Mapiripan, part two: The sacred lake

Day breaks, shrouded in mist.  The PBI flags still hang on the house of human rights defender William Aljure, in the main square of the remote village of Mapiripan in Colombia’s eastern savannah. The farmer makes the most of the security our presence brings to take his five year old son, Juan Carlos, to school.  Holding his wife by the other hand, they walk along the bank of the Guaviare River at one end of the village, which ambles serenely under its misty veil. The six bodyguards protecting the Interchurch Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) – the organisation we are accompanying – step forward at the threshold of the house.  Chickens strut around the park in the square; once in a while they chase each other in a frenzied pursuit. The police come to visit for the second time.  They stop their truck in front of the house, looking more like a school bus because of the dozen young lads sitting in the truck’s bed, who weren’t allowed to bring their weapons, and are horsing around taking selfies with their mobiles.  They don’t seem like much, were they to confront the dark forces of Colombia, if that is their intention.

Mapiripan, part one: Jiw, August 2017

The Sikuani and Jiw indigenous delegations start to arrive for today’s march to the sacred lake of “Las Toninas”, which will reaffirm their right to these lands.  They sit on the bleachers of the square’s basketball court.  The Jiw are just a dozen adolescent boys, supervised by an adult.  They wear their everyday clothes, and some look like they’ve been sent on the march by their parents and aren’t taking part out of personal conviction. The Sikuani delegation is bigger, there are about fifty people of all sorts: women, men, youngsters, elderly.  They wear jewellery and carry traditional hunting weapons, some of them bearing the symbolic staffs of the indigenous guard who are the unarmed custodians of their territories.  The two groups approach the breakfast dish, a cooking pot filled with steaming sancocho, the comforting Colombian broth, with slices of beef, in the middle of the court; first the Sikuanis, then the Jiw.


The marchers gather with their signs “We indigenous people are forbidden from hunting and fishing”, “Las Toninas is an ethnic and forest reserve”, “Las Toninas lake is sacred to indigenous people”, “They prohibit us farmers from hunting, sowing crops and using our resources”, “We were born of the water”. I watch closely as a trusting chicken strolls up to a group of Sikuanis armed with bows and arrows.  When they notice it they suddenly turn towards it, drawing their bows. I look away to avoid seeing the chicken turned into a kebab, but the hunters break out laughing and lower their arrows.  They have been living alongside white society for over sixty years and they have got used to them. They know where to hunt and where not. If I’d had a bow and arrow I think I would have made the same joke.

Soon, houses become fields and signs start appearing “Hunting and fishing prohibited”.

A group of six policemen armed with rifles arrive to escort the march. No-one pays any attention to them and the march, or rather the “race” sets off.  Soon the Bogotanas and Gringas[1] are lagging at the back, out of breath, while the indigenous people fly ahead under the already hot sun. We go down to the port on the Guaviare River, walking through the village under the surprised gaze of the villagers who are taken aback by the indigenous people’s political demonstration. Soon, houses become fields and signs start appearing “Hunting and fishing prohibited”. Further along, the multinational company Poligrow’s industrial crops start. Endless rows of African oil palms covering hill after hill into the distance, reminding me of the vineyards near Bordeaux in my country, France, but here they are on a abhorrent scale. Finally, the land slopes down and we enter native woodland.  A narrow path leads us through leafy dense foliage, the air gets fresher and more humid. The indigenous people slow their pace, we are arriving.  We walk through the trees until, all of a sudden, clear water is at our feet. The sacred lake of La Toninas starts here.  On the edge of it the trees stretch their roots over the water and give us shade. There are no beaches, the ground is covered by trees all the way to the edge and beyond them is the vast blue-green expanse gently rippled by the breeze.  Climbing the branches and peering over, we can see the whole lake and its distant shores, which are even wilder and leafier. One the way here I had been wondering what a lake that is scared to indigenous people would look like. To my eyes it looks like a temple of nature, like a great green ring surrounding an emerald plain for some divine purpose.  The leafy shores prevent easy access, there are no boats or buildings in sight. It’s like the lake is turning its back to the people. It doesn’t really let you get near it, it gathers around itself, shrouding something more important, which you could reach from the inside. I understand why indigenous people see this place as the entrance to a different world or another dimension.  Like being in front of a vortex, being here draws us into a slightly hypnotic state of forgetfulness.  It is like we could get lost here and never find our way out.

Jiws and Sikuanis spread out around it, quite carefully, as if they are treading on foreign soil. Paramilitary violence has prevented them from accessing the lake for decades. The elders remember the place, from being here when they were young. But for all the young people the lake was just an enchanted place, a fantasy maybe, which lived on in old tales, its meaning vague, like the grotto at Lourdes or Fatima’s sanctuary to European Catholics.  Now they have it in front of their eyes, my impression is that many of them don’t know how to react. I feel as though what they are going through is like what happened to me when I was little and my mother took me to church: I instinctively felt a kind of respect for the place, but I wasn’t sure what I was doing there.  Some pull out lines and start to fish, without success. The leaders start a fire and a simple ritual to, I imagine, reconnect with the ethereal presences trapped there for decades under the heel of paramilitary boots.  The ritual is barely over and we hear a terrible clap of thunder. Everybody jumps, and in a few seconds the indigenous people scramble for the path, and get away from the lake.  A minute later the whole sky comes pouring down onto our heads: a tropical downpour where it’s hard to breathe without inhaling water, as if we are inside the lagoon, or it is stetching out a watery tentacle to drag us into the deep.


We run out of the forest, in a state of confusion, the African palms rise up ahead once again. I turn back one last time to see the forest and the wall of rainwater, which now retreats and stops.

That night, the procession arrives at a nearby farm whose owners invite us to eat and stay the night. I see a white bundle on the ground surrounded by four men. As I get closer I see that it is a cow, it isn’t moving and its horns are tied to its leg by a rope that stretches out its neck leaving its jugular exposed. One of the men crouches down and with a small jab of his knife he pierces the vein. No violence, no rush, and the blood flows, the cow begins to empty. I feel a wave of unease at how easy it is to take its life. I saw no show of force, no cry, no fight, nothing more than a jab no stronger than someone knocking at a door.  No particular emotion seems to perturb the men either, they just watch the dying cow, and wait. I wipe my hand over my neck. Is life that fragile? Is that how close we are to death? A small jab and that’s it? I think of the soldiers’ weapons, of the policemen we see on every street corner in this country, and the guns of the illegal armed groups, whose power of destruction bears no comparison to the point of that blade. Even the occasionally oppressive climate and the fragility of life in this country seem more palpable. The cow breathes deeply to calm itself, and also because with the loss of blood it must be starting to feel the fire of asphyxiation in its body.  Its effort is pathetic now, the flow of blood becomes intermittent, it surges only after each long breath. The very act of breathing to ward off death is what brings it ever closer, until there is only silence.


At the farm, the Sikuanis are preparing their fire and their camp. They brought hammocks and cooking equipment. The Jiws came with nothing, and they face the night, standing next to the fire knowing not where to sleep nor daring to ask for help.  The rest of us are given the privilege of sleeping on the floor of the owner’s rudimentary house. The people aren’t mixing, and the natives approach the house shyly, they know that in this society their place is outdoors. I pluck up the courage to ask: “Couldn’t the Jiws sleep in the empty room in the house?”  The owners say that it is best not, and in the end we lend them a tent.

We spend the next day at the farm meeting with the indigenous people, the farmers and the fishermen and women of Mapiripan to talk about the land grabs and the environmental damage they suffer.  Father Alberto of CIJP holds an ‘ecumenical’ mass for everyone.  The service starts with a song of the Plains sung by a farmer. The first notes are an unnerving cry, sung with the full force of his lungs in the small house we have all squeezed into, this time including the indigenous people. I cannot repress a smile when I see one of them run outside covering his ears and muttering “No, no, no…!”. The next songs are much gentler and warbling: they lightly shake some maracas in a low, repetitive rhythm.  This doesn’t seem like a mass so much as a homage to the Plains and a moving call to unity for those suffering from oppression and pillage. With a wide smile, Father Alberto preaches: “If the Jiws continue on one path, the Sikuanis on another, the farmers on another, and the fishermen on another … they will put an end to all of you!”

Throughout the day, the indigenous people come and go into the neighbouring woods to hunt in small groups.  Yesterday I was taken aback when the Jiw teenagers, without bows and arrows, suddenly left the march and ran into the woods, machetes raised, and came out minutes later with a palm bear[2] cut into pieces.  Whenever they are on the move through the forest they consider themselves to be hunting, even during political march like yesterday’s.  And if a prey appears, it immediately becomes a priority.

French PBI volunteer Christophe

The day is at an end, and with it the first indigenous return to Las Toninas. As we pack up to leave, heavy clouds gather and the day darkens.  The thunder starts up violently.  Flashes light up the sky and, again and again, lightning strikes the hill opposite, which is covered by row upon row of Poligrow’s African palms. It’s as if a mystical bombardment is being aimed at it. I can’t help but think of the indigenous ritual yesterday at the nearby lagoon.  Is some company employee defiling its shore?



[1] To use inclusive language, I have used the feminine to describe groups of mixed gender, “gringas” for example, means both gringas and gringos.
[2] An animal that resembles something between a baby European bear and an anteater.

Leave a Reply