“Turned into human shields”: Awá community remains besieged by armed groups

The Observatory for the Rights and the Survival of Indigenous Peoples requested the intervention of the UN and the International Criminal Court (ICC) to put an end to the violence through which this community in Nariño and Putumayo has suffered.
The 41 Awá reservations in Nariño are located in steep and forested areas in the Pacific region bordering Ecuador, benefitting from natural resources such as water, wood, gold and fertile land for growing coca.  Photo: Semana.com.  

Surrounded by the FARC, the ELN, the Rastrojos and other groups created after the 2005 AUC demobilization, the indigenous Awá face innumerable crimes against them.

For this reason, the Observatory presented a report in Barcelona, Spain, to call attention to international authorities and avoid the people´s extinction at the hands of the armed conflict.

The report documents crimes that have been committed against the Awá between November 2010 and May 2011, which include 11 murders, eight landmine injuries, three rapes, 11 forced disappearances and constant threats.

In January 2009, the Constitutional Court declared the Awá people as one of the 34 indigenous communities in risk of cultural and physical extinction. The same year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued precautionary measures for its members.

This did not prevent a spike in violence that same year: three massacres occurred in which 30 constituents were murdered, including seven minors.

According to the report, the inhabitants of the indigenous reserves live with the fear of being killed at any moment. Homicides are carried out on roads where armed men take their victims alive, leaving their bodies to be found, or in the worst cases, leaving no trace at all. The perpetrators, the report said, often remove the indigenous people from their homes by force and kill them close to the entrance of their reserves.  

The confrontation of the Armed Forces with illegal groups has also led to its share of victims, displacement and fear. In a confrontation between the army, the FARC and the ELN on Nov. 14, 2011 25-year-old Melqui Nastacuás was killed and Ignacio Nastacuás was injured, along with Melqui´s wife, Claudi García, who was five months pregnant at the time. In an incident earlier that year, those seeing a photographic exhibition in the school of the Tumaco indigenous reserve found themselves trapped in the crossfire between guerrillas and the military.

According to members of the community, “the military presence in our territory generates anxiety, fear, death and displacement. The armed groups have made us a part of their attire; they have turned us into human shields.”

The report also pointed to cases of “harassment and stigmatization” of leaders and indigenous communities by the Armed Forces, who have taken videos and pictures of them seemingly without purpose. In other cases they have accused them of being guerrillas.

Further problems are the illegal exploitation of gold and fumigation of crops.

The Observatory document indicates that various companies are illegally engaging in gold mining in indigenous territories without the approval of indigenous authorities. “At least in some cases [the government] protects or is permissive of these companies,” the report said, “while they repress and frighten the indigenous people so that they cannot impose their rights.”

Moreover, the fight against drug trafficking in Putumayo has caused the cultivation of crops to be moved to Nariño, bringing new problems for indigenous communities.

“Alarming quantities of chemicals, fertilizers, fungicides and insecticides have been added to the coca fields, polluting and increasingly degrading the land and harming biodiversity,” the report explained. “At the same time, aerial fumigation with glyphosate is indiscriminate and continues to affect the mountains, water sources, fauna, food crops and the Awá with many diseases, despite countless recommendations against it by the Ombudsman and thousands of complaints of the indigenous people and whole population.”

Finally, the Observatory urged that the UN and the ICC act immediately, since “the Colombian government has repeatedly failed to meet its obligation to protect the Awá people.”