Colombia: The Embera Struggle to Save a Sacred Mountain

Conflicts between multinational corporations and indigenous groups are not only confined to legal debates over property rights. For the Embera in Choco, a fight against a controversial mining project in the region isn’t just a conflict about their legal ownership of the land. This project threatens to completely wipe out their ancient culture.


Embera Woman. Photo by Kate Warburton.

Conflicts between multinational corporations and indigenous groups are not only confined to legal debates over property rights. For the Embera in Choco, a fight against a controversial mining project in the region isn’t just a conflict about their legal ownership of the land. This project threatens to completely wipe out their ancient culture.

Muriel Mining Company began the exploration of Cerro de Caraperro, a mountain in the Jiguamiando River Basin in Colombia’s north-western department of Choco on January 5, 2009 after the Colombian government awarded the US-based company a 30 year mining concession to explore the sacred Embera site.

According to members of the Embera communities from surrounding areas, the company has entered their land illegally,and without proper consultation as stipulated by article 7 of Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation, that specifically states that any implementation of national laws in indigenous territories must be conducted in accordance to any customs and laws of the indigenous communities.

Traditional Embera customs in Colombia govern that any decisions on the exploitation of their land that face the community as a collective must be reached through a general consensus, which in this case, according to community leaders, was taken out of their hands when representatives of the Embera based in the cities unlawfully gave permission for the exploration without any prior consultation with the rest of the community.

Muriel Mining Company has responded by adamantly stating that all consultation was carried out legally and properly according to Colombian law and refutes any claims by human rights groups working in the area of any wrongdoing in the shape of bribery or coercion towards certain Embera representatives.

In Colombia, there are almost a hundred indigenous groups, many of which are struggling to retain their traditional culture on territory that was legally designated to them by the Colombian constitution in 1991. This case presents us with another example of the lack of understanding of the core beliefs of indigenous groups by western companies, or a complete disregard towards those beliefs. Intent on bypassing a law that is supposed to protect indigenous communities, here is another instance of how vulnerable these indigenous groups are when up against laws created for them by the white man that favor powerful foreign companies whose short-term economic agenda is at absolute odds to a group concerned with a long-term vision of preservation of the land.


Embera Meeting to Discuss Mande Norte. Photo by Kate Warburton.

The exploration has currently been suspended whilst lawyers representing the community through the organization Justicia y Paz continue to fight for the rights and autonomy of the indigenous group. In the interim, fears are raised in the already twice-displaced community that their culture and way of life might once again be in jeopardy.

At the heart of the struggle of Colombia’s often ignored and endangered indigenous groups against corporate intrusion is a misunderstood intrinsic and deep-rooted connection they have to their territory. Fear of losing access to ancestral lands or their ‘mother earth’ goes far beyond the legality of property rights as we know it today. For the indigenous, this is not a property conflict whereby a family must leave their property for the construction of a new motorway. Not only is there a much greater dependence on the land by the indigenous groups, a deep-rooted spiritual connection means that being torn away from the land is like losing a part of themselves.

The very nucleus of the indigenous existence is threatened by these mega-projects which are on the increase in Colombia’s rural areas, be they mining projects, hydro-electic or agricultural. The Colombian government is currently trying to get a free trade deal with the United States which would open up the country to more foreign companies seeking to promote similar projects in the name of "development" and "progress." But the repercussions for the local indigenous inhabitants are severe as they see their rivers polluted and their natural environment demolished, both life-lines for their survival in these isolated regions.

In Choco, the stage has been set for a bitter struggle between a community and Muriel Mining Company. At the root of this particular dispute is the excavation of a deeply sacred site for the Embera. The mountain, Cerro Caraperro (the mountain of the dogface), not only contains great riches, but is revered as a symbol of the inextricable link between the Embera and their territory.

As legend has it, a revered shaman, or Jaibana, that once lived in the mountain practicing traditional medicine, rose up through the mountainside in the afterlife with the face of a dog to represent the attachment humans have with earth’s creatures. Ever since, the plants and the animals that live on the mountain protect the spirits of the deceased Embera from being released.


Community Meeting. Photo by Kate Warburton.

If the mining goes ahead, which is planned as an open pit excavation, the community believes that the project will allow the release of the spirits, both good and evil that inhabit the land, which according to them will have severely detrimental consequences for the surrounding communities.

The current Jaibana, Alberto Martiniro said, "If the mountain is exploited, all of the spirits will leave, good and bad. It will cause illness and maybe death in the nearby population. Plants which we use to cure disease will be killed, and our waters will be contaminated. After the Spanish arrived, the government allocated to us only a small amount of land for the indigenous, and now they want to destroy what we have left."

As legal representative for the community, Eduardo Bailarin is unwavering in his pursuit of justicee for his community and insists that the Embera community as a collective is, and always has been against the project.

"We are tired of saying that we are absolutely against all types of mega-projects on our territory. It’s our future we have to protect. If we lose our land, we will lose our culture, our language and it will create internal conflicts within us. We have to fight or we we will see all of the forest privatized and no one will look after it," he said.

As the legal battle continues there remains a another unresolved conflict in Colombia over the "progress" or "development" by a government seeking free trade and opening the country to transnational corporations and the rights and ideals of an ancient people whose vision for the future differs widely.

"We lived on these lands before the ‘conquistadores’ arrived," says one community leader "We were born here, we grew up here. If we, the owners of the land, lose our territory, where are we going to live?"

"These people don’t think of the future for the community. We want to protect our land for our children and future generations. The economic progress that is encouraged by the government isn’t progress for us."

What for a government or commercial enterprise is a dispute that can be settled (or won) by the application of law, for the indigenous inhabitants of the region can mean the complete extinction of their identity and culture. There is not one constitution or set of laws of one country that takes into account the core values of the different indigenous communities, making it impossible for this legislation to protect the interests of the natives. Their connection to the land they live on is hard to comprehend by those that took the land in the centuries after the arrival of the Spanish and is impossible to protect without undermining the development of a country according to western standards.

Bailarin sums up the fear of the future for the community, "Without our land we lose our culture. Without our land we are no longer Embera."

Certain names have been changed in the interest of security.