Jorge Milton Conda projects tranquility as he prepares to “go up to the territory”, escorted by six unarmed members of the indigenous guard, four men and two women with their respective batons, who do not lose footing. Indigenous Nasa with 41 soles (years) in tow, father of two daughters, is an environmental leader in the most dangerous country in the world for environmentalists: Colombia. Despite constant threats from various armed groups, he is more concerned about the safety of his companions. “It is not convenient to go without the guard. For a long time, in one way or another, it was known who was moving through the territories, but at the moment it is very difficult to know ”, he explains aboard the vehicle that ascends from the urban area of the Pradera municipality, the limit of the extensive sugar cane crops that cover that flat region in the south of the department of Valle del Cauca, to the mountains of deep canyons where their home is located in the Kwesx Yu Kiwe reservation, which means ‘territory of water’.
On the route through dirt roads that sporadically pass the colorful ‘chivas’ –or stair buses– characteristic of the Colombian countryside, there are many graffiti with which the dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are present, which in other times they dominated the area. The Nasa communities of Kwesx Yu Kiwe denounce the threats suffered by their leaders due to their public objections against the layout of a mega-highway of almost 1,500 kilometers – included in the National Development Plan of the Government of Iván Duque – that plans to cross the three mountain ranges in which the Andes are divided into Colombia, from the Orinoquía, on the border with Venezuela, to the port of Buenaventura, on the Pacific.
Beyond the sections already built of a road that is projected to 2035, they are concerned about the part that will cross the nearby moors of Las Hermosas and las Tinajas, which could affect up to 365 lagoons, according to their calculations. “We are not opposed to development, but we denounce the environmental impact that this road entails,” says Milton while pointing from a rustic bridge over the Frayle River, which descends from the moor, towards a palm tree at the top of the mountain, the point where the road would exit in one of the proposed routes. “This impact is not going to be only for indigenous peoples, but for the rest of society. Why do you have to touch the moors? It is not opposition, it is a protection of mother nature and biodiversity ”, he maintains. For the Nasa, the lagoons are the house of the spirits, the place where their deities live. “Water is our law of life. If the moors, the lagoons destroy us, they will destroy our spiritual beings ”, he explains.
The reservation is on the border between two departments, the south of Valle del Cauca and the north of Cauca – where the majority of the Nasa people live. It is a strategic corridor for drug trafficking routes due to its exit to the Pacific, an area that has become a powder keg where an archipelago of illegal armed groups operate, including several FARC dissidents, such as the Dagoberto Ramos column, a name that is repeated in the graffiti, in addition to the National Liberation Army (ELN) and drug trafficking gangs.
To enter the communities, you have to pass the checkpoint of the indigenous guard, made up of men and women who are in charge of the collective defense of their territories and carry batons of command, with blue stripes representing water and sky; green for nature and yellow for riches. “While some have weapons, we are characterized by the cane, a symbol of authority, of control, of protection. It has been very difficult, but in that we have stayed ”, faithful to the mandate to fight with the word, affirms Milton. In the past, armed groups respected their authority, but amid the fragmentation that has characterized the five years since the signing of the peace agreement, the outlook is confusing. In the midst of the incessant murder of all kinds of social leaders, they have also buried fellow guards, as well as indigenous governors.
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Expectations about the environmental dividends of that historic pact between the government and the guerrillas were high, but the legacy of the war still weighs heavily. “Peace has not come, everything is more complex,” laments Milton. “There has been no applicability of those agreements.” Do you feel safe with the guard? “Personally, very safe, it is the only guarantee we have had,” he replies, although he emphasizes that it is a collective protection, not individual. “Faced with an external situation, telling him that we are safe would be a lie,” he immediately concedes. The reasons why the Government, after just over a year, withdrew the protection scheme that had been assigned to him at the most complicated moment is not explained.
Milton has documented the multiple threats that have been made to him over the past four years. In the hallway of his house, from where the murmur of the river can be heard, he teaches the copies of the pamphlets of the different armed groups that he keeps in a folder on his computer. The first pamphlet, which was distributed in the house of the reservation in March 2018, is signed by a group that identifies in a gaseous way as “criminal gangs” that emerged from the FARC, paramilitaries, drug traffickers “and others who are entering.” In the letter, they demand both the territorial control of the indigenous guard and that they have denounced the megaprojects. “We cannot let them get in the way of advancing the development that the country needs,” they write.
The Dagoberto Ramos column declares it by name a “military objective” in another pamphlet from November 2019 addressed to all indigenous and peasant communities in the north of Cauca and the south of Valle del Cauca. One more, from May 2020, also indicates him by name and surname as a “military objective” for his work as a delegate of a commission of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), a position he held until a few months ago. “Stop defending the land that does not allow development to advance”, they try to intimidate you with a direct allusion to the Orinoquía-Pacific highway, and they identify themselves as criminal gangs in alliance with the dissidents. Later, at the beginning of last year, two men on motorcycles, who said they belonged to the remnants of the EPL –Los Pelusos, a criminal gang that was formerly a guerrilla–, came to look for him at his home to leave him the reason for “staying still”. They have also performed at his mother’s house. He did not give in to blackmail. When the threats became more acute, the ONIC offered him to leave the country, but he consulted the wise men, the elders, and followed their advice to stay.
There are plenty of martyrs for environmental causes in Colombia, identified in the last two years as the most dangerous country to defend the earth. Of the 227 murders of environmentalists registered in 2020 around the world, 65 occurred in this corner of South America, according to the most recent annual report of the NGO Global Witness, which considers that these attacks represent “endemic violence.” The report highlights that indigenous peoples are the most affected by the violence, which worsened in the year marked by the pandemic, after 2019 had already resulted in 64 murdered environmentalists.
It is a diagnosis similar to that of Land of Resisters, an award-winning cross-border project that brings together journalists from 12 countries in the region to investigate episodes of violence against environmental leaders: “The devastation of natural resources, the advance of large extractive projects, the interest of criminal groups and the ineffectiveness of state agencies have turned Latin America into a hostile scenario for leaders and communities that defend the environment and its territories ”. The target of almost half of the episodes recorded in its database –2,460 victimizing events since 2009– belongs to an ethnic minority, which shows that indigenous and Afro-descendant territories are especially vulnerable.
Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Bathed by two oceans, crossed by three mountain ranges, with half of its territory covered by forests and tropical jungles, the faces of the embattled environmental leaders are equally diverse, from the Caribbean to the Amazon. One of the best known is that of Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian leader from the neighboring department of Cauca who has waged a long struggle against mining exploitation and is now a presidential candidate. “There is a link between armed violence and the economic development model, that makes Colombia the country with the most assassinated environmental leaders. There is no possibility of access to justice and when we do it is slow and ineffective ”, summarized this year in an interview with this newspaper the winner of the Goldman Prize, the environmental Nobel.
In that broken geography, visibly wrinkled, the country is also home to half of the planet’s moors, like those that Milton and the Nasa community protect. Most are found in the Andes mountain range, and are considered water factories, a high mountain ecosystem as key as it is fragile, which allows regulating water flows. Likewise, its conservation is important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Those humid peaks have also been corridors for that archipelago of armed groups that, even after the signing of the peace agreement, keep indigenous communities subjected to crossfire.
Before saying goodbye, since he must attend a meeting with the indigenous authorities about the extortion that has been taking place, Milton is left thinking. “Drug trafficking, armed groups, criminal groups… who are they protecting? They also need water, air, diversity. Where is political ideology really? He is not in defense of life ”, he laments. Send the visitors back to Florida, guarded by the guard. The Pacific-Orinoquía highway, he concludes, “would be a disaster worse than the armed conflict we are suffering.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.