Mapiripan, part one: Jiw

A cloud of feathers explodes above the car in front.  Maybe cars are rare enough here for the birds not to have learned how to dodge them.  Dawn is rising and the three 4×4 bullet-proof cars in our convoy are hurtling across the savannah in southern Meta.  We are in eastern Colombia, squeezed between the Andes and the Amazon basin in a region called the Eastern Plains – Llanos Orientales, which is mainly flat grassland savannah. To the south of us is Guaviare department, blanketed by the Amazonian rainforest. Two hundred kilometres of mud and potholes lie between us and the remote village of Mapiripan, where the Jiw and Sikuani indigenous communities continue their long struggle to recover their ancestral lands, to be able to live on them, and hunt and farm according to their traditions.

They used to be nomadic peoples who would periodically migrate and roam all over Meta and parts of Guaviare. But in the middle of the twentieth century, progressive white colonisation forced them to the south. During the phase of the civil war known as ‘La Violencia’ between Conservatives and Liberals in the forties and fifties, and later with half a century of fighting between the government and Marxist guerrillas, they had to take cover in the most south-easterly, wooded and isolated parts of Meta and north-eastern Guaviare.  Today, most of their ancestral lands in Mapiripan municipality are occupied by the industrial oil palm plantations of the multinational company Poligrow, which recently became the subject of several prosecutions for illegal land grabs and environmental destruction.[1]

On each side of the path are hundreds of kilometres of land that look almost deserted: a succession of immense fields with a few cows and patches of tropical forest nestled between low lying hills that, through the car window, look like the rolling waves of a green ocean.

Mapiripan

Far to the north, heavy clouds flash sporadically, as if the god of the Plains was striking giant flints to set them alight once and for all.  Next to the path are some abandoned Poligrow trucks, their loads removed, waiting for a tow or to be swallowed up by the vast green ocean.  Birds of prey circle above fearlessly, others watch us, unmoving, from posts by the wayside.

We are here accompanying several members of the human rights organisation, the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) who are travelling with their bodyguards.  The bodyguards normally carry guns, but we asked them to leave them in Bogota because our non-violent model of protection is incompatible with travelling in a convoy with armed actors of any kind.

The purpose of the trip is to accompany an indigenous march to the sacred lake of Las Toninas, or Pink Dolphins as it is called locally, because of the fresh water mammals that live in it. The local people haven’t been able to come back here for decades because the paramilitary groups forbade them. The march will be an affirmation of the indigenous communities’ rights to their ancestral lands, in spite of the legal hurdles put in their way or the economic interests that hound them. Poligrow, for example, is planning to build an industrial facility on the lakeshore to extract the oil from the palm fruit.  The opinion of many farmers and fishermen from the area, of the Jiw and Sikuani indigenous people, and of NGOs such as CIJP,[2] Indepaz and Somo,[3] is that it would destroy the lake’s biodiversity and the environmental destruction would have repercussions as far as the neighbouring Guaviare river, which countless communities depend on for food and water.

Despite the potholes, eventually I fall asleep and I’m woken up by the car drawing to a halt. Ahead of us is a group of small children who look indigenous and several of them have bellies swollen by malnutrition, who approach us cautiously.  We have arrived at the temporary settlement of the Jiws, displaced and living in misery.

We get out of the cars and walk into a the middle of a hundred metre long rectangle of improvised houses made of wonky boards and roofs that are of a patchwork of palm leaves, plastic sheeting and scrap metal.  In the middle, the community kiosk is a simple palm roof held up by wooden posts without any walls.  In a dirt patch, the kids are shouting and laughing, playing a lively game of football that jars with the community’s oppressive alimentary situation.[4]  I am surprised at how corpulent the adults seem.

Mapiripan

In spite of the abysmal differences between our lives and theirs, talking with the community’s adults who approach us is relatively easy and natural. They are impoverished and worried about their future, but there is no unsurmountable distance between us.  Emboldened by their sheer numbers, the children are surprisingly chatty.  But what is most striking is their indifference to the sun, rain, earth and mud.  They run around all over the place, deeply tanned, at two in the afternoon, under the relentless tropical sun.

After a while, a downpour is unleashed, and we and the Jiw adults gather under the palm thatched refuge of the community kiosk.  The water pours onto the children, who are even more excited now, and continue their games and joyful shouting. They don’t try to protect themselves from nature, as if they trust it to compensate their own excesses: the burning sun is just a deep and pleasurable feeling once they know that a refreshing downpour will follow, which they don’t shelter from either, because it too will pass. Nature juggles violent elements, without letting any of them settle to the point where they become harmful. The deluge stops.  Some of the children are cold, but they don’t go and change or dry themselves.

Laeti y Christophe

The water from the stream that the Jiws drink makes the children sick. They can’t grow food to feed themselves because the land they live on does not legally belong to them, so they have to depend on a few “minimum wages” they say they earn from Poligrow.  And those who don’t have jobs must go to fish in the Guaviare river to feed themselves.  But they can’t rely on the fish, even, because white fishermen with nets go there sometimes and scoop up everything alive, from the riverbed to its surface, leaving the fish that have no commercial value, but which the Jiw eat, to rot on the shores.

At night we leave the settlement and head to the nearby central square in the village of Mapiripan.  We spend the night in the patio of William Aljure’s house, who is a displaced farmer also accompanied by CIJP.  We put up our tents in a row on the concrete floor.  An hour later, a police patrol arrives with their assault weapons in hand.  Their officer, 20 years old, tries to project authority, but he is clearly impressed when Abilio of CIJP, 25 years his senior, talks to him.  Thanks to PBI’s advocacy before the trip, the police received an instruction to check in on us [5] in order to “protect us”.

William Aljure
William Aljure

The inhabitants of this remote village don’t seem very different to the Jiws. They wear the same clothes: coloured shirts with slogans in English and shorts. Here too, the children give their all to a game of football, and the tall palm trees in the square are the same as in the settlement. But they seem better fed, they play on a beautiful covered pitch, the houses have cement walls and their clothes are cleaner and less ragged.  Their lives seem easier, the people more supported and developed.  They don’t seem to be so caught between a rock and a hard place.

Mapiripan

CIJP’s bodyguards tell us that they rely on PBI’s presence for their security, and we can see it on their faces when they ask us: “Did you bring your flags to show your presence at the house?” Paramilitaries infest the whole region[6], but to us it seems pretty clear that while we are here, they won’t come near. Everything is ready now, for tomorrow’s walk to the sacred lake of Las Toninas.

Christophe


Footnotes:

[1] El Espectador: Contraloría pide que se investigue a Poligrow por acumulación de baldíos, 9 May 2017; El Espectador: Carlo Vigna Taglianti, director de la multinacional Poligrow, va a juicio, 6 May 2017
[2] CIJP: Los claro oscuros del grupo palmicultor Poligrow en Colombia, August 2015
[3] Somo & Indepaz: Reconquista y despojo en la Altillanura, November 2015
[4] CIJP: Crisis humanitaria de Indígenas Jiw, 3 March 2017
[5] Expression used by Colombian Security Forces to refer to visits by their patrols to protect people under threat.
[6] El Espectador: Víctimas de la masacre de Mapiripán, amenazadas por las Autodefensas Gaitanistas, 4 October 2016, Reports by Cijp: Urge presencia perimetral de fuerza pública, 6 April 2017; Presumible operación neoparamilitar,15 May 2017; Humanidad Vigente: Han pasado 20 años… De las masacres de Mapiripán al acaparamiento de tierras con daños ambientales ,7 July 2017

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