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Territory and the Environment on the Colombian Border: Indigenous and Campesinos Build an Alliance for Self-Defense

Andrew Willis Garcés
Date Published: 
July 1, 2009

To reach one of the Colombian indigenous tribes that overlaps with Venezuela, you first need to get to the town of Honduras, in the municipality of Convención in the Norte de Santander department. It is accessible by a precarious, one-lane dirt road hugging the eastern spine of the Andes Mountains; average speed, about 12 mph. From there you walk or, if you’re lucky, ride a donkey past acres of relatively new coca fields and forest being cleared for that pasture. After four hours you’ll arrive at the state Catatumbo-Barí Forest Reserve and the small village of Bridicayra, one of the few remaining indigenous Barí settlements.

Though hard to reach, the area is highly coveted by multinationals, some of which sent proxies this past January to a bi-annual assembly of Barí leaders, in hopes of enlisting them in the cause of resource exploitation. Twenty-three of all Barí towns were represented at the assembly in Bridicayra. Also in attendance were lawyers, environmental ministry officials, journalists, and documentarians. However the most unlikely guests the Barí shared space with during the assembly weren’t these urban professionals, but local campesinos.

In Colombia, campesinos are mostly non-indigenous family farmers who don’t necessarily share the Bari’s philosophy of collective ownership, much less their political unity. They have often been pitted against indigenous people by wealthy landowners and corporations. Yet despite being traditional rivals, the Bari and campesino communities have been driven to a partnership by common enemies, including lax Colombian regulatory agencies, multinational mining companies, and the US government.

Catatumbo:  site of struggle

The Catatumbo-Barí Forest Reserve is a land of mountains and valleys in the northeast of Colombia, running along the river that gives the area its name and which dumps into Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. Nearly every inch outside the reservation is under cultivation, mostly by subsistence farmers growing coca, cacao, yucca, plantains, and beans.

The Barí in Bridicayda relocated to the village ten years ago, one more involuntary move in many lifetimes of struggle for the tribe. As descendants of the Arawak, their range once extended uninterrupted along the Catatumbo River into Venezuela. The Spaniards, landed in the Maracaibo Basin in the early 16th century and famous for their “golden hallucinations,” decided the area’s frequent lightning strikes turned stone into gold and began to explore the region. Barí communities were forcibly displaced to make way for commercial routes and for the production of cacao.  Barí warriors engaged in open warfare with Spanish forces for over the next 200 years. Pressures declined somewhat after Simón Bolívar’s army expelled the royals in the early 19th century.

But in 1905 oil was discovered in Catatumbo, and by 1930 a Gulf Oil (now Exxon) subsidiary had drilling rights. A government contract signed with the company in 1931 made explicit government protection against armed Barí resistance: they’re referred to as “savages” in the document, and the federal government pledged to battle the natives with soldiers and police.

The Barí fought with spears and arrows for 50 years, but ultimately were forced to give up the vast majority of their land. They were massacred even as a wave of national mobilizations forced the government to set aside land for two reservations, where most of the Colombian half of the tribe has lived since. So blatant was the government policy of tribal eradication during this time that French ethnologist Robert Jaulin introduced the modern definition of “ethnocide” after observing the Bari’s decline in the 1960s.

Since first contact with Europeans, the number of Barí has shrunk 70 percent, and their territory down to 7 percent of its original size. Today there are fewer than two-dozen tribal villages in the region spread across five municipalities in remote areas. Less than 3,200 Barí remain, with another 9,000 across the border in Venezuela. The communities still rely on the same traditional agriculture, hunting, and fishing that have sustained them for centuries, although Western diseases and the persistent threat of forced displacement have made many more dependent on cacao as a cash crop.

Campesino legacy

While the Barí were being slowly massacred, across the country Colombia’s 30-year war between Liberal and Conservative Party forces was displacing families from their homes. Some families settled in the Catatumbo, and now call themselves colonos, or colonizers. These campesinos were offered up to 1,000 pesos by multinational companies for every indigenous person they killed, and were encouraged to push further into Barí land, creating a labor pool for future resource extraction efforts and helping undermine Barí resistance.

Insurgents have also come to inhabit the region in the last several decades, particularly guerrilla fighters with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), for whom Catatumbo is a refuge.

In 2002 paramilitaries—funded by business interests and seeking to break the insurgents’ base with scorched-earth tactics—began killing campesinos and setting villages ablaze, driving thousands of families to the cities of Cúcuta and Bucaramanga at the edges of the zone. Fed up with government neglect and official impunity as the killers paraded around highways, many campesinos organized formal refugee camps, squatting in public parks and occupying municipal buildings. It was here that the campesinos began to organize to give voice to the displaced, winning government attention and building alliances with other groups impacted by violence and state impunity.

Two years later, many campesino families decided to return home. A group of law students, who had given human rights workshops in the refugee camps, accompanied them. Through their work with the students, who went on to form the Luis Carlos Perez Law Collective, the campesinos also linked up to regional allies. Eventually, campesino leaders returned home to rebuild, everything uncertain.

At the same time they were heading home, the government-sponsored paramilitary demobilization (process of getting fighters to leave paramilitary groups) carried out in the first term of president Álvaro Uribe Vélez was changing the face of the armed right-wing presence in the region. Paramilitaries were replaced by a surge in army troops, who in fact, were ordered to go even harder against the rebels. The army began displaying bodies of executed alleged guerrillas. In reality, they were campesino civilians, murdered and used in a massive, nationwide body count fraud exposed last year, now known as the “false positives” scandal.

Betrayed and brutalized, the campesinos began organizing for self-defense, legally constituting the Campesino Association of Catatumbo (ASCAMCAT) in 2005 and signing up local Collective Action Committees as affiliates. The committees are the smallest unit of governance, and in many cases are the only organized government present in remote villages.

Unlikely alliance

Although preoccupied with defending themselves from extrajudicial executions, ASCAMCAT leaders also expanded their work with the legal collective to confront a new threat: multinational mining and oil companies. It was here that they found common ground with their indigenous neighbors.

In 2006, the government oil company Ecopetrol sent representatives to meet with the Barí, to ward off resistance to plans for eventual exploitation of the reserve. The Luis Carlos Perez legal collective had begun meeting with tribal leaders through mutual involvement in a regional human rights network, and discovered the company had told both indigenous and campesino leaders that their neighbors had been bribed off. As attorney Melissa Balisterio explained, “Both groups came to us and said, ‘Those guys are taking money from the company! They’re being bought off.’ Of course, none of it was true, the company wanted to split them apart." Seeking to build a bridge against a common enemy, the attorneys pushed for a meeting. “We said to each, ‘have you talked to them?’”

There are many obvious reasons for indigenous groups to avoid contact with campesinos. In addition to the historic role of campesinos in official ethnocide, unlike most in the region the Barí don’t grow coca, and community members don’t join armed groups. Campesinos are heavily stigmatized, accused of terrorism by the government, and many civilian leaders are imprisoned for organizing nonviolent resistance, to say nothing of those that have been assassinated by army troops and paramilitaries. Likewise, indigenous groups have been targeted by the FARC, accused of being government collaborators. Twenty-seven Awá were executed in February in the southern state of Nariño. For the campesinos, then, allying with the Barí carries its own risks.

At a meeting organized by the lawyers that same year, ASCAMCAT and the Barí agreed to collaborate. It was a historic alliance, the only one of its kind between campesino and indigenous groups in Colombia.

 “We don’t always care for the land as we should,” explained ASCAMCAT leader Eduardo, who pointed to the campesino tendency of clearing land using brush fires. “And we’re focused on individual land ownership, whereas the Barí own everything collectively. You can see the conflict.”

Many Barí confirmed this tension. Campesinos, wary of further forced displacement, are understandably concerned with receiving official title to the land they work and live on. Many of them also grow coca, however federal law gives the government the ability to take away reservation land if it’s being used to grow prohibited crops. “We understand there aren’t other viable cultivation options for campesinos in the region, they need to grow coca to feed their families. But we also need to protect the reserve,” said one concerned Barí elder.

Despite these reservations, the Barí and ASCAMAT have embarked on a joint organizing campaign to educate campesino reserve neighbors about the tribe’s situation, campesino rights, and sustainable farming techniques. The Ángel David Jaime Pérez Leadership School, named after a recently assasinated regional Communist Party leader and spearheaded by ASCAMCAT, has held six sessions with Barí participation. Representatives of both groups, along with attorneys, have visited dozens of homes, and speak frequently at Collective Action Committee meetings.

They’re already seeing results. “Our relationship has improved considerably. The campesinos have been conscious of why we’re in this struggle, because the Barí are defending their territory,” Barí cacique Jaime said in an interview. “We’ve also explained that the Barí are not just the Barí, as we say, ‘the Barí are the Barí, but the other half of the Barí is the land.’ The majority of campesinos want to coexist, to share this space together, and are conscious that the land is the fruit that provides all to everyone, for campesinos as for us.”

Reserve for hydrocarbons?

The partnership has grown to confront illegal mining. Both groups came together for a Barí-led march to Cúcuta on Indigenous Peoples Day in October of 2007 and 2008, which drew dozens of campesinos who joined in as the procession wound through the region. Named “March in Defense of Wildlife and the Land,” the mobilizations called for Ecopetrol to stop seismic testing and preliminary excavations around the reserve, and to draw attention to coal companies like Rio de Oro that take advantage of lax environmental regulation by the Environment Ministry. The ministry has at times refused to enforce a basic law requiring companies seeking extraction permits to conduct consultations with local residents and publish environmental impact studies.

Mining is prohibited in the forest reserve, which includes a sizeable area highlighted as a probable source of hydrocarbons. But companies may have an ally in the notorious trojan horse for multinationals, the non-profit group Conservation International. A representative of the group appeared at the Barí cacique assembly in January, professing to be working on unspecified “natural resource issues” that included conducting "biodiversity studies." As documented in Left Turn Issue No.12, Conservation International has a history of partnering with repressive governments to drive indigenous people out of resource-rich “sensitive areas” coveted by multinationals in places like Chiapas, Mexico. The group has been enlisting local Catatumbo organizations to help with a study that would support changing the perimeter of the forest reserve, which could open the mining interest area to exploitation.

The Environment Ministry and other state agencies have been backing similar changes, with three proposals that would reduce the size of the Reserve pending official scrutiny. This despite a 2008 decision by the Constitutional Court that declared a new forestry law backed by the president invalid for lack of input from indigenous communities. Exploiting the reserve has clearly become a federal priority. Over the last several years, the departmental and national governments appropriated over $75 million to speed construction of a two-lane highway through the region that leads to an ocean port, ensuring quick access for any new coal mines. The state oil company is likely anxious to continue exploratory drilling as well, as many of its wells are expected to run dry by 2011.

The Barí are not the only tribe affected. Nearby in Norte de Santander, the international Occidental Petroleum has been criticized by a state judge for illegally drilling on protected U’Wa indigenous land, which presumably was permitted by regulatory agencies.

Alliance for the future

If they succeed in keeping mining companies out, the Barí and campesino groups may stay unified thanks to US foreign policy. Each summer, cropdusters swing through the area, guarded by Air Force helicopters. They spray Monsanto’s glyphosphate on as many staple crops like yucca and cacao as they do on the desired target, coca. The toxic poison can drift over two miles and the planes are notoriously inaccurate. Many residents have developed skin and respiratory illnesses, and some women have experienced stillbirths. It also takes the soil years to recover enough to support the basic staple crops again, but coca can be replanted relatively quickly. The specter of the US free trade agreement weighs heavily for both. "[The free trade agreement,] means death for us," one campesino leader told me, echoing the Zapatistas’ naming NAFTA a “death sentence” in 1994. 

Both groups plan to continue to collaborate. At the January assembly they announced plans for a joint speaking tour in Italy this May, where at least one ally made it clear that the groups are confronting a global problem. “This isn’t just about them, about attacks on people who live in the reserve and depend on it for survival, about self-determination for these groups who consider this kind of resource exploitation a threat,” says attorney Balisterios, who also plans to continue accompanying their struggle. “It’s about all of us who need a healthy environment for the future.”

Andrew Willis Garcés is based in Washington, DC, recently worked with International Peace Observatory in Colombia, and contributes to a blog on social movements: