By Samantha Wherry and Evan King
When traveling on a boat to Pichima Quebrada, a small Wounaan indigenous community located along the River San Juan in Colombia's Pacific region, one's senses are overwhelmed by the lush flora, fauna, and the smell of fresh air. One feels an instant reconnection with nature that perhaps is lost when living in the city. The river and its surroundings teem with life and richness. The indigenous Wounaan women point to the werregue palm trees whose fibers they use for traditional basket weaving; they point to the crabs hiding in the roots of the mangroves that they eat during crab catching season. They explain that the land gives them all they need and, in return, they take care of it. As we approach Pichima Quebrada, the women point to their cemetery, a sacred site they have not been able to visit for over two months. With the tranquility of the river, it is hard to imagine that in this same place, violence reared its head just two months ago.
On June 2nd, the Wounaan community found themselves caught in the middle of a crossfire between FARC dissidents and the ELN, guerrilla forces that are still active in Colombia despite a peace agreement signed between the national government and the FARC in 2016. The day after this confrontation, fearing for their safety, 95 families and a total of 417 people were forced to leave their territory and seek refuge in the nearby municipality of Santa Genoveva de Docordó, located at the southern end of the Chocó department and inhabited largely by an Afro-Colombian population. They took only the clothes they were wearing.
After more than 100 days of being forcibly displaced from their ancestral land, the indigenous Wounaan community of Pichima Quebrada says they are ready to return home. “We must return soon in order to continue our activities that our Mother Earth grants us as Wounaan peoples. That is what we want,” said a displaced member of the indigenous reservation of Pichima Quebrada.
However, the Colombian government has failed to guarantee of return or access to basic human rights such as security, food, and healthcare — a common occurrence for communities suffering displacement.
This is not the first time that Pichima Quebrada has experienced forced displacement. In April 2016, the community was forced to flee their homes after a U.S-made, Colombian army helicopter began firing high-caliber rounds near their village, causing the displacement of 457 community members belonging to 95 families.
Pichima Quebrada sits on a strategic site for armed groups that use the San Juan River as a corridor for drug trafficking. Communities living along the river have systematically been subjected to violence and confinement over the years as various groups vie for control of the corridor. First, the river was used by the FARC, then right-wing paramilitary groups and the ELN; now, the corridor is frequented by an increase in dissident ex-FARC combatants, three years after the signing of the Peace Agreement.
This past August, the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective’s Colombia International Team was part of an international observation mission to verify the state of the three shelters in Docordó, where Wounaan families are currently living. Our team was able to observe the shelters’ utter state of decay, where the displaced community members lack proper access to food and clean drinking water.
Overcrowding in the shelters has resulted in the outbreak of infectious diseases including respiratory infections, skin rashes, and diarrhea. These illnesses disproportionately affect young children and the elderly, and have already resulted in the death of a one-year-old child.
Many members of the community also showed signs of severe psychological trauma after their community was attacked by illegal armed groups. The shootings lasted over two hours, according to members of the community, with several bombs also being detonated, including one near the local elementary school.
The presence of illegal armed actors in the San Juan River has not only put the lives of the Wounaan people at risk, but also their customs and traditional practices, as seen time and time again with the displacement of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.
The Colombian government’s failure to provide mechanisms for community protection not only risks lives, but also compounds experiences of psychological trauma and damages communities’ social fabric. These failings underscore a systematic devaluation of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian lives that the implementation of the Peace Agreement has yet to address.
The displacement has significantly disrupted the community’s traditional way of life. The art of basket weaving and jewelry making is a vital part of Wounaan culture, and women pass on weaving techniques to their daughters. Since the community was forced to flee their home, women have not been able to weave. Furthermore, traditional doctors have not been able to treat members of the community as they do not have the medical plants needed. The native language, Woun Meu, of the Wounaan people has been declared at risk of extinction, putting their culture in danger.
The Wounaan people have lived in the San Juan river basin for over 5,000 years. Roughly 9,000 people identify themselves as Wounaan, most of whom are concentrated in the Southwestern Chocó department along Colombia’s Pacific coast.
In Colombia, forced displacement disproportionately affects indigenous people, who account for nearly 6% of total displacements since 2016, when the Peace Agreement between the FARC and national government was signed, despite indigenous people only representing 3.3% of Colombia’s total population. According to a report presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2018, out of the 102 indigenous groups that exists in Colombia, at least 65% are at risk of extinction, including the Wounaan.
According to the National Victims Unit, a State entity for identifying and providing reparations to victims of the armed conflict, at least 400,000 people have been expelled from their land since 2016, with more than 42,000 identifying as indigenous.
"It is important to start calling things for what they are. We are talking about an ethnocide followed by ecocide. We are talking about the cultural and physical death of entire societies."
Said Santiago Mera, a human rights activist working with the Inter-Church Commission of Justice and Peace. Mera added that
“the critical situation of confinement and forced displacement in Bajo Calima and the San Juan river basin, in the case of the indigenous reservation of Pichima Quebrada, is further proof of this”
Since the signing of the Peace Agreementin 2016, the U.S government has spent over 1 billion dollars on military and “anti-narcotic” assistance in Colombia, further militarizing indigenous communities like Pichima Quebrada to the detriment of its inhabitants who have been subjected to harassment, arbitrary searches, and even illegal confiscations of property by the Colombian armed forces who operate in the region.
Several displaced residents of Pichima Quebrada state that they witnessed members of Colombian armed forces illegally breaking into their homes and taking their property while using the village as an unofficial military encampment, all of which is prohibited under international humanitarian law. Residents of the San Juan River also expressed seeing suspicious vehicles navigating the river freely despite heavily armed military checkpoints going in and out of the river.
The Fuerza de Tarea Titan (Titan Task Force), a special military unit, which Solidarity Collective International Team members observed operating in the river, has faced serious accusations of systemic corruption by several members of the military who served in the force, including allegedly making deals with illegal miners and narco-traffickers. Furthermore, General Diego Villegas, who headed the Titan Task Force from 2016 to 2018, was involved in a number of extrajudicial killings, most recently in the case of a demobilized FARC combatant, Dimar Torres, in Northeastern Colombia.
This spike in military presence in the San Juan river basin comes as several FARC commanders defected on mass from the 2016 Peace Agreement on August 29th, citing the government's failure to adhere to the core components of the deal as their primary reason for abandoning the peace process.
In his response to this mass defection, far-right Colombian President, Ivan Duque, signaled his intent to frame the issue as one of drugs or even terrorism by labelling the insurgency as “narco-terrorist” supposedly backed by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. This framing will allow the Colombian government to persuade U.S lawmakers to approve even greater amounts of military assistance in the context of the “War on Drugs” the “War on Terror” and now, the escalating geopolitical battles against left-wing governments across Latin America.
A breakdown in the Colombian Peace Agreement and an escalation in Colombia’s counterinsurgency war, will only exacerbate the high rates of violence being leveled on indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities across the Southwestern Pacific. A return to major military operations by the Colombian armed forces, equipped with billions in U.S military aid, could further push Colombia’s indigenous peoples to the brink of extinction.