[News] Colombia: The Embera Struggle to Save a Sacred Mountain
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
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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San Francisco, CA 94110
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