Ian Linden of the Catholic Institute of international Relations witnesses a battle between indigenous people and developers
HAVE KILLED the riv
er" said Obidio Carpio with disgust, pulling the outboard engine out of the shallow brown water. We were navigating a dug-out canoe on the Rio Pato in Colombia's Choco province. The bend ahead was silted up with mud and sawdust, and we had been going for six hot hours.
Ovidio was acting President of OREWA, the regional association of the Embera and Waunan Indiana, which represents the 50,000 indigenous people of the Choco, one of CUR's partner organisations. He was talking about the Pan-American Highway, a stretch of more than 70 km by 250 metres that had torn apart the forest and the headwaters of the Rio Pato. The indigenous people had good reason to know the length exactly; 206 of them from 26 different communities had stood blocking the bulldozers for 16 days last July. At the resulting negotiations, OREWA insisted that a social and environmental impact survey should take place. But nothing has yet happened because no money was provided. The road-building was halted but, it was feared, could start again any day. The highway was the lynchpin of the Plan Pacifico scheme, "opening up" the region, and linking the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Colombia to rival the Panama Canal.
It was President Gaviria's and the World Bank's idea of "development". But hotels and beaches built and bought with money laundered from the Medellin and Cali drugs cartels, plus plundering timber companies clear-cutting the forest, and gold-miners buying up land, was not what the OREWA meant by development. They had already watched soil erosion causing rivers to silt up. Fish, wild turkeys, deer and guagua a favourite forest rodent disappeared.
Nor were they alone. The black communities, descendants of runaway slaves, who made up the majority of the province's population, lived lilts the Indians, along the river banks. Their dug-outs, loaded with plantains that fetched a pittance in the market, came past us heading downstream to the department's capital, Quibdo. "The Government says we do not want development," one of the black community leaders told me, "but we do — if it is negotiated with the communities".
The OREWA thought the same. They wanted improved seeds, pigs, chickens, training in fish farming and agricultural credit. Ovidio said: "14e have preserved the forest for millenia. They say they want to conserve it, but do not consult us and they destroy it".
When we reached the little settlement of Jangado, where the river passed through a small gorge, I could see why the Embera wanted development on their terms: there was no teacher for the school, no health promotion, no medicines. The OREWA representative in Jangado spoke to us before the assembled village with great dignity: "Before the highway was driver: through the reserve we lived very richly. We ate fish from the water, bathed in the water, drank the water without getting ill. But today we are all ill from many diseases and we are hungry," he said.
"Why does a group that is technologically superior have the right to destroy another, to commit 'ethnocide'?" the Bishop of Quibdo, Jorge Iban Catano, asked me before I boarded the plane for Bogota. I did not have an answer.
Colombia, Image and Reality, a CIIR Comment, is available from CIIR, Unit 3, Canonbury Yard, 190a New North Road, London 1V15.