Wednesday, August 05, 2020

The government has done little or next to nothing to protect us from these threats. We have lodged complaints, but the authorities have not taken action. We have never received comprehensive protection for our Indigenous leaders or the community

The Sikuani and Kubeo Indigenous Peoples are invisible to the Colombian government. The authorities have not protected us from the attacks and threats we have suffered for years at the hands of paramilitaries and guerrillas. And now they are abandoning us once again and leaving us at the mercy of the COVID-19 pandemic without guaranteeing our rights, such as the rights to health and food.

The dangers we face are so great that by sharing our story I risk being threatened or killed and so I cannot publish my name.

We were displaced from our ancestral territory by armed groups in the 1990s and again in 2000, but we never gave up. Five years ago we returned to our ancestral territory, the El Porvenir Indigenous Settlement (Aseinpome) in the municipality of Puerto Gaitán. There are 42 families here now, enjoying the savannahs, swamps and lagoons of the territory. Although this land has been ours for hundreds of years, we are still in the process of reclaiming it legally.

Since our return in 2015, we have faced numerous forms of harassment, including against leaders and councillors on our Indigenous council. The attackers are mainly ex-paramilitaries and landowners whose properties border our territory. We don’t know what they want to do with our territory, but we know they want us out of here, by any means necessary. They don’t care that there are elderly people, children, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses here. They’re not interested; they just want us out.

We have also been contacted by multinational companies that want to exploit the natural resources in our territory. But we know that, while they can bring work and “benefits”, they can also bring negative consequences in the future. We did not recover our territory in order to hand it over to a multinational to do whatever they want with it.

Since the government decreed a mandatory quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in March, we have seen armed men outside several houses late at night on different occasions. They have threatened to kill one of our leaders and her family and they have even set fire to our houses.

The government has done little or next to nothing to protect us from these threats. We have lodged complaints, but the authorities have not taken action. We have never received comprehensive protection for our Indigenous leaders or the community.

As if this were not enough, our community has no protection from the pandemic either.

We have health insurance, but they haven’t even put together a medical taskforce to help us. There are pregnant women here as well as five elderly women with diabetes and many children who have had the flu or been generally unwell. We have our traditional healer on hand, but if someone gets seriously ill, we have to wait between six and eight hours for transport to arrive and take them to the nearest health centre. We are not prepared for what could happen.

We have also not received the support that the government promised us when it decreed the mandatory quarantine in March. The local government of Puerto Gaitán gave us a very small amount of help, but we have received nothing from the departmental or national governments.

Handcraft is one of the means of protection that we have because it’s a way of preserving our history, our knowledge and our culture. Women artisans in Aseinpome make earrings, purses and bags as a way to save our culture through tradition and meet basic needs in the territory. It’s an art that is handed down from one generation to the next. My mum taught me and I’m going to teach my daughter. But now we can’t leave the community, not even to sell the craftwork we make. We need state support to survive the quarantine

We have tried to survive on what we’ve planted in the conuco, the collective space where we grow traditional food such as plantains, cassava, corn, pineapple, sweet potatoes, peach palm, watermelon, mango and guava, but the seeds cost money that we don’t have. We also hunt wildlife in a sustainable way, but we long for the national government to support our projects so that we can have many animals, like cattle or goats, to provide a steady income.

We want a future where our sons and daughters can live here in peace. That is why we urge the government, at the national, departmental and local levels, to guarantee the rights and basic needs of our Indigenous community. Despite all the challenges we face, we continue to fight for recognition of our governance, for the title to our ancestral lands and for the development of a public policy for the protection of social leaders and human rights defenders.

This article was originally published by VICE