Aerial photo of a sacred place for the indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon.
Image by Juan Gabriel Soler/Fundación Gaia Amazonas.

In the Colombian Amazon, Indigenous People Resist Threats To Their Territory

4 de Abril de 2021
*Vanessa Teteye and Edilma Prada.

Communities are trying to make their voices heard as mining companies and illegal prospectors eye up the region’s natural resources.

Robin Elkin Díaz Miraña, an Indigenous Macuna, works to preserve the 'purity' of the knowledge of the people who live in the Yaigojé Apaporis reserve in Colombia’s Amazonas and Vaupés regions. Miraña has spent over a decade fighting against the multinational mining companies and illegal dredgers who come to the area in search of gold and other natural resources that he sees as part of his ancestral wealth.

Yaigojé Apaporis, a territory of 1,056,023 hectares, is home to seven Indigenous groups: the Cabillarí, Tanimukas, Letuamas Yahunas, Yuhup, Barazano, Yauna and Macunas. A total of 22 communities live together among the mighty Pirá Paraná, Apaporis, Mirití Paraná, Caquetá and Vaupés river basins.

This territory is a natural complex of waterfalls and streams, "through which all the knowledge of the peoples flows", according to Robin. It is part of a larger region known as Jaguares del Yuruparí, an area of the Amazon jungle that stretches over eight-million hectares of the basin formed by the Vaupés and Caquetá rivers. There, different ethnic groups share the traditional rituals of the Yurupari, the ‘Laguna de Leche’ origin myth, and customs such as planting, cultivation of the chagra, fishing and hunting.

Today, Robin warns that this territory is at risk. As well as the threat of illegal gold mining, he worries that the Colombian government will grant a multinational company permission to mine, as it has done in the past. What’s more, COVID-19 is spreading among the region’s communities.

An indigenous Macuna fishing on the Apaporis River. 

Image by Juan Gabriel Soler/Fundación Gaia Amazonas.

“One of the most sacred sites in the Yaigojé Apaporis is La Libertad or Yuisi, because that is where the gods said it is the center of the world of all peoples,” said Robin, a community leader descended from two Amazonian cultures. (His father is Macuna and his mother belongs to another Indigenous group, the Miraña.)

Robin recalled that in 2007, the Canadian company Cosigo Frontier tried to mine for gold in La Libertad, a part of the reservation. This, he said, violated people’s fundamental rights, such as the right to be consulted beforehand, and divided the communities who live there. Although Cosigo obtained permission from the government to mine, it was ultimately prevented by the territory’s Indigenous authorities.

“When mining was threatened, people said: ‘mining in that place would be like destroying our knowledge, our lives.’ They stood in the way and said: ‘no, not this activity, nor any human activity is allowed there,’” said Robin. This struggle was guided through the words of the wise men and elders of the seven peoples who continue to live there, despite the hunt for resources that also include rubber, furs and timber, which threatens to displace them.

Indigenous person from the Yaigojé Apaporis reservation prepares traditional costume for an Amazonian ritual.

Image by Juan Gabriel Soler/Fundación Gaia Amazonas.

“These natural resources are important to us, for healing, dances and rituals, which is why we said that a national park must be created to protect this territory,” said Robin, who is territory and environment coordinator for the Yaigojé Indigenous leaders’ association, ACIYA.

Robin added that 2009, when local communities managed to prevent Cosigo from mining, and agreed to protect the region as a park, marked one of the most important steps taken.

Yaigojé Apaporis has undergone several changes. In 1988 a reservation with an area of 518,320 hectares was created. Then, in 1998, the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (Incora) expanded the territory to 1,020,329 hectares. Finally, in 2009, the reservation was designated a National Natural Park and extended to the current 1,056,023 hectares.

Robin said that the mining initiative also divided communities. Before 2007, ACIYA was the only Indigenous association, but according to Robin, the Canadian company’s actions led to the formation of ACITAVA, an association that represents communities on the Vaupés side of the reservation.

“The company started to misinform communities, to try to convince them of the advantages of a mining project,” said Sergio Vásquez, a legal advisor for the Gaia Amazonas Foundation, an organization that supports Indigenous communities. “They disrupted the political process of the communities, and so two Indigenous associations were created in order to torpedo the consultation and the creation of the park.”

In 2014, Colombia’s constitutional court ruled that Cosigo had conducted “a possible disinformation campaign” to persuade communities of the benefits of mining.

From this experience, the communities learned that large mining companies can harm their culture and collective dynamic, and for this reason, they are now more united. Communities in the Vaupés region who formed ACIYAVA decided to work together with the Amazonas organization ACIYA.

Robin said that this helps preserve communities’ organizational strength, as well as their culture, languages and beliefs. In addition to his own Macuna language, Robin understands and speaks some of the seven local indigenous languages: Tanimuka, Letuama, Cavillarí, “and a little Yukuna”.

Mining permits and 'sick' rivers

The inhabitants of Yuruparí, who sow yucca, weave baskets from the fibres of palms that grow in the jungle, and sing sacred prayers, have other things to worry about today. The threat of mining continues, particularly from illegal prospectors who dredge the rivers to extract gold, using mercury that contaminates the water. They also see that the government continues to grant mining permits elsewhere.

Robin Elkin Díaz Miraña explains new regulations to the Indigenous community of Providencia, in the Yaigojé Apaporis reservation.

Image by Juan Gabriel Soler/Gaia Amazonas Foundation.

In the Colombian Amazon, in the midst of the pandemic last June, regional authorities detected several illegal dredging rafts on the Puré and Purité rivers, according to Sousa Valencia, Secretary of Agriculture of the Amazonas Governor's Office. Emergency intervention from the police and other officials “allowed the destruction of these rafts and the seizure of some items related to the activity,” said Valencia.

Ten rafts being used for gold extraction were reportedly destroyed in the Puré National Natural Park. Meanwhile, Indigenous inhabitants warn that dredging continues in the lower part of the Caquetá River.

In addition, 54 mining permits were granted across the Amazon region, in the departments of Amazonas, Caquetá, Guainía, Guaviare, Putumayo and Vaupés, between 2014 and November 2020, according to a response to a freedom of information request by Agenda Propia to the National Mining Agency. In Vaupés, a permit has been issued for coltan mining, a decision criticised by Indigenous leaders who say that they were not properly consulted, according to the report “Defenders of the Sacred Hills”, which was published by Agenda Propia.

Jirijirimo waterfall, on the Yaigojé river, in Colombia’s Amazonas department.

Image by Juan Gabriel Soler/Gaia Amazonas Foundation.

These various pressures on the lives of Indigenous people come in addition to COVID-19. Amazonas was a major centre of the outbreak in southern Colombia. The area of La Pedrera, which forms the gateway to Yaigojé Apaporis, had the second-worst infection rate in the region. As of 12 January 2021, the Colombian National Institute of Health reported 3,337 cases and 127 deaths in the Amazon.

The Indigenous authorities of Yaigojé Apaporis advised people not to visit La Pedrera, to avoid catching the virus. Faced with this situation, many families decided to take temporary refuge in the jungle. Indigenous elders, however, believe that the disease is the result of the imminent abuse of nature.

“Entering sacred sites, removing materials, trees is what generates damage and that is why nature is taking its toll on us,” said Robin. “The elders want to give this disease back to the earth, so that it does not sprout again,” said Robin, referring to their beliefs.

Environmental leadership 

Robin Elkin Díaz Miraña on the Apaporis River, in the Yaigojé Apaporis park reservation, Amazonas Department, Colombia.

Image by Juan Gabriel Soler/Fundación Gaia Amazonas.

Faced with multiple threats, the inhabitants of Yaigojé Apaporis turned to cultural and spiritual practices, as well as finding ways for their leaders to speak out in defence of their ancestral home. For Robin and the Jaguares del Yuruparí this place is considered a great maloca, a large ancestral hut where communities hold meetings and which functions as the centre of the community’s social life. In Macuna and Barazano language, this translates as ɨbiari.

One protective measure in place since 2018 is the Special Management Regime (REM), a function of Colombia’s national parks regulations that designates Yaigojé Apaporis a protected area of special character. Under this policy, taking care of the environment is shaped by the ancestral knowledge of the Indigenous inhabitants.

On 30 November 2018, inhabitants formed the Indigenous Council of Yaigojé Apaporis, in accordance with the Colombian Decree Law 632 of 2018. This legal tool allows Indigenous peoples to function as a public body and exercise autonomy over the use of their economic, political and territorial resources.

Struggle and resistance has helped Robin and others to make their voices heard. He is a leader who has inherited the wisdom of his ancestors, including his father, who was one of the first Macuna wise men.

For Robin, honouring his father’s memory involves preserving and living in harmony with nature and sacred places, even with society itself. “Life is my territory and my culture. That will always be in me and in my spirit,” said Robin, contemplating the horizon as he steered his boat along the Apaporis River.

*Vanessa Teteye is a journalist and Bora indigenous. Edilma Prada is an investigative journalist and director of Agenda Propia.

This story is part of the serie Destellos del Amazonas, coordinated in Latin America by DemocracyAbierta. In Colombia, the intercultural team of Agenda Propia participated with the involvement of indigenous journalists. The series is supported by the Rainforest Journalism Fund of the Pulitzer Center. We appreciate the testimonies and graphic material provided by members of the communities portrayed in this story who remain isolated due to Covid-19.