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Colombia's Cofán People Struggle Against Being Squeezed Out of Territory

In a case reminiscent of the movie Avatar, a tree symbolic to the Cofán people of southern Colombia is threatened by construction of a military base.

The base is the latest in a string of incursions that have squeezed the Cofán into a smaller and smaller area in the Guamuez Valley region of Putumayo, near the border with Ecuador, according to Carlos Salinas, who is carrying out an ethnohistory project and lobbying for the tribe.

Members of the Cofán community in Santa Rosa del Guamuez first showed Salinas the tree in 2008, after he began an oral history project to help the tribe record the words and memories of elder shamans and their wives.

When they returned two years later, they found a military base under construction, with a bunker and earthworks built beside the tree. Although they petitioned the Defense Ministry to safeguard the tree, which marks the burial site of a curaca, or traditional leader of the tribe, photos taken in July 2011 show the trunk or the tree broken and charred.

The desecration of the tree is symbolic of historical disregard for the Cofán people’s territory and right to self-determination, says Salinas, founder of a non-profit organization known as Visión Renacer in Colombia and Healing Bridges in the United States.

Although they resisted Spanish domination for generations, the Cofán were decimated by disease, and their population was fragmented by demarcation of the border between Ecuador and Colombia in 1916. The discovery of oil in their ancestral territory in southern Colombia in the 1960s brought further changes to their homeland and way of life.

“Roads were cut, heavy machinery arrived, wells were drilled and waves of colonists started arriving in the region,” Salinas said during an informal presentation November 2 in the office of Amazon Watch, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

In the Putumayo region, the discovery of oil was followed by a boom in the production of coca, the raw ingredient used for making cocaine, which was accompanied by political violence in the decades-long conflict between government forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, for their Spanish initials).

Those pressures combined to squeeze the Cofán into an ever-smaller area. The government set four “reserves” aside for them, then redrew the boundaries and changed the designation to “reservations.” While the change gave the Cofán clearer rights to the land, they were left with only a fraction of the territory they had before.

In addition, the Santa Rosa del Guamuez reservation was drawn so the oil wells were outside the boundaries, although the community has suffered from the effects of spills that have polluted wetlands inside the reservation, Salinas said.

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Satellite maps show that the area around Santa Rosa del Guamuez was heavily forested as recently as 1991. By last year, however, most of the forest had been cleared for farming, except in the indigenous community itself, and urban areas were growing.

The shamans Salinas has interviewed “were the last to raise their families when there was forest” and the last to remember what life was like before the violence and upheaval of recent decades, Salinas said.

An estimated 1,200 Cofán people live in Colombia, including about 300 in Santa María del Guamuez. According to the Colombian government, they are among the country’s 87 tribes, which number some 1.4 million people altogether. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC, for its Spanish initials), however, has tallied 102 tribes, which could indicate that the indigenous population is larger.

According to Colombia’s Constitutional Court, 34 tribes are in danger of extinction because of the country’s armed conflict and the displacement it has caused, while 18 are in danger of disappearing because they have fewer than 500 members.

Documenting the oral history of the Cofán made Salinas aware of the recent violations of the group’s land rights. By law, indigenous reserves are off limits to outsiders, he said, but settlers occupying Cofán land illegally were never evicted, and the government is now paving a road through their territory to the border with Ecuador.

During the administration, Salinas and others met with Juan Manuel Santos – who was defense minister at the time and is now president of Colombia – to urge him to remove the military base.

Instead, government officials said they would review environmental and social impact assessments presented by the tribe. Salinas said those studies are close to completion, but there is no guarantee that the government will remove the base.

A study by Visión Renacer found that military bases are usually accompanied by economic and population growth. If built as planned, the base in Santa Rosa del Guamuez would have a detachment of some 2,000 soldiers.

“If we’re talking about more population, we’re talking about an increase in deforestation, contamination and other ills that are going to affect Cofán territory,” Salinas said.

The presence of government forces in the area has already affected the Native people’s lifestyle, he said. Young Cofán men worry that if they are found with hunting weapons, they will be mistaken for guerrillas.

The Cofán “love to hunt, and they are afraid to be hunting now,” Salinas said. “There is a lot of trepidation and anxiety.”