[News] Colombia: The Embera Struggle to Save a Sacred Mountain

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Aug 18 12:22:11 EDT 2009

Colombia: The Embera Struggle to Save a Sacred Mountain

Written by Kate Warburton
Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Conflicts between multinational corporations and indigenous groups 
are not only confined to legal debates over property rights. For the 
Embera in Choco, a fight against a controversial mining project in 
the region isn't just a conflict about their legal ownership of the 
land. This project threatens to completely wipe out their ancient culture.

Muriel Mining Company began the exploration of Cerro de Caraperro, a 
mountain in the Jiguamiando River Basin in Colombia's north-western 
department of Choco on January 5, 2009 after the Colombian government 
awarded the US-based company a 30 year mining concession to explore 
the sacred Embera site.

According to members of the Embera communities from surrounding 
areas, the company has entered their land illegally,and without 
proper consultation as stipulated by article 7 of Convention 169 of 
the International Labour Organisation, that specifically states that 
any implementation of national laws in indigenous territories must be 
conducted in accordance to any customs and laws of the indigenous communities.

Traditional Embera customs in Colombia govern that any decisions on 
the exploitation of their land that face the community as a 
collective must be reached through a general consensus, which in this 
case, according to community leaders, was taken out of their hands 
when representatives of the Embera based in the cities unlawfully 
gave permission for the exploration without any prior consultation 
with the rest of the community.

Muriel Mining Company has responded by adamantly stating that all 
consultation was carried out legally and properly according to 
Colombian law and refutes any claims by human rights groups working 
in the area of any wrongdoing in the shape of bribery or coercion 
towards certain Embera representatives.

In Colombia, there are almost a hundred indigenous groups, many of 
which are struggling to retain their traditional culture on territory 
that was legally designated to them by the Colombian constitution in 
1991. This case presents us with another example of the lack of 
understanding of the core beliefs of indigenous groups by western 
companies, or a complete disregard towards those beliefs. Intent on 
bypassing a law that is supposed to protect indigenous communities, 
here is another instance of how vulnerable these indigenous groups 
are when up against laws created for them by the white man that favor 
powerful foreign companies whose short-term economic agenda is at 
absolute odds to a group concerned with a long-term vision of 
preservation of the land.

The exploration has currently been suspended whilst lawyers 
representing the community through the organization Justicia y Paz 
continue to fight for the rights and autonomy of the indigenous 
group. In the interim, fears are raised in the already 
twice-displaced community that their culture and way of life might 
once again be in jeopardy.

At the heart of the struggle of Colombia's often ignored and 
endangered indigenous groups against corporate intrusion is a 
misunderstood intrinsic and deep-rooted connection they have to their 
territory. Fear of losing access to ancestral lands or their 'mother 
earth' goes far beyond the legality of property rights as we know it 
today. For the indigenous, this is not a property conflict whereby a 
family must leave their property for the construction of a new 
motorway. Not only is there a much greater dependence on the land by 
the indigenous groups, a deep-rooted spiritual connection means that 
being torn away from the land is like losing a part of themselves.

The very nucleus of the indigenous existence is threatened by these 
mega-projects which are on the increase in Colombia's rural areas, be 
they mining projects, hydro-electic or agricultural. The Colombian 
government is currently trying to get a free trade deal with the 
United States which would open up the country to more foreign 
companies seeking to promote similar projects in the name of 
"development" and "progress." But the repercussions for the local 
indigenous inhabitants are severe as they see their rivers polluted 
and their natural environment demolished, both life-lines for their 
survival in these isolated regions.

In Choco, the stage has been set for a bitter struggle between a 
community and Muriel Mining Company. At the root of this particular 
dispute is the excavation of a deeply sacred site for the Embera. The 
mountain, Cerro Caraperro (the mountain of the dogface), not only 
contains great riches, but is revered as a symbol of the inextricable 
link between the Embera and their territory.

As legend has it, a revered shaman, or Jaibana, that once lived in 
the mountain practicing traditional medicine, rose up through the 
mountainside in the afterlife with the face of a dog to represent the 
attachment humans have with earth's creatures. Ever since, the plants 
and the animals that live on the mountain protect the spirits of the 
deceased Embera from being released.

If the mining goes ahead, which is planned as an open pit excavation, 
the community believes that the project will allow the release of the 
spirits, both good and evil that inhabit the land, which according to 
them will have severely detrimental consequences for the surrounding 

The current Jaibana, Alberto Martiniro said, "If the mountain is 
exploited, all of the spirits will leave, good and bad. It will cause 
illness and maybe death in the nearby population. Plants which we use 
to cure disease will be killed, and our waters will be contaminated. 
After the Spanish arrived, the government allocated to us only a 
small amount of land for the indigenous, and now they want to destroy 
what we have left."

As legal representative for the community, Eduardo Bailarin is 
unwavering in his pursuit of justicee for his community and insists 
that the Embera community as a collective is, and always has been 
against the project.

"We are tired of saying that we are absolutely against all types of 
mega-projects on our territory. It's our future we have to protect. 
If we lose our land, we will lose our culture, our language and it 
will create internal conflicts within us. We have to fight or we we 
will see all of the forest privatized and no one will look after it," he said.

As the legal battle continues there remains a another unresolved 
conflict in Colombia over the "progress" or "development" by a 
government seeking free trade and opening the country to 
transnational corporations and the rights and ideals of an ancient 
people whose vision for the future differs widely.

"We lived on these lands before the 'conquistadores' arrived," says 
one community leader "We were born here, we grew up here. If we, the 
owners of the land, lose our territory, where are we going to live?"

"These people don't think of the future for the community. We want to 
protect our land for our children and future generations. The 
economic progress that is encouraged by the government isn't progress for us."

What for a government or commercial enterprise is a dispute that can 
be settled (or won) by the application of law, for the indigenous 
inhabitants of the region can mean the complete extinction of their 
identity and culture. There is not one constitution or set of laws of 
one country that takes into account the core values of the different 
indigenous communities, making it impossible for this legislation to 
protect the interests of the natives. Their connection to the land 
they live on is hard to comprehend by those that took the land in the 
centuries after the arrival of the Spanish and is impossible to 
protect without undermining the development of a country according to 
western standards.

Bailarin sums up the fear of the future for the community, "Without 
our land we lose our culture. Without our land we are no longer Embera."

Certain names have been changed in the interest of security.

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