<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Colombian Government Declares Indigenous Reservations Targets for Fumigations

Native Leaders Spoke to Narco News on the Threats They Face from the Drug War in Their Territories


By Laura Del Castillo Matamoros
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

December 29, 2007

Ibagué, Colombia: This past September, the administration of Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Velez refused to vote on the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. The government argued that it could not sign it, because some of the declaration’s articles contradict Colombia’s legal order and the powers of the state. As tends to happen in these cases, no government entity, not even the Interior Ministry’s Directorate of Ethnic Groups, could clearly explain the strange ambiguities of this decision.


Senator Gerardo Jumí
Foto: D.R. 2007 Laura Del Castillo
Which articles from this declaration might have been, according to the government, to the detriment of “Colombia’s legal order and the powers of the state?” Could they be, by any chance, those that refer to indigenous peoples’ right to the conservation and protection of their territories, and the use that can be made of those lands? Or, perhaps, the one that speaks of the limitations that governments should have to carry out military operations within indigenous territories?

The events of the following months speak for themselves in response to these questions, and seem to vindicate those who felt that behind the government’s legal rhetoric hid a deep racism; a rejection of indigenous rights – especially in terms of territory – and, above all, the firm intention to openly manipulate the law once again in favor of special interests.

Judge for yourselves, kind readers…

The Decree

On October 8, the National Narcotics Council – under the authority of Interior Minister Carlos Holguín Sardi – approved a resolution that cleared the way for the Anti-Narcotics Police to carry out fumigations of illicit crops inside of the country’s indigenous reservations. Since 2003, the police – funded by Plan Colombia money from the United States – had been prohibited from spraying herbicides from airplanes inside of these territories.

According to a report in the Colombian weekly El Espectador – which revealed the existence of this decree on November 24 and has been the only mass media outlet to cover the issue – the measure comes after a process of “previous consultation” with the affected communities. These consultations had supposedly been carried out in the departments (states) of Guaviare, Magdalena, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Cuaca, Caquetá, Vichada, Arauca and Guainía, and are still pending for Chocó, Amazonas, Antioquia, Córdoba, Valle, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés.

That’s right… a quote-unquote “consultation.” The well-known journalist Alfredo Molano wrote three weeks ago that

the government is blackmailing the indigenous with carrot and stick. The stick that they are being accused of drug trafficking and terrorism; the carrot a promise – in return for their approval [of the fumigations] – of extension of the reservations, creation of indigenous-run radio stations, [employment in] forest-ranger programs, schools, health clinics, roads, and – yes, you read it right – attention to human rights.

That is to say, the government has opted to “award” indigenous communities with benefits that should really be theirs by right. And if that doesn’t work, it can always turn to one of the most effective methods of persuasion: repression, knowledgably administered by the Colombian armed forces backed by members of the so-called “emergent” paramilitary gangs.

“This decree is claiming things that are not true,” said senator and Embera indigenous leader Geradro Jumí. “For example, that there have been consultations with indigenous organizations… Fumigations are not allowed without such consultations, and in some areas the fumigations have been stopped this way, but they just take it for granted that they can do it in other regions without any obstacles.”

Jumí spoke to Narco News in the city of Ibagué (130 miles east of Bogotá), where around 2,000 indigenous representatives from across the country met from December 9 to 15 in the 7th Congress of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC, in its Spanish initials). The issue of fumigations and the damage caused in indigenous territories was discussed at length among the participants.

“Previous consultation is not just a procedure, it is a fundamental right of the indigenous peoples,” explained Darío Mejía, a Zenú indigenous leader from Northwest Colombia and member of the ONIC’s board of directors. “It means the right to participation and the definition of their own future, of their own development strategies.”

“In many areas,” he said, “coca cultivation is something that is forced – it exists because the armed actors obligate the population to participate, or simply because it is the only economic defense the people have, as the environment doesn’t allow them to survive growing anything else. The government itself has led people to grow coca with its own policies.”

“On the other hand,” said Mejía, “fumigation is a weapon of war, a biological weapon. It doesn’t only kill the coca leaf. In fact, it doesn’t kill it, but rather damages the rest of the subsistence crops. The procedures for reporting damages are very tiresome, and what’s more, in the context of an armed conflict, the people are afraid to speak out, as the armed forces actively work to suppress that.”

But what were the government’s arguments for approving this resolution? Carlos Albornoz, national director of drug control, explained it in a very curious fashion to the newspaper El Espectador in November:

While the crops are illicit, we are respecting the ancestral costumes of the indigenous to consume coca. But it turns out that some have passed the limits and now are planting for exportation, that’s why these eradication efforts have begun. The government has adjusted its drug policy, putting more emphasis on manual eradication, but there are areas where only aerial fumigation is possible. I suppose that each reservation’s situation will be evaluated before spraying.

Several indigenous delegations that attended the ONIC congress said that there are no illicit crops in their reservations. And what there is, they say, is on the edges of indigenous territory and planted by non-indigenous campesinos – with whom, of course, the government has not made agreements to create alternative development or any truly effective manual eradication programs.

Ashcayra Arabadadora, a Barí indigenous man from the state of Norte de Santander and head of the Motilón Barí Community Association of Colombia (ASOCBARI) explained: “We have begun a dialog with the non-indigenous campesinos, working with them to do manual eradications with the help of the Barí community, on the edges of the reservation.”

And though indigenous reservations have already been fumigated in the past – with approval from government bodies like the Ministry of the Environment and the Office of National Parks – the resolution’s approval will notably increase the sprayings and their devastating consequences.


Ashcayra Arabadadora, Barí Leader
D.R. 2007 Laura Del Castillo
“In 2002 they held consultations in our reservation,” said Arabadadora, “although we didn’t reach any concrete agreements. But now they have not even consulted with the Barí people about this. We are worried that this will affect our traditional crops, the medicinal plants of our grandparents, because we experienced the results of fumigations in 2000. Another troubling thing is that the campesinos are unaware that fumigations are going to happen again. Many campesinos who were displaced are now returning to areas like La Gabarra, and this, along with the activation of new military bases, could harm them.”

“What worries us about this decision,” said Mejía, “is that if before it was made they were already fumigating, now they will double the fumigations. The danger is rising and what we understand clearly is that much of the displacement is happening because of the fumigation. And now, the problem is going to grow.”

Mejía added that the herbicide fumigations never appear as a major cause of displacement in the databases of government agencies that supposedly track such issues, like “Social Action.” But although the Colombian government and U.S. Embassy officials insist, based on studies they’ve financed themselves, that glyfosate (the main herbicide sprayed) is a harmless substance, the testimonies and evidence collected in affected areas show that the fumigations are doing a brilliant job of eliminating thousands of acres of crops… but of food, not coca plants.

This situation, according to the indigenous people we interviewed, often leads their people to migrate onto the lands of non-indigenous colonos (newly arrived pioneer farmers). The indigenous, lacking any other way to survive after the chemical destruction of their traditional crops, then have to offer their labor to work the coca fields. This vicious circle never ends, and the government always has excuses to criminalize communities whose members, if they haven’t abandoned their land, may already be on the verge of starvation.

Add this to the repeatedly reported cases of the contamination of rivers, as well as sicknesses and even the death of some members of the affected communities. El Espectador in its article reminds readers of what happened in 2005, when the Eperara Siapidaara ethnic group, of the southwestern Pacific coast, suffered the death of three children and the agony of 16 more who fell ill, all confirmed by the local Department of Health in the state of Nariño.

Other Interests

The truth is that both Uribe and Bush are too busy to worry about a few useless cokeheads who are nothing but a nuisance to the capitalist system of life. The Uribe administration is not interested in fumigating indigenous reservations just because of concerns that illicit crops may be there, but also because these territories are rich in natural resources, which are of central importance to multinational companies for exploitation.


Darío Mejía, member of the board of directors of the Congress of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC)
Foto: D.R. 2007 Dan Feder
But better we let Darío Mejía explain what lies behind the resolution to fumigate in the reservations: “This decree comes from an internal strategy, which as we see it has to do with the control of territory. This displacement phenomenon creates empty territories that are then controlled by the mafia, legal groups that are represented in Congress by lobbyists who impose laws allowing these regions to become logging areas or centers of monoculture farming for the production of biofuels or extensive cattle farming.”

The Barí reservation inside the Catatumbo National Park in Norte de Santander, for example, is attractive to big logging and coal-mining consortiums.

“Right now,” explained Arabadadora, “we can see that all the concessions to coal companies have occurred in the same areas where fumigations have occurred, and where there has been a strong military and paramilitary presence. The company Geofising E.U. has applied for 3,783 acres to create an open-pit coal mine; it already has the mining rights. Now it’s waiting for the results of an environmental impact study, which the Barí people did not participate in. They were not even consulted about the process.”

So then, the herbicide spraying in indigenous territories is a nice Christmas present from the Colombian government, with which everyone wins: the multinationals, who can enter and make use of these fumigated territories at will; the private military contractors like Dyncorp who provide the firepower for fumigating; the chemical company Monsanto that produces the toxic glyphosate herbicide; the paramilitaries’ top fans (read: the landowners and Colombian elite that our President and his allies in Congress come from), and, of course, the hypocritical rhetoric of the Colombian and U.S. governments on the issue of drug trafficking.

The only losers are the indigenous and the campesinos. But in a country that never overcame the vices of its first colonizers, that won’t keep too many politicians up at night.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America