- The Yurí and the Passé are the two indigenous tribes identified as living in a natural state in the Colombian Amazon. There are indications that some 15 other such tribes exist in the region.
- Mercury from illegal gold mining contaminates the rivers surrounding the protected area where the Yurí and the Passé live in isolation.
- In addition to the contamination, mafia groups and attempts by evangelists at making contact threaten the isolated tribes.
The Yurí and the Passé are the two known isolated indigenous groups living in Colombia. They live in the department of Amazonas, in the southern part of the country, on 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of forestland that makes up Río Puré National Natural Park, a protected zone created in 2002 for the purpose of safeguarding them. As they move through the forest, illegal miners, indiscriminate loggers, groups on the fringes of the law, and even religious evangelists trying to convert them lurk not far away, putting the groups’ way of life at risk.
Although it’s difficult to truly understand their problems, experts consulted by Mongabay Latam say they’re probably very similar to those faced by the majority of indigenous communities in the department of Amazonas, which borders Brazil to the east and Peru to the west. Robinson López, human rights coordinator for the National Organization for Indigenous People of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC by its Spanish acronym), said the Witoto, an indigenous group in the area that is in contact with the outside world, “are slowly dying” from mercury pollution left by illegal mining. He fears the same is happening to the isolated tribes.
The harm being done by illegal mining in Amazonas is immeasurable; little by little, it is cornering all the indigenous communities, including the Yurí and the Passé. Alexander Alfonso, head of Río Puré National Natural Park since 2011, said he mourns the fact that the authorities’ activities are concentrated on the edge of the Colombian Amazon in the departments of Guaviare and Caquetá, where deforestation is progressing at an alarming rate. “They don’t focus much on this side,” he said.
He said he’s concerned, and with good reason. Together with 14 other civil servants, he aims to protect the million hectares of rainforest in the reserve from criminal mafias, comprised of Colombians, Brazilians and Peruvians, who journey deep into the rainforest, via the rivers, and steal the gold concealed by the Amazon.
“In 2016, we built [just] one cabin along the entire border with Brazil in order to be able to detain illegal miners arriving in this country via the Puré River,” Alfonso said. “There are always three civil servants confronting this problem. It’s a risk, but we have no other option.” He said he has counted up to 35 gold rafts and dredgers in the river, which runs between the tributaries of the Caquetá River and Putumayo River basins and continues toward Brazil.
A problem foretold
This is not a new issue. For more than 18 years, the intermittent presence of illegal miners has been reported in the area. Between 1999 and 2002, along the borders of Cahuinarí National Natural Park, which neighbors Río Puré National Natural Park, a spate of illegal mining was documented by government agencies such as the national parks authority and the national Ombudsman’s Office. In just one joint action those agencies reported 26 rafts extracting alluvial gold along a roughly 430-kilometer (270-mile) stretch of the Caquetá River, which marks Río Puré National Natural Park’s northern border, between the towns of Puerto Santander and La Pedrera. Although the intensity of the mining invasion subsequently dropped, occasional entries into Cahuinarí National Natural Park were again reported in 2012 [pdf].
Almost two decades since the presence of this criminal activity was first reported, illegal miners continue their foray into the territory. Pollution from the mercury they use to extract gold from sediment is contaminating the water sources that supply all the indigenous communities, including the isolated villages. In 2015, a number of organizations, including the national parks authority, the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Southern Amazon (CorpoAmazonia), USAID, the Amazonas state government, the University of Cartagena and the University of Bogotá Jorge Tadeo Lozano, came together to assess the impact of illegal mining on the people living next to the Caquetá River.
The study revealed that the inhabitants of various Caquetá River communities had mean concentrations of mercury in their systems of between 15.4 and 19.7 micrograms per gram, or parts per million — extremely high compared with international standards indicating that a normal concentration is just 1 part per million. “These concentrations indicate a definite widespread problem along the river … They are the highest readings reported for Colombia,” the study reads.
If things aren’t looking great for the Caquetá River region, neither are they for the Putumayo River region, and in particular for the nine indigenous communities of the Cotuhé Putumayo Reserve there. A study carried out there by the Amazonas government’s Department of Health in 2016 determined that 75 percent of the subjects presented with higher-than-acceptable mercury concentrations in their hair. Of four women the researchers examined whose children had some form of mental impairment, three had excessive mercury in their systems, suggesting, albeit inconclusively because of the small sample size, that the pollution may be having severe consequences for the community’s health and well-being.
López, of OPIAC, confirmed the report’s finding and added that there have been complaints indicating that some children from the populations living by the Putumayo River and in the lower section of the Caquetá River could be being born with malformations. He said the plight of these villages gives cause for concern about the isolated tribes, primarily because the rainforest that shelters them feeds off three rivers that are polluted with mercury: the Caquetá, the Putumayo and the Puré.
The task of combatting illegal mining is not an easy one. The rivers are very large with many branches that are difficult to police. The Caquetá River is more than 2,200 kilometers (1,360 miles) long and the Putumayo exceeds 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles).
“The miners move around a lot at night, they look for specific times,” said César Parra, the general in charge of the National Army’s Sixth Division, which operates in the region. “Sometimes they go out to work when it’s raining, as they know the Air Force’s crafts can’t fly in those conditions. And they use small rafts to hide themselves easily.” The Army has formed alliances with the Marine Infantry and the Air Force to confront the problem, Parra said.
In Amazonas, everyone does what they can. While the Armed Forces sporadically deploy operatives to deter illegal mining, Darío Silva, president of the Indigenous Authorities of Pedrera-Amazonas (AIPEA), said that his community, the 212,000-hectare (523,900-acre) Curare Los Ingleses Reserve neighboring Río Puré National Natural Park, installed a control point last year to prevent the influx of miners and any other persons not native to the protected area, with the purpose of safeguarding the isolated populations.
“Some rafts wanted to enter the Caquetá River… but they were forbidden from doing so,” Silva said. “The idea is that we are the first to make contact with the isolated tribes, should they decide to leave [the reserve].”
Silva said he believes all reserves should include the isolated villages in their management plans, as his community did by way of a resolution in 2013. “We must set aside an area for them, not only for the Yurí and the Passé, but we know there are others throughout Mirití-Paraná township, the Chiribiquete [National Natural] Park and close to our Witoto friends throughout Araracuara, in Puerto Santander,” he said.
While illegal miners pollute the water and the fish that the isolated indigenous populations consume, illegal loggers fell the trees that give them refuge. “There are Colombians and Peruvians who exit authorized places and enter the protected zones in order to cut down the forest without permission,” said Patricia Suárez, an indigenous Murui from Amazonas department who has been supporting the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia’s (ONIC) Office for Human Rights since 2016. Suarez served as a delegate to support the technical and political aspects of the creation of Decree 1232, passed in July 2018, which seeks to protect the country’s isolated populations.
While all mining carried out in Amazonas is illegal, the extraction of wood is permitted to some extent. Since 2011, a forestry reserve of 424,000 hectares (over 1 million acres) between the Puré and Putumayo rivers has been defined by CorpoAmazonia, which has permitted two associations and three individuals to extract forest resources from 8,000 of these hectares (nearly 20,000 acres). The problem, as the area’s indigenous groups warn, is that some people are using these permits to simply dodge the authorities and gain access to prohibited areas. Suárez described reports of loggers arriving in areas used by the isolated populations. This, she said, is her greatest concern.
Alfonso, the manager of the Río Puré park, said he favors there being an area of the reserve where wood can be legally extracted but regrets that CorpoAmazonia is unable to exercise enough authority to control illegal logging. “It is difficult to exercise governance in these areas,” he said. The permits CorpoAmazonia grants last for five years and the area is difficult to access, so representatives of the environmental authority travel every six months to monitor licenses. Anything can happen during their absence.
Luis Fernando Cueva, manager of CorpoAmazonia’s Amazonas territory, made it clear that his organization does carry out monitoring, but acknowledged that there is no shortage of illegal activity. “We are receiving reports advising that other people are illegally benefiting, unrelated to those who are authorized to do so,” he said. “This is happening in areas adjacent to these sites. When this occurs, what we do is coordinate with the Armed Forces to get to these places.” He added that he also knows of indigenous communities that allow illegal loggers to access the reserves to cut down trees.
The days of the outsiders
This human barrier the indigenous communities have created around the isolated villages to fight those who come in search of gold and wood also tries to prevent the entry of evangelicals. Christian groups have tried to make contact with the isolated populations on several occasions since the 1970s, up to the present day. For Suárez of ONIC, López of OPIAC, Silva of AIPEA and Alfonso of Río Puré park this is a significant risk — and it is perhaps the most difficult to control.
Alfonso told how, since 2015, park authorities have been receiving solid reports of religious groups around the reserve areas’ sand bars, the limits of river travel. “For example, as far as we know, the Baptist Church continues with the idea of sharing God with the isolated people. They have not withdrawn,” Alfonso said.
Members of the NGO Amazon Conservation Team’s (ACT) Colombia program and the indigenous communities came together on two occasions to prevent this potential intervention. “The interest of some groups in making contact with the isolated populations is a threat, especially if it is taken into consideration that the isolated are very susceptible to the illnesses that outsiders may bring in,” said Carolina Gil, ACT’s director. “A few evangelical groups are interested in contacting them, and we have worked hard with the different government agencies to prevent this from happening,” she said.
The first missionary to arrive in this region was Donald Fanning, from the Baptist Church, who lived in the township of La Pedrera between 1974 and 1978. Fanning frequently traveled in his light aircraft over the forests of Amazonas to provide health care to the indigenous communities. According to the book Cariba Malo by the late political scientist Roberto Franco, in one of his flyovers Fanning noticed six isolated maloca houses, of different types, in the Puré and Bernardo river basins. From that moment on he was determined to convert the people who lived there to Christianity and to also teach them to use items useful to people living in the outside world, such as hammocks and mosquito nets. The information filtered through about what he was planning to do, and the Colombian Institute of Anthropology intervened and banned the expedition.
Guaranteeing the right of the communities to remain in isolation is fundamental, especially to avoid repeating the story of the Nukak Makú, a nomadic people contacted by missionaries of the Nuevas Tribus Mission sect in 1981. The contact led to them contracting illnesses, and the arrival of the now-defunct FARC guerrilla group forced them to abandon their territory, which was then overrun with anti-personnel mines. Now they are on the brink of extinction.
Corridors of violence
Silva of AIPEAand the Curare Los Ingleses Reserve told how on many occasions he heard ex-FARC guerrillas say they had seen the isolated indigenous people from afar. Despite the armed group seeming to have had a level of respect toward these populations, in Silva’s opinion it was still worrying that they were so close. With the signing of a peace agreement between the rebels and the government in November 2016, it was thought this matter would cease to be of concern. But that wasn’t the case. The Amazon become a battlefield in which groups on the fringes of the law fought over territory and corridors for taking drugs to other countries. The Yurí and Passé isolated indigenous populations were in the middle of all this fighting.
“Although the Los Caqueteños criminal group principally operates in Amazonas, there is also the presence of the old First Front of the FARC. They profit from taking wood and coca paste out through the rivers, which is an unlawful activity,” said Parra.
Rivers in Amazonas, such as the Apaporis and the Caquetá, are key to the armed groups as they enable them to access protected areas, move cocaine and weaponry, and provide a natural exit to Brazil, according to a report by the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP by its Spanish acronym). The presence of the First Front in Amazonas is alarming, first and foremost because it was one of the parent structures of the FARC guerrillas and because it continued to commit violent acts after the peace agreement, between 2016 and 2018.
In its investigation, FIP indicated that the First Front would be opening new drug-trafficking routes through the northern Amazonas department, specifically in a zone adjacent to Río Puré National Natural Park, home to the isolated indigenous people.
Suárez of ONIC said the most worrying thing is that by hijacking the territory, the illegal armed groups may harm the isolated people. “The FARC guerrilla had an ideology, there was someone who told them what to do and what not to do. This can’t be done with the dissidents, it is very difficult to achieve a consensus,” she said with sorrow.
Avoiding contact with outsiders is imperative. The isolated indigenous people know that the outside world is hostile. After all, the one time they associated with people from outside their community, there was death, violence and abduction. That episode occurred in 1969, when, in the middle of an expedition searching for animal skins, a hunter named Julián Gil chanced upon a Yurí maloca house. He entered the sacred house and since then, according to accounts, his whereabouts remain unknown. Several days after his disappearance, his work team and the authorities went in search of him. This armed rescue operation had a fatal ending: five members of the isolated indigenous group were killed and another six were arrested, and had to be freed two months later. It was Franco, the late political scientist and author, who managed to unite all the testimonies that proved the existence of the Yurí.
‘We’ll be killed defending what’s ours’
The fight to defend the indigenous territory continues unrelentingly. Suárez, of the Murui, and other indigenous Amazon leaders claim they are being killed for defending their forest and seeking an end to these criminal structures.
“Every day we report members of the communities who are dying to protect their territory, who are threatened and displaced, but nothing happens. This is a way of wiping us out. So, we decided if we are killed, we’ll be killed defending what’s ours,” Suárez said. She added that it feels as though Colombians haven’t understood that what is going on in the Amazon region and its villages affects the country’s entire population.
Carolina Gil of ACT agreed. The region, known as a lung of the world, is a large sponge saturated with water into which people are dumping mercury. Sooner or later, it will have an impact on the communities, the fauna and flora of this ecosystem. “The Amazon plays a very important role in terms of balance — including the climate — and the production of water. What is happening over there may affect the moorland system of the Andean region, from where the majority of Colombians take their water. It is seen as a very distant area, like a green stain on the map, but people have to understand that we are able to have safe drinking water thanks to the health of the Amazon,” she said.
While the authorities decide what action to take to stop the harm to the forest and the people living there, the communities are looking for a way to survive. Pollution is of such grave concern that, upon discovering the high levels of mercury in their bodies, some indigenous people are choosing to isolate themselves. Quite possibly, they noticed, the solution to their ills was to follow the example of the uncontacted isolated indigenous populations, like the Yurí. They decided to return to their own land as a way of persisting.
They are hoping nobody finds them.
Banner image by Cristóbal von Rothkirch, from the book Cariba Malo.
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