Fundación Panthera Colombia discovered that Guaviare contains five of Colombia’s six feline species. Today their status in this part of the Amazon is unknown. “The fires have done away with the animals. They are the ones mainly affected. And when there are no animals, there is no food security for the indigenous people. It’s a chain,” Calderón said.
In addition, the Jiw say they have little access to water resources. “The settlers prohibit us from fishing,” says Alberto*, another of Barrancón’s leaders. “We do not get along because they say we are thieves, that the Jiw take things and barbasco the rivers” — stun the fish using traditional practices. “They came into our territory and now we have to submit to their rules.”
The Jiw have little water access, not only due to the drought that suffocates Guaviare at various times during the year, but also because of the conflicts with their neighbors. “They overfish and exhaust the rivers. Now there are never any fish,” Alberto adds. The fight between campesinos and indigenous people is known throughout the region. The National Aquaculture and Fisheries Authority (AUNAP) has had to intervene.
Indeed, together with the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), the agency has confirmed that overexploitation during the closed season and unregulated artisanal fishing has led to species decline. They recognize that government intervention is urgently needed.
The Jiw also have “conflicts of coexistence” with the military. “The river is next to us, but we can’t go on it comfortably. Our problem is with the ‘white people’ and also with the military forces that do not permit us to fish at night or pass onto their territory,” says Alberto, referring to the neighboring 32nd Marine Infantry River Battalion.
Jorge Rico, a colonel with the military, tells Mongabay Latam that it is the Ministry of Transportation that prohibits navigating at night, and that for security reasons fishing is not permitted near military units. “It is part of our defense plan and we cannot violate it. We are the target of attacks and cannot allow people to reach our ships. Just as an indigenous person or campesino could come to fish, bad people could also come and plant explosive devices.”
“The state must give us the money to make purchases and carry out all appropriate processes. Just as the Jiw should have their land rights guaranteed, so should the campesinos who have legal holdings.
Carola Sánchez, director of the National Land Agency (ANT) in Guaviare
The military has its reasons, but the Jiw have complaints. They say that everyone has authority over the rivers except them. There is also the dissenting First Front of the FARC, which, according to a report from Fundación Ideas Para la Paz, controls river routes like the Guaviare in order to move cocaine and access areas where they can take refuge.
But these are not the only threats to the Guaviare River. The AUNAP has learned of gold extraction activities on this tributary. The exploitation harms fish and human health due to the indiscriminate use of mercury. The agency also acknowledges that deforestation has direct consequences for water resources, such as evaporation due to direct heating, floods, bank erosion, and changes to river channels.
“We are surrounded wherever you look. About 300 or 500 meters [980 to 1,640 feet] from here is a range where the military trains,” says Fernando*, a Jiw from Mocuare. “Many of the women and children that walk around there, by our crops, have had bullets pass over them. The bombs shake the land.”
He laments that the sounds of the forest have been replaced by the sound of bullets and vibrations produced by grenade explosions. The shooting range next to them reminds them every day of the sound of war. They have lived with the training center for more than 20 years.
Fernando explains that the military training occurs daily. They begin early and can finish after dark. The frequent detonations, he says, impact the population psychologically and socially.
Forgetting the past is difficult for the Jiw. The thundering gunfire, which can be heard across Barrancón, makes it clear to them that the conflict is not over. They say it feels like a curse they must bear until the end of their lives. Fernando recounts that his community has found grenades and even mortar shells in their farm plots, which are adjacent to the military base. Every day they walk with fear, afraid to take a wrong step and encounter a device that kills them.
Bernardo remembers when in 2007 “a Jiw woman was maimed and blinded” after coming across an explosive device. It was a landmark case and the Constitutional Court references it in a 2012 decree, which ordered preventative measures to protect the Jiw. The decree also notes that since 2006, more than 18 people have fallen victim to these devices.
Carlos Andrés Realpe, a colonel who has commanded the 22nd Battalion for more than a year and a half now, understands that the noise is an issue but admits that “reducing it” is almost impossible. “If we shoot in the morning, we do not in the afternoon,” he says. He adds that changing locations is not possible, as the range was built more than 20 years ago and the government would have to invest significant resources to move it.
“I cannot respond for what happened years ago, but I am certain that the range complies with all safety specifications and, since I have been here, has never caused any accident,” Realpe says. He adds that they are taking the necessary precautions. “We have an area where we launch the mortar grenades and every four or six months explosive specialists come to sweep the area and destroy the devices.”
For now, the Jiw are playing their only card: a complaint to the Land Restitution Unit (URT) requesting, among other things, that the Ministry of Defense come to an agreement with them regarding the location of the shooting range to avoid harming the population and to rectify extent of the reserve. Mongabay Latam reached out to the URT for comment, but the agency said that due to the ongoing proceedings and case confidentiality, it could not comment.
Carola Sánchez, the director of the National Land Agency (ANT) in Guaviare, says her office is not conducting compensation studies to award more territory to the Jiw. “We can be told to make restitution, but the state must give us the money to make purchases and carry out all appropriate processes. Just as the Jiw should have their land rights guaranteed, so should the campesinos who have legal holdings. The government should work for everyone,” she says.
The Jiw have become more sedentary out of fear that if they leave the territory, settlers will arrive and take over. “Very little is produced now. The agencies are also to blame for this, since they believe the problem is solved by bringing some food in, and it isn’t,” Bernardo says. He says they need land to work and seeds to plant.
The set of problems that the Jiw face “has overwhelmed the municipality’s and department’s capacity to respond,” says Delver Ramírez, an official with the Guaviare government.
He says it will continue to be an emergency until the government, specifically the Ministry of the Interior, implements a protection plan telling the responsible agencies how to proceed. Such a document would give guidelines for helping the Jiw not just in Barrancón, but in six other reserves.
*Names have been changed to protect the sources.
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