The Embera Defending Their Sacred Territory

Traveling by horseback through the Bajo Atrato, between the departments of Antioquia and Chocó, is the “Careperro” or Jaika tuma mountain, revered a sacred site for the Embera Eyabida Indigenous peoles. Eyadia is translated as “mountain inhabitants.”[1] The Atrato River, which flows through both departments and into the Caribbean Sea, is inhabited by a multitude of Afro-Colombian, mixed-race, and Indigenous communities. Many of these communities are accompanied by the Justice and Peace Commission (JyP), an organization accompanied by PBI since 1994. Among these, along the banks of the Jiguamiandó River—a tributary of the Atrato—and close to the Jaika Tuma mountain, are eight communities[2] of Embera people who are organized in the Uradá-Jiguamiandó Indigenous Reservation. For them, the mountain is a sacred site and source of life, as it provides water and is where the jaibaná—traditional doctors—collect their medicinal plants.

Historically, the ethnic communities of the Bajo Atrato region have resisted the interests of diverse megaprojects promoted in their ancestral territories. The actions of the banana, palm, and mining industries, which contributed to the dispossession of the communities’ territories, has had a common denominator—stomping on ancestral rights, committing grave human rights violations, and generating environmental impacts in their territories.[3] In fact, some of these companies—which are an additional element in the armed conflict’s already complex web—have been investigated and, occasionally even convicted, for collaborating with paramilitary groups in the region.[4]

Amid the context of a major armed presence that acts in connivance with extractive interests, Argemiro Bailar received numerous threats and attacks against his life as one of the most emblematic leaders of the Uradá-Jiguaminadó Reservation and a member of the highest governance body of the Indigenous authority—the Major Council.[5] The Indigenous leader is well known for his defense of the territory, peace, and the protection of his culture and cosmovision. Precisely due to the risks generated by his peaceful resistance, in 2019 he was “sponsored” by the Embassy of Ireland, in the context of the program #Defendamos la Vida[6] (We Defend Life), a European Union plan to protect at-risk leaders.

However, the threats and attacks are not only targeting leaders. According to Argemiro, the communities themselves have been historically affected by “the systematic human rights violations, the presence of illegal armed groups, and extractive operations that have damaged the territory.”[7] For that reason, in 2010 the communities of the Uradá-Jiguamiandó Reservation were granted precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).[8] In 2017 they were granted precautionary measures by the Land Restitution Agency,[9] and in 2019 precautionary measures were granted by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP),[10] after they were recognized as victims in Case 004, which addresses human rights violations committed in the context of the armed conflict in the Urabá region (including the inhabitants of the Uradá-Jiguamiandó Reservation). Despite the numerous protection measures granted in favor of the communities, they continue to experience serious human rights violations such as: massacres, forced disappearances, illegal land appropriation, gender-based violence, and sexual violence.

Despite an intensification of the armed conflict, the communities of the Urada-Jiguamiandó Reservation continue to live in harmony with their natural environment. The Embera people know that mining damages the aquifers, pollutes the soil, water, and air, and reduces the biodiversity; and that all this leads to a serious risk of displacement and cultural uprooting.

In the case of the Jaika Tuma mountain, geologic research in the 1970s verified that the sacred mountain held a wide variety of natural resources, being rich in gold, copper, and other minerals. Since then, multiple foreign companies have made offers to the Colombian government to explore and extract there.[11] In early 2005, the “Mandé Norte” mining megaproject was established, within which the Governor’s Office of Antioquia granted nine mining exploration and extraction titles to the Canadian multinational Muriel Mining Corporation to mine gold, copper, and molybdenum on 16,000 hectares of land in the departments of Antioquia (municipality of Murindó) and Chocó (municipality of Carmen del Darién).[12] A significant part of the mining concession was on the Embera people’s Indigenous Reservation, including the sacred mountain.

The Muriel Mining Corporation’s activities, which began in 2009, generated a fierce opposition from the ancestral communities who organized to defend their sacred territory. According to the Justice and Peace Commission, at the time the communities reported that “the use of deforestation, illegal mining, and cocaine production by bad-faith occupants generated an imminent risk of displacement.”[13] For that reason, they filed a tutela (writ of protection of constitutional rights) in defense of their rights and the Constitutional Court ordered a suspension[14] of mining activities. Ruling T-769 of 2009,[15] issued by the Court in favor of the communities, demonstrated the project’s serious problems, which included a complete lack of consultations with several communities, supplanting Indigenous and Black authorities in some stages of the consultation, and a lack of adequate dissemination of project information.[16]

A decade later, the Justice and Peace Commission reported an increase in territorial disputes as well as murders and attacks against the Bajo Atrato’s civilian population while the transnational company, Minera Copper SAS, executes projects in the region. As was reported by the communities themselves,[17] this company—which signed an agreement with Muriel Mining Company in 2015 and was able to transfer the aforementioned titles—is currently trying to coopt some leaders from the region to simulate a prior consultation. There is a risk that this could break down the internal social fabric and lead to a re-initiation of extractive activities on the sacred mountain and surrounding territories.

All of this is occurring amid an escalation of combat operations in the region, as the Justice and Peace Commission alerted to starting in early 2021. Currently, the ethnic communities are under the constant control of armed men from the Gaitan Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AGC)—a group that arose out of the paramilitary structure—in its fight against the National Liberation Army (ELN). Amid massive militarization, the dispute for territorial control has caused repeated human rights violations and international humanitarian law infractions, including threats,[18] torture,[19] kidnappings,[20] homicide attempts with bombs,[21] the planting of anti-personnel mines, forced displacement,[22] the recruitment of minors, and sexual violence.[23] In addition to these serious incidents, on 16 September 2021, Dilio Bailarín was murdered. He was an Embera leader of the Uradá-Jiguamiandó Reservation and in the weeks that followed his death over 1,000 individuals from the reservation stated that they were under confinement[24] and twelve families were forcibly displaced from the community of Coredocito to the Alto Guayabal Humanitarian Reservation.[25] The leader’s murder has yet to be resolved by authorities. In Chocó, impunity rates are very high, with only 2% of the cases reaching the investigation phase in 2019.[26]

In this context and after holding an assembly at the end of last year, the community of the Uradá Jiguamiandó Reservation issued a public communication rejecting the mining exploration and operations.[27] The Embera people forcefully stated that “any type of business operation carried out in their territories will be stained with the blood of the Jiguamiandó Indigenous communities who have been victims of actors armed who have generated displacements, confinement, threats, and murders.”[28] The Embera people have achieved food sovereignty (something that is necessary as there are no readily accessible roads and travel by speed boat is very expensive), they collect the medicinal plants they need to heal themselves, fish in the river, and protect their natural habitat from contamination, as the communities are the only ones who protect the territory.

The communities maintain their position on respecting their identity, uses and customs, peace, and territory, on projects that ignore their rights, and they also call for a Global Humanitarian Agreement[29] that signifies a ceasefire and new peace dialogues that include the multiple armed actors who remain in the territories. It is urgent to listen to the more than 150 Colombian communities, including the communities near the Jaika Tuma mountain, who, along with JyP, promote a peace proposal from their territories. They protect their land from environmental impacts as they fight for peace, Indigenous sovereignty, and against the ecological crisis.

PBI Colombia.

[1] Organización Nacional Indigenas de Colombia (ONIC): Pueblos Indígenas de Colombia.

[2] Bidoquera Ancadia, Jaibia Coredorcito, Alto Guayabal, Chansodo, Ibudo, Padado, Dearade, Urada: Comisión de Justicia y Paz, 25 September 2021.

[8] Ibid.

[10] Comisión Colombiana de Juristas: Auto SRVR – Caso 004 – 175 del 30 de julio de 2019, 30 July 2019.

[14] Enviromental Justice Atlas: Proyecto Mandé Norte, Murindó, Colombia, 2014.

[15] Corte Constitucional: Sentencia T-769/09, 29 October 2009.

[16] Enviromental Justice Atlas: Proyecto Mandé Norte, Murindó, Colombia, 2014.

[18] Comisión de Justicia y Paz: Emberá desaparecido y líderes indígenas amenazados , 12 September 2021.

[19] Comisión de Justicia y Paz: Paramilitares maltratan, amenazan y saquean a indígena, 21 February 2021.

[20] Comisión de Justicia y Paz: Indígena Emberá es liberado, 18 October 2020.

[21] Comisión de Justicia y Paz: Declaración de confinamiento del Resguardo Urada Jiguamiando CAMERUJ, 25 September 2021.

[23] Indepaz: ALERTA TEMPRANA N°009-2020, 6 March 2020.

[24] Comisión de Justicia y Paz: Declaración de confinamiento del Resguardo Urada Jiguamiando CAMERUJ, 25 September 2021.

[25] Comisión de Justicia y Paz: Desplazamiento de familias indígenas de Coredicito, del resguardo Alto Guayabal, 25 September 2021.

[26] Pares Fundación Paz y Reconciliación: Informe La impunidad subnacional en Colombia y sus dimensiones, October 2019.

[29] Comisión de Justicia y Paz: CartAbierta 32 – A pesar de los pesares, el país si está cambiando, 12 October 2021.

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