Along the road less travelled

“Just like a highway” jokes Liliana[1], the human rights defender we are accompanying today.  In reality, few things resemble a highway less than the potholed track we were bumping along at that moment.  Driving around in the 4×4 was in no way an attempt to feed our spirit of adventure but rather pure necessity in order to overcome the poor driving conditions. Only a few months ago, the very same road had been completely inaccessible, as a result of landslides and huge mud pools, caused by this year´s exceptionally heavy rainy season.

I think about the people that live in the tiny little villages dispersed along the way, and wonder about how these conditions may have affected them?  How many of them failed to get to a hospital in time when the needed it? Many would have children and family living further afield in other departments. Perhaps they were unable to attend the funeral of a loved one; or the wedding of one of their children, impeded by the isolation caused by the heavy rains and years of state neglect in maintenance of the infrastructure in this border region between Colombia and Venezuela.

Tropical vegetation lines the road.  Big blue butterflies play chase with the car. The beautiful environment contrasts sharply to our reason for being here. We were accompanying theLuis Carlos Perezlawyers collective in their work with the indigenous Barí community.  The Barí are the traditional inhabitants of this region. For them however, as for many other indigenous, afro-descendent and small scale farmer communities in other parts of the country, the richness’s of their lands have been more of a curse than a blessing.

Sometime at the beginning of last century, oil was discovered here, and well as other natural resources, such as coal. The indigenous population, as well as the small scale farmers (who over the years have moved closer to the lands of the indigenous community in a search for a better life or fleeing violence) have faced countless challenges.  These have ranged from threats, violence and forced displacements, to the contamination of the environment by mining companies exploiting the land.  Multinational oil companies are already present in approximately 50% of indigenous lands in Colombia, not to mention other industries. [2]Five years ago, the Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled against the State oil company working in the area for having failed to respect the right of the indigenous communities to a “previous consultation”[3] prior to initiating development projects on their protected territory. This right is enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as the ILO convention 169.

The lawyer’s collective accompanied by PBI is supporting the Barí in the defence of their territory, providing legal assessment on cases like this one.  However with such great economic interests involved, this is a risky business.  According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), 1,244 indigenous people were murdered between January 2002 and December 2008.[4]   Despite the constitutional court´s ruling in support of the Barí five years ago, not much has changed in practice.  The Barí people continue to face great pressure and are in danger of forced displacement.

Today, while CCALCP and the Barí sweated over their proposals, a fellow PBI international observer and myself patiently awaited.  We read books in our hammocks, played chess and spent time talking to the people in the community.  PBI has strong principles of non interference in the work of local actors.  We fully believe the people in this country know best how to resolve the challenges that they encounter in their search for better and more dignified lives.   Nevertheless, we have also seen how such work can become very dangerous when it clashes with powerful economic interests.

And that´s why international presence, – the visibilization of the international concern for the respect of the human rights of all those involved – is so important.  And while this work continues in progress, we will continue to bump up and down deteriorated rural roads, to reinforce the message that human rights violations for economic interests will not go unnoticed, even out here.


[1] Name has been changed to protect  identity

[2] ColomPBIa No11 May 2009 pg 8

[3] Article 32 of the United Nations Declaration on the Human Rights of Indigenous peoples declares it necessary to consult indigenous peoples to obtain their prior and free consent before undertaking development project on their lands. (“La configuración de un Genocidio Silencioso” ONIC, 2/11/2008) This is supported by the mechanism established in the ILO convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal peoples which establishes a right to a “prior consultation” to take place prior to initiating projects that will affect their rights.

[4] “La configuración de un Genocidio Silencioso” ONIC, 2/11/2008

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