How oil, cocaine and armed conflict threaten the survival of the Awá people

18 de Abril de 2021
Vanessa Teteye and Edilma Prada.

'In our territories, the entry of different people and companies exploiting resources is advancing'.

Noel Amilcar Chapues Guevara and Julio Ricardo Solarte Ascuntar, indigenous Awá leaders, speak from the lands of the Ishu Awá reservation, very close to the Colombian Pacific coast, in the Cofanía Jardines de Sucumbíos district, in Ipiales, Nariño, on the border with Putumayo, where their grandparents arrived 30 years ago, displaced by the violence derived from the conflict with the guerrillas. 

"In our territories the entry of different people and companies that are exploiting resources such as gold, coltan (black earth), water, oil and timber is advancing," they both warn, while recording themselves on video with their cell phones in the hope that their voice will be heard, especially in these times when the pandemic is hitting them and isolating them.
 
The indigenous Awá, Julio tells us, have accumulated several historical stages fleeing from their ancestral lands in the jungle areas of the Pacific coast of Ecuador and Colombia, as a consequence of different forms of violence that date back to colonial times and reach up to the Colombian armed conflict. Forced to move from one place to another, the Awá have no territory of their own, and their settlements are often temporary and very small. This binational people currently inhabits an area of 610,000 hectares in the Andean-Amazonian border area, of which 480,000 hectares are in Colombia and 116,640 hectares in Ecuador.

According to the National Department of Statistics, DANE, on the Colombian side, the Awá number 44,516 indigenous people. Of these, 39,000 are in Nariño and 5,000 in Putumayo. 

The Awá preserve traditions such as living in elevated wooden houses. 

Image taken from video of the Awá territory.

The Awá consider themselves "people of the jungle and the mountains. They live from fishing and hunting, they grow yucca, plantain and corn, they work with basketry and preserve their mother tongue: Awapít. However, every day that passes they lose their customs and their territories are narrower. The reason is always the same: the presence of outsiders, who displace them in order to take their natural resources.
 
Julio comments that, for more than a decade, the struggles against oil exploitation have marked the path of the Awá. He recalls that in 2011, when they were in the process of titling the Ishu Awá reservation, they managed to prevent the construction of 74 wells for oil extraction. Their concern at the time was that the 5,800 hectares of their territory would be ceded to the oil companies and they would once again experience the pain of abandoning their lands. But in 2014, the oil industry's explorations were still ongoing, according to public prior consultation documents from the Ministry of the Interior. Today, in nearby areas, hydrocarbon exploitation continues.
 
Since 2011, they learned that they had to be informed and prepared to fight with adequate instruments. "Not only social protest, but in the legal issue, in education, in information so that they know our rights, and now in the environmental," says the leader.
 
The same is happening in the communities in Putumayo. Oil companies are present in nearby areas of almost all the reserves of the Awá, Nasa, Kofán, Pastos, Ingas and Embera Chamí ethnic groups. The map of hydrocarbon production at the territorial level, from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, EITI, of Colombia, shows the municipalities of Putumayo, in the south of the country, with areas in red that show oil extraction.

Noel adds that also in his community Awá Tatchan, in the Guamuez Valley, the oil interest continues, and the destruction of the environment caused by these exploitations has caused food shortages and hunting is limited. Noel says that the multinationals invade their spaces, their lands are close to the farms, and on several occasions there has been contamination of the rivers and streams by oil spills, seriously affecting the fauna and crops. 

"The squirrel, birds that we know as the panguana, and even fish, are no longer available. The bush meat, which was naturally consumed, is almost no longer seen, so the communities began to buy beef, pork or fattened chicken," says Noé with concern, because for him the new eating habits cause the indigenous culture to weaken dangerously.
 
Three years ago, continues Noé, "in the community of Mataje Alto, in Ecuador, the Great Awá Family issued a mandate against mining and industrial exploitation of resources or the elements of nature as we call them. In 2019, the mandate is again reinforced and in the demand for respect for human rights and in the defense of the territory", because they saw that both governments, the Ecuadorian and Colombian, "have continued to approve more and more titles for extraction in natural areas inhabited by us".
 
But in times of pandemic, their concerns grew. Now they fear that the need for economic reactivation of the countries will be realized through the acceleration of mining and oil concessions. They saw how, during the months of mandatory quarantine, from March to September 2020, oil extraction operations continued at full speed and they fear that they will continue at an even faster pace. The Awá leaders, in the video they recorded from their territory, made it clear that the only way to confront the problems caused by the different natural resource exploitations is through resistance and collective work. That is why they continue to strengthen their grassroots organizations.

Territory of the Awá people, southern Colombia.

Photo: Awá indigenous archive.

Awá's lands used by drug trafficking networks

In Colombia's Awá territories, the concern goes beyond oil exploitation. For some time now, their settlements and roads have become scenes of tension and threats. An early warning report by the Ombudsman's Office noted in October 2019 that the tension "is characterized by the confrontation between illegal armed groups that dispute the territory for the control of illicit use crops. The Awá people face a special situation of vulnerability." 
 
What is happening in Nariño and Putumayo is so serious that the voices of many indigenous leaders and youth have been violently silenced. The Institute for Development and Peace Studies, Indepaz, reported that in 2020 in those two regions 30 indigenous people were killed, most of them from the Awá people.

The lawyer, Olga Viviana Merchán García, from the Inkal Awá (Kacsati) cabildo of the municipality of Villagarzón, also an indigenous leader, assures that "most of our territories, not having their own production economy and being immersed in the capitalism of extracting resources, many have stopped planting their food, such as chiro, banana, corn, cassava and yota to plant coca. So, this is a situation that negatively affects everyone.

The indigenous people preserve the production of plantain and yucca, staple foods of their culture.

Image taken from video of the Awá.

With the coca crops in their communities come the state policies of forced eradication and fumigation with glyphosate. "That chemical is proven to not only affect the crop but the environment itself carries the chemical and damages other plants. Since 2015, when the plantations were fumigated, one sows, for example, cassava, and it comes out contaminated with fungi left by the glyphosate in the soil," Noel says. 

Eradication has not only affected the food security of the Awá, but has also led to confrontations with the security forces. The signing of peace between the former guerrilla of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government was an illusion for the Awá, as they have not seen an end to the conflict. "There are all kinds of illegal groups. We are worried about the non-compliance with the peace agreement." 

Even so, local authorities in Putumayo maintain that "after the agreement was signed, conditions have improved", as assured by the mayor of Villagarzón, José Andrés López Muñoz, who also says that the Awá territory "is affected with illicit crops" and that "it is the FARC dissidents who pass through that area (...) in a more sporadic way". Other officials contacted from the Governor's Office of Putumayo did not respond to the multiple calls made by this journalistic team to know the situation of the Awá people. 

"We are convinced that one day we will be calmer and we will not have these threats. The message is that we will not give up in the struggle, that we will continue defending life, territory and our people, our people", says Julio with hope.

The indigenous Awá people in Colombia and Ecuador seek to create a natural corridor.

Image taken from video of the Awá territory.

On the way to create the binational Awá reserve

While showing the magnificent mountain range that unites Colombia and Ecuador, Noel and Julio know that one of the ways to protect their survival is to preserve the rainforest. For this reason, they have several projects such as reforesting 350 hectares, and getting a territory of approximately 40 and 50 thousand hectares of primary forest declared as a binational reserve.

Noel explains that in the reforestation process they hope to plant timber, edible, fruit and medicinal plants to recover their own food. "It will benefit eight communities in the border integration zone, it will be a great step forward".

Regarding the large reserve project, the objective is to declare four conservation areas for the Great Awá Family in Colombia and Ecuador. "The organizations Unipa, Camawari, Fecae and Acipap are planning to create a binational conservation corridor of importance for our people," they hope to achieve this with the support of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.

This reserve zone will help safeguard their culture and beliefs. "We say that we are an element of life. So, the Awá have a strong relationship with the land, with the water, with the trees, with the animals, with the spirits, with everything that lives there. The territory will be monitored and guarded by indigenous Awá, and the intention is to create the Awá indigenous guard, so that the guardians will be the ones who support conservation," Noel concludes.

And so, from a traditional chagra where they grow plantain and yucca, basic subsistence products of the indigenous people, Julio and Noel raise their voices to denounce that, in the middle of a pandemic that nobody knows when it will end, the Awá are trapped between oil exploitation, illicit coca crops and illegal armed groups that dispute the territory. They know they are under serious threat. But they are still standing, and they are fighting.

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This story is part of our ‘Flares from the Amazon’ series, produced in the Amazon basin by DemocraciaAbierta. In Colombia, the intercultural team of Agenda Propia participated with the engagement of indigenous journalists. The series is supported by the Pulitzer Center's Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund. We appreciate the testimonies and graphic material provided by members of the Achuar communities portrayed in this story, who remain isolated due to COVID-19.