Colombia: Displaced Wounaan Look for Government Support in Guaranteeing Safety

The indigenous Wounaan people are some of the latest to feel the effects of the displacement that characterizes Colombia’s armed conflict.

On June 18, the United Nations Refugee Agency released a report stating that, “…one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum.” In Colombia, a country plagued with more than 50 years of armed conflict, the number currently stands at six million, making Colombia second only to Syria with twelve million displaced people.

While these numbers alone are staggering, the reality of this statistic plays out in the daily lives of so many Colombians. The indigenous Wounaan people are some of the latest to feel the effects of the displacement that characterizes Colombia’s armed conflict. The Wounaan have traditionally lived peacefully along the banks of the San Juan River that leads out to the Pacific Ocean near the port city of Buenaventura. Yet today, hundreds of their people make up a part of the six million who have had to flee their homes.

Due to the San Juan River’s access to the ocean, the area has become a prime channel for commerce, both legal and illegal. Drug trafficking and illegal gold mining plague the region and the armed actors who run these businesses actively try to gain control over the strategic waterway at the expense of the indigenous groups who have lived peacefully in the area for centuries. Many of the Wounaan communities are experiencing confinement as armed men, said to belong to paramilitary groups, enter their properties and threaten to kill them if they leave to go hunt, fish, or tend to their crops. In some instances, certain families within the community will decide to flee while others choose to stay behind, reluctantly ripping apart the social fabric of their town. In other instances, entire communities will be displaced at once, leaving their houses and schools abandoned with nothing but the wind running through their doors.

Life in a Sports Arena

One such displaced community is Unión Aguas Claras, a town made up of 343 people from 62 families. The community experienced a number of threats against them that led up to their displacement on September 25, 2014. Leaders claim that members of the Colombian military trampled many of their food crops and on a different occasion, six armed alleged paramilitaries entered their property and demanded to be housed for several days. The community refused the paramilitaries’ demands and the men eventually left, threatening them in the process.

The community has been displaced to Buenaventura where the city has temporarily sheltered them in the main sports arena, El Cristal. They are receiving aid from the local government, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and various non-governmental organizations. More than nine months later, the 62 Wounaan families are still sleeping in hammocks tied up on gates and mats set out under bleachers. Women struggle to find materials to make their artisan crafts and men, who once were able to hunt and farm, now lack their traditional methods of supporting their families. Children run around on a basketball court, growing up in an urban setting so different from the green spaces in which their people once thrived.

The community is currently in a complex legal process with the local government to draft a sufficient plan for their return. Yet time and time again the community leaders have been met with closed doors and empty words.

“It’s not suitable to negotiate here,” said community leader Édison Málaga, standing among his people in a meeting on the basketball court floor. “Our patience has completely run out.”

The municipal government proposed a return plan to the people of Unión Aguas Claras that detailed the compensation that would be given to them in terms of health and education. Yet there was one crucial element missing: a guarantee of their safety. Without first guaranteeing that they will be safe in their own homes, the people of Unión Aguas Claras have refused to return.

In the meantime, the community has not been able to lead a dignified life in the sports arena. Community leaders accuse the mayor’s office and the National Protection Unit (Colombia’s national agency to protect victims of the armed conflict) of not fulfilling their promises. There have been complaints of the lack of supplies and support for their education.

“They haven’t given us one blackboard, not even one marker,” said Mayolo Chamapuro, another community leader. “I don’t have anything left to say to [the local government] … While we’re here, we don’t have food.”

The community has repeatedly claimed that they are not being provided with enough food to nourish 343 people and the food they have been given does not provide a balanced diet. The malnourishment of children, pregnant women, and the elderly is dire, as evidenced by the tragic death of a two-day-old infant on June 28. This is the second child to die since the community’s displacement.

“The conditions of the Wounaan familes’ resistance worsen every day due to the overcrowding that increases the risk of malnutrition … the food offered by the government does not make up a balanced diet and there are no guarantees for their medicinal and harmonization rituals,” said the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights organization accompanying the displaced Wounaan.

Skepticism about Safety

The community leaders of Unión Aguas Claras stated that in March of this year the Buenaventura police department issued a report on the state of the San Juan River, claiming the area was safe and fit for the Wounaan’s return. However, this report was never circulated to the Unión Aguas Claras community leaders who anxiously await a secure return home.

All of this is happening two and a half years deep into the Colombian government’s peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). At the time of this police report, the FARC were upholding a unilateral cease-fire that was called off on May 22 as a response to military aggressions. The Wounaan people urge that the state security forces need to reevaluate the river’s safety amid this new political climate. Hundreds more in Colombia have been displaced due to the crossfire between the FARC and the military and the Wounaan people seek to avoid the same fate.

Further proof of the lack of security came on June 8 when 50 people (20 families) from the Papayo indigenous reservation were displaced due to “lasting harassment, intimidation, extortion, restriction of free mobility and the right to food, farming and hunting.”

Crammed into two small houses in the waterfront region of Buenaventura, the people from Papayo look to the Unión Aguas Claras community for assistance in their own return process. Yet, as many of the displaced Wounaan have seen, facing paramilitary threats was only a part of their struggle. The next phase is holding the Colombian government accountable.

“We are here in a crisis caused by the state,” said Chamapuro.

Allison Rosenblatt is a member of  Witness for Peace Colombia Team