Colombia: Indigenous Yukpa besieged by deforestation and armed conflict | Land Portal | Securing Land Rights Through Open Data
  • Mongabay Latam and Semana Sostenible travelled to two of their reserves. The forests of the Serranía del Perijá Regional Nature Park are being burned and indigenous peoples are living in difficult health conditions.
  • They are asking for urgent attention from the state, and amid shortages are also having to deal with the arrival of indigenous Yukpa migrants from Venezuela.
  • This article is a collaboration between Mongabay Latam and Semana Sostenible from Colombia.

There is still hope in the innocent eyes of Yukpa children. They play, laugh, and jump about, despite the difficulties their people face. However, the adults’ eyes tell a different story: impotence, anger and pain, caused by the conditions they live in due to lack of land, hunger, deforestation and the diversion of their rivers, but above all, due to the indifference of the state.

The indigenous Yukpa past and present have sombre tones. Yukpa children present high rates of malnutrition and lack of schooling; few adults live beyond the age of 65. According to the 2005 Census, there are 4761 Yukpa living in Colombia, divided among six reserves, located in the municipalities of La Paz, Agustín Codazzi and Becerril, in Cesar, the Colombian Caribbean, covering a total area of 34,064 hectares.

In these territories, there are several areas of reserves with fragile ecosystems, and most of the Yukpa population live crammed together in the highest part of the Serranía del Perijá, where the land is more arid. The rivers their ancestors used to fish in are contaminated, some almost dry, and fish are scarce due to lack of oxygen. Furthermore, oil palm plantations have diverted the few remaining water sources. Their future looks bleak.

Semana Sostenible and Mongabay Latam visited the Iroka and Sokorpa reserves (which cover 8678/25,000 hectares and have over 3000/1362 inhabitants respectively), to see the problems experienced by the Yukpa first-hand. The group spans the border with Venezuela, and is exposed to the same difficulties experienced by many other communities living in border areas forgotten by local, regional and national governments.

Relentless attack

The Yukpa people are semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer, fishing and farming, and survive on what nature provides them with. Before the arrival of the Spanish, their ancestral territory extended from the western side of the Cesar River, in Colombia, to the eastern side of Lake Maracaibo, in Venezuela. But little by little, they lost their land to the advance of European colonists.

After surviving the tragedy of the Spanish conquest, the Yukpa experienced a period of relative calm until the end of the 1940s. With the outbreak of bipartisan violence in Colombia, their ancestral land was once again threatened by colonization, this time due to people fleeing the political conflict of these years and because of state policies to expand the agricultural frontier.

In this context, dispossession of Yukpa land increased: “The migration policy did not consider our culture and occupation of the land. Much of it was managed by the Catholic Church, who distributed it to individuals. The state declared some of it uncultivated and assigned it to other people. Our ancestors were tricked: they swapped their land for tape recorders and donkeys. They had no concept of property as it was understood in the Western world, and so we lost all of the flatland, the valley,” said Javier Clavijo, territorial coordinator of the Iroka Reserve.

At the end of the 1960s came the cotton boom, and the municipality of Agustín Codazzi became the white city of Colombia. But this growth profoundly affected the Yukpa. The expansion of cotton plantations made them migrate to areas higher up in the mountains. “From that point onwards, we could no longer hunt or fish on land that others considered to be private property, and on many occasions, we were shot at. The state never did anything to protect our culture or way of life,” says Luis Uribe, from the Sokorpa Reserve.

The situation became more complicated with the boom of the marijuana market in the 1970s, which triggered a new wave of migration, of people who saw it as a quick way of making money. This time, the migration was accompanied by a high degree of violence never been seen before in the region, caused by the battle for control over smuggling routes. Poppy and coca plantations also began to appear, contributing even further to the displacement of the Yukpa. Decades later, in their war on drugs, the government decided to spray plantations with glyphosate, and the Yukpa also ended up being soaked in this herbicide.

Year after year, the number of armed actors increased, along with the death toll. At the end of the 1980s, the FARC’s 41st front and the Camilo Torres front of the ELN occupied a large part of the Serranía del Perijá. At the end of the 1990s, paramilitaries arrived, under the command of Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias Jorge 40, commander of the Northern Block of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. In this fratricidal war for territorial control, the Yukpa were subjected to displacement, murder and the disappearance of several of their members.

The community of La Frontera, one of seven areas in the Iroka reserve, close to where the Colombian Army’s High Mountain Battalion is currently stationed, in the Serranía del Perijá, had a particularly bloody experience of this conflict that the Armed Forces were also involved in. “My brothers Nelson and Jaime, who was only 12 years old, went fishing in 2004 and never came back. The Army thought that they were guerrillas, despite the fact they only had their arrows with them, and killed them. Nelson was taken to the valley in a helicopter and Jaime, the youngest, was never found. We walked for two days in the mountains searching for them, we went as far as Venezuela, until they told us they were dead,” said Ricardo Martínez, 36 years old.

The demobilization of paramilitaries and the peace process with the FARC have not improved the situation. The ELN’s Camilo Torres front, which dominates Catatumbo, Perijá and the border area with Venezuela, is threatening to take possession of these lands. Indigenous leaders like Javier Clavijo; the cabildo governor of the Iroka reserve, Alfredo Peña; and the cabildo governor of the Sokorpa Reserve, Esneda Saavedra, have been threatened.

Soaked in misfortune

Health problems have become part of the daily life of the Yukpa people. They frequently suffer from gastrointestinal, skin and respiratory diseases, miscarriages, deformations and malnutrition. In the community of La Frontera, there is a surprising number of children and young people with cleft lip and cleft palate. They believe that these problems were caused by the glyphosate fumigations carried out years ago: “Every 15 days they would soak us in this chemical that damaged our agricultural land and our health. There is a huge number of children with cleft lip and cleft palate as a result of the fumigations,” said Manuel García, from the Iroka reserve.

There have been no conclusive studies which prove that glyphosate causes this kind of deformation. However, the study ‘Environmental factors associated with nonsyndromic cleft palate in a population in the Colombian Magdalena Medio’, carried out by researchers from Santo Tomás University and published in the magazine UstaSalud in 2014, claims that there is “data that points overwhelmingly to a clear association between glyphosate exposure and an increase in birth defects.”

The isolation to which the Yukpa have been confined has affected their quality of life. High up in the mountains, with no access to land or water, they survive on sparse plantations of beans, cariaco corn (an indigenous grain), yucca and taro. Cases of malnutrition in both reserves are extremely high, as are rates of child and maternal mortality. According to information from indigenous authorities in Sokorpa, only this year, five children have died of malnutrition and another nine had to be taken to hospital in Valledupar in order to save them.

Child deaths from malnutrition and many other diseases are likely to be under-reported, especially in the Iroka and Sokorpa reserves. In the former, 60 percent of children do not have birth certificates, so their deaths go unrecorded as they are buried up in the mountains.

This isolation has also led to problems with transporting the sick to urban centers. From the Sokorpa reserve, the community of Santa Rita can only be reached on foot or by mule, over boulders, rocks and mud, a journey that takes one and a half hours just to get there. Pregnant women and the sick are carried on stretchers. For other communities, these journeys can take over 7 hours, as they are located above 2600 meters in altitude.

Promises in the air

On paper, the Yukpa have had small victories in their struggle to regain their territory, and they aim to realize them. These began with the constitution itself, in 1991, which recognizes the diverse and multicultural nature of the country, and Auto 004 of 2009 by the Constitutional Court, which provides for the protection of 36 indigenous peoples (including the Yukpa). The high court considered that, faced with systematic murders and displacement caused by an internal conflict they had nothing to do with, the Yukpa were being subjected to a process of physical and cultural extermination.  The Court ordered for the creation of special safeguarding plans and the development of a public policy to protect them. But as of today, the Ministry of the Interior has still not formalized anything, despite claiming to have advanced a series of technical meetings with communities.

Furthermore, sentence T-713 of 2017, also from the Constitutional Court, among other things, ordered the National Land Agency to “resolve requests for extension, compensation and delimitation of ancestral Yukpa territory.” This was due to be carried out within a year at most, starting from the announcement of the sentence. The deadline set by the Court expired in February.

In this regard, the National Land Agency affirmed that they are currently making progress with the administrative procedures of extending the six Yukpa reserves. They have carried out the relevant technical visits and developed a land purchase program led by the Department for Ethnic Affairs, processes which will continue this year.

According to Esneda Saavedra, governor of the Sokorpa reserve, these advances have remained on paper. “We, the Yukpa people, have been peaceful, but nobody takes us into consideration. A corridor was made through our ancestral territory without a process of prior consultation. Furthermore, the deadline for the government to extend and delimit our territory has passed, and they have not bought the land.”

Alfredo Peña, cabildo governor of the Iroka reserve, warns that: “We are tired of the government not fulfilling their promises. Soon, we will have to come up with another strategy to get their attention. If we have to protest, we will protest; if we have to die, we will die. This is our reality, and the reality is we need our land.”

The abandoned border

As well as the home of the Yukpa, the Serranía del Perijá is also a natural border with the state of Zulia, in Venezuela, extending over 295 kilometers through the northern departments of Santander, Cesar and La Guajira.

Several paths through these mountains connect Colombia with its neighbor. They are used not only by binational indigenous peoples, but also for by traffickers of oil, people, livestock and even weapons. Poverty-stricken Venezuelan Yukpas use these paths to cross the border into Colombia, in the hope of receiving help in the country. But the Colombian reserves turn many of them away and they end up either on the streets of Codazzi, Becerril and Valledupar or returning on buses to their country.

“We don’t even have land or food for ourselves. How can we help the Yukpa from Venezuela? Many of the young ones have been brainwashed: they don’t think like Yukpas. They want to sit around doing nothing and let other people provide for them. Others work with the ELN escorting livestock. That’s how foot-and-mouth disease entered the region, infecting thousands of heads of cattle, which can no longer be used for meat and dairy production. The situation here is the same or worse than that in Venezuela, and we are being ignored,” said Clavijo.

The mountains are dying

The Serranía del Perijá is covered with humid and dry forests and moors, but these habitats are increasingly threatened. In the highest parts, black patches and columns of smoke can be seen, a result of the indiscriminate burning of the forests. The mountain no longer smells of cedar or cashew trees, but of ashes.

There is no rest for this kind of work: even on Sundays, farmers with cans of petrol burn thousands of hectares of forest unchecked, before the indifferent eyes of the environmental authorities. The construction of highways and roads high up in the mountains has affected the sources of rivers that provide Agustín Codazzi, Becerril and other populations.

“We are the authority responsible for environmental sanctions. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to prosecute somebody for a forest fire: everybody makes accusations, but nobody will file a report or act as a witness. The diversion of rivers is also illegal, and we have already begun proceedings against palm growers who carry out this activity,” said Julio Suárez, director of the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Cesar (Corpocesar).

Rivers like the Sicarare and the Casacará have been diverted to palm oil plantations. The little remaining water that follows its normal course is contaminated by agrochemicals or pumped onto farms. Orlando Rangel, biologist and tenured professor of the Natural Sciences Institute of the National University, explains the consequences of these actions: “The diversion of water to palm plantations alters the water cycle. This has consequences for ecosystems and the atmosphere: water that should evaporate is being consumed. There are over 260 species in Perijá, 10% of which are endemic and severely threatened.”

This is why the Yukpa do not have access to water or fishing.

Coal multinationals have also diverted tributaries like the Maracas and the Sororia, or they have used them as quarries to extract material. 60% of national coal production is extracted in Cesar, mainly in the municipalities of La Jagua de Ibirico, El Paso, Becerril and Agustín Codazzi, in Yukpa ancestral territories. While in 2016 exports from the department yielded 90 million tonnes and generated millions of pesos in royalties, the indigenous Yukpa say they have not received a single cent. On the contrary, they claim to be affected by the critical state of the rivers.

“The impact these people have on the environment is incomprehensible. In their pursuit of wealth, they do not think about what they are going to leave behind for their children and grandchildren, who will be living on barren land. In 2016, we fished for the last time in the Maracas, and since then the fish have not returned, partly due to contamination from mining,” concluded Luis Ortiz, indigenous leader of the community of Santa Rita, in the Sokorpa Reserve.

In 2019, the country celebrated 200 years of independence, but the Yukpa seem to continue to be subjected to colonization and abuse. While waiting for the state to follow through on its promises, the eyes of indigenous children, in spite of their situation, continue to be full of hope.

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