Colombia’s indigenous communities face environmental disaster

Image copyright Reuters Image caption Members of the Quechua indigenous tribe in northeastern Colombia won’t allow garbage to be dumped in their land

As Cesar Lara and his team were burying a whole pine tree last year, they became aware that something was terribly wrong.

“It was alive, so it looked very fragile,” he says. “That’s when I knew it was a fumigant, and a very harmful one.”

Mr Lara, who works with the Rural Indigenous Federation of Guajira, is in charge of ensuring the health of the region’s non-indigenous residents. His goal is to prevent what many call a public health disaster.

Here in northeastern Colombia, which has one of the highest levels of deforestation in the country, the environmentalists are particularly concerned about a group of farming families known as “quibucos”, or “farmers”.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year planting forest cover in Guajira, where swathes of agricultural land are used as illegal “containers” for domestic waste from the cities.

But these containers are not always secure. The residents of Quechua village Roca Nuevo never believed they were being abused when they bought land in the 1990s, but after heavy rains in September last year, they learned otherwise.

A river that ran for five kilometres (three miles) laps at their homes. They can see their neighbours’ trailers and chaps’ houses propped up with pebbles, pesticides dumped in trees and rubbish dumped in the riverbanks.

Facts about indigenous communities in Colombia

“People are trying to pay more attention to the indigenous people,” says José Manuel Sanabria, a peasant from Quechua village Carranza, who has joined Mr Lara’s initiative.

“But there is also a problem with the government, and with public services.”

Rocking his head and frowning, he adds: “We want this to never happen again. Indigenous communities are the ones who stand up for protecting nature.

“People today have forgotten about [indigenous] peoples. They say we are just together for the land, but they don’t have a conscience.”

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The Quechua group in Quechua village Carranza are campaigning for government action

Racing ahead

The Quechua people, from around Cuenca, are often struck by unexpected events: some walk away from relationships because they want to protect their lands.

Others hold one child for the whole day to keep breeding for the land. Only about 500 Quechua have survived.

As the Quechua activists in Guajira work in tandem with the NGOs that work in the region, they both are concerned about an even greater concern: the fate of Colombia’s indigenous communities.

Colombia is due to hold presidential elections this Sunday, and the government needs to protect the environment.

What’s also on the ballot is the environment.

Institutional violence against indigenous communities is on the rise in Colombia, a long-running human rights crisis that has led to missing and murdered people.

Thousands of Colombians are missing, many of them indigenous, campaigners and ethnic minority leaders

The white-clad, bronze-head lozenge that once adorned Colombia’s presidential palace has disappeared. It was inextricably tied to the past and the present horrors of the Andean country.

The lozenge was taken from the highest palace on President Sofián Franco’s staff and could be seen in the iconic Blue House window in the Plaza Bolivar in Bogotá. It was set ablaze in January with torched candles, posters and leaflets protesting against many of the organisation’s destructive policies.

One of those policies was the land reform championed by President Juan Manuel Santos.

In the past, many indigenous groups in Colombia enjoyed land grants in order to protect them from Farc guerrillas.

Communities are still affected by the law, and Ms Parochial, president of the Indigenous Democratic Council (CD), the biggest indigenous organisation in Colombia, says there is a need for much more protection.

“We are working together with the government and NGOs,” she says. “Unfortunately, there is no recourse.”

Another Colombian environmental NGO, the Natura Foundation, says that the government has failed to implement a land reform plan, and that indigenous groups have faced “massive negative impact.”

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