When the bombs started falling, the indigenous Embera decided to leave their ancestral lands. It was 1996 and Colombia's civil war had definitively arrived to the northwest region of Urabá.
Squat Embera women in their multi-colored skirts with dark linear tattoos painted on their faces filed out of the dense jungle in droves. The men with heavy bundles on their shoulders brought with them as much as they could, not knowing when they would return. Children carrying chickens and pet dogs followed in tow. They spent the next several years scattered in the towns and small cities of Urabá living as refugees in their own country.
Twelve years after the Embera were forced to flee, loggers and farmers are now leading a massive land-grab on their lands. Although the 106,000-acre territory is under strict protection as an indigenous reserve by the constitution Embera leaders say half of this land is under threat of being stolen.
"Even though it is our reserve, a lot of non-indigenous people have arrived for logging. A lot of people want to take our land. Some people even show up with land sale contracts and that means someone is trying to sell our land," says Carlina Borja, an Embera Katío representative. Borja blames the government for ceding titles to lands that were illegally sold or outright taken by loggers and farm settlers called "colonos."
"They use the argument that we're not working the lands and that they are abandoned. The colonos come in and work them and then the government gives them titles. But the indigenous work those lands, and we didn't abandon them because we wanted to, we left because they were killing us," she adds.
Between 1997 and 2001, the armed groups killed 16 Embera leaders—half by paramilitaries and half by guerrillas. Extreme right-wing paramilitaries, organized by wealthy landowners and drug traffickers, arrived to the area to flush out the leftist guerrillas, who had long been active in the region. In 1996, the paramilitaries began a joint offensive with the Colombian military.
Although the campaign was ostensibly aimed at the guerrillas, the farming communities of this part of Colombia—mostly, Afro-Colombians and indigenous—suffered indiscriminate bombings, massacres, torture, rapes, mass displacement, disappearances, and other heinous crimes. Countless people in the area are still being killed or maimed by land mines. Urabá is rich in natural resources and is a strategic corridor for running drugs and guns, making it a hotly contested territory by the armed groups.
Leaving in packed buses and rafts, the Embera sought refuge in the violent slums of Urabá's urban areas, which were under the iron-fist control of paramilitaries. They lived in wretched shacks made of tarps and scrap metal, sleeping in hammocks and depending on humanitarian aid for subsistence.
"We prefer the countryside. It's criminal for us to live in urban areas," says Borja. After fleeing, many displaced Emberas never came back—either from fear or from the pull of the cities. They once numbered 4,300 people in this part of the country but have been reduced by half. "Our social fabric deteriorated, but now we've been working to recover it and begin to regain our territories."
It is not the first time they have tried to recover their lands. In 1998, a large group of families tried to resettle one of their abandoned villages. They lasted two months; driven out by aerial bombings carried out by the army in which several villagers were injured.
"We've repeatedly denounced everything that's happened to us on repeated occasions, but our human rights are disregarded: the loss of our territory, our right to live as indigenous peoples, our autonomy, and our traditional diet. Sexual violations by members of the state security forces remain in impunity," Borja laments.
Living away from their lands has caused other problems that spill over into the cultural realm. Their main complaint regards their inability to feed families with their traditional diet, which depends on subsistence farming, hunting, and gathering. Making money to buy groceries is another problem. Some Embera end up working as field hands on lands that used to be theirs. Their bosses are the colonos, who pay only six dollars a day.
Still, the diminutive Borja remains defiant: "We are a people that refuses to lose our customs and our land. We want respect for our lives, our territory, out cultural identity. We want to be seen and taken into account, we want to be heard."
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