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The Road to Chololobo

March 10, 2012

A few weeks ago I had one of the most memorable professional experiences of my life.  I finally got to go out (FAR out) into remote indigenous communities with the team from ONIC.    I was part of a joint ONIC /Avocats Sans Frontieres Canada (ASFC) team that travelled from Bogota to the remote Vichada region of Colombia.

We travelled to the remote areas of Vichada department in the south-east of the country near the border with Venezuela.  The aim of the trip was to visit two remote communities, El Merey and Chololobo, to assess the situation of the people living there and to gather facts intended both for the general protection of these people and also for possible legal actions related to these communities. Both communities are indigenous communities of the Sikuani people. The situation in both communities is precarious, albeit for various reasons including land disputes with non-indigenous persons, the presence of paramilitary groups in the area, and large experimental agriculture projects.

Both communities are extremely remote and not often visited by outsiders (well, minus unfortunate sporadic visits from paramilitaries in the area).  We travelled by bus from Bogota to Villavicencio, by 4-seater Cessna planes from Villa to Cumaribo, Vichada (on the way back we flew in an old WW2 plane) and then from Cumaribo out into the savannah for hours by jeep to reach the communities. We were a team of 6; 3 of us from ONIC (myself, and Jose Luis and Javier from my section, Territorio), C. from ASFC, our trusty driver Don Julio (well mostly trusty, minus the few beers chugged before heading on the road, which is sadly the norm here), and Javier’s father Hernando,  a Sikuani elder who knows the area and communities well and acted as translator (Sikuani/Spanish).

Joking around in the Villavicencia airport, Javier was actually a child model in his state's tourist campaign.

Starting our adventure, Villavicencia.

Ready for Take Off, Villa.

Jose Luis and I, human rights adventurers.

View of the plains from the plane.

We arrived on the dirt airstrip in Cumaribo to find we were out there. It was wild, dirt runway and plains that seemed to go on forever. The “airport” was a roof with no walls and behind that was a little bar. There was a particularly creepy big camouflaged military advertisement overhead saying “Travel safely”. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be ironic or what, and a group of locals, beside a group of about 15 young military guys, guns in one hand, beer in the other. The foreigners had arrived. There was no way we were going to go unnoticed here.

Cumaribo airport, Vichada.

Welcome signs, Cumaribo.

On the way to Cumaribo proper we passed metal and wood make-shift shacks housing persons displaced for reasons related to the conflict.

The road into Cumaribo.

When we drove into town I felt the same old-west-swinging-doors-in-the-tavern feeling that I’d felt at the airport, this place definitely does not get many outsiders.  We arrived at the Casa Blanca, our base camp in Cumaribo, and stepped out into a wall of heat that took your breath away. It was more than just hot, it was open oven door and insert foreigner hot.

After lunch, visit planning, and requisite respite from the heat, we headed out to Santa Teresa, Javier’s father’s reserve (also Sikuani people), about 30 minutes outside of Cumaribo.  There is a military checkpoint on the edge of town and you can only enter or leave between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. and the young recruits eager to prove their power were about as cheerful as one would imagine. They swung their machine guns on their shoulders as they approached the jeep. In the distance stood another of the creepy “safe trip” camouflage-covered billboards.

Our visit to Santa Teresa was one of my favourite parts of the trip.  The community was amazingly calm and the sun’s rays danced along the savannah as it set.  But the best part was meeting Javier’s grandmother, Simona. When we asked her how old she was she said she didn’t remember anymore.  She told us that she’d been sick for two weeks with something in her chest and couldn’t eat anything.  I was totally in love with Simona.  She mostly spoke Sikuani, but as we sat quietly at sundown she slowly started to ask me some questions in Spanish.  I could have stayed in Santa Teresa for days, but sadly we had to make it through the checkpoint before 7 p.m.

Santa Teresa Indigenous Community, Vichada.

Simona, Javier, Hernando and I enjoying what would turn out to be dangerous coffee in Santa Teresa at sunset.

The following morning we were off into the real meat of our trip. We travelled ten hours through the savannah to reach the first community of El Merey. The landscape in this region puts one in mind of the African Savannah, comprised of vast grasslands as far as the eye can see.  During the trip we drove through several outposts including Tres Matas and El Catorce that were formerly controlled by the FARC.


El Catorce, Vichada

C and I, Tres Matas.

Father-son coffee break, Tres Matas.

Not even two hours into our drive we got our first taste of savannah excitement, a full out police-chase that passed us in the middle of nowhere. I’ll admit my body tensed up, it’s impossible not to out here. There is really no one around, you don’t come across many other vehicles, and when you do you can’t help but get nervous. All of the sudden a white truck came firing down the track in our direction, I remember it hitting a huge bump and seeing its headlights flash but then it just sped right past us.  Only seconds later the 2nd truck came, I tensed up when I saw 2 camouflaged guys, machine guns swinging on their backs as they stood in the back of the pick-ups.  I felt only slightly better when I saw the “policia” sign on the side of the truck, I felt much better as it continued in the opposite direction.  It turned out that both those trucks were apparently police so I guess we only saw half a police chase, but then I guess you could say that anytime you see a police car speed past you. In any case, apparently there was some paramilitary activity just to the north of Cumaribo and the police were off in a hurry to check out the situation.

Although that was the last of our paramilitary excitement for the day, it was not the end of the tension. After driving 3 or 4 more hours out into the savannah, we experienced the effects of Big Business and Big Agriculture on remote areas firsthand. First we came across an experimental pine forest, an experiment by several entities including a Japanese business. Pines are of course not native to the area but had been planted to see if they could grow in the environment, they are to be used for their wood, essential oils, and also their roots (those are all the details I got).  It took us 30 minutes to drive through the pine forest.  What would have been beautiful in Canada or another northern landscape was just completely out of context with the ecosystem of the savannah.

Not long after leaving the pine forest we came upon a much scarier experiment; a GIANT, and I mean giant, plantation of soya beans and other genetically engineered crops that went on forever. It was wild. My colleagues said it was just like Avatar.  No one knew about this. It is apparently a huge agriculture experiment run by a state-business partnership, AgroColombia (again, for this post I am getting all of this information from locals on the ground). We all sat quietly as we drove through the seemingly never-ending crops that had replaced the virgin plains. There was an eerie feeling in the air.  We drove by the huge mill they had constructed, a landing strip, and huge monstrous hoes and tractors, and an administration building with rowed rooms, that looked like a motel but I assume were housing for the workers.

Fields of crops, Vichada.

Approaching headquarters.

Big Agriculture, Vichada.

Big Business, Vichada.

I can’t say I felt any safer here than with the almost-paramilitary run-in that morning.  Aside from the wild ecological destruction, the saddest part of these couple of hours was seeing the expression on Hernando’s face when he saw the destruction of his ancestral lands for the first time. He had no idea of the scope of this experiment and there had definitely been no consultation as far as he knew. For the indigenous peoples of Colombia the earth is a living being and the mother of all people.  But for the immense sadness on his face, one could not imagine the pain he must be feeling.

Javier and I, picnic lunch, lost in the savannah, Vichada.

After getting somewhat lost in the savannah, we finally arrived in El Merey. Again, I fell in love with El Merey. There was something about it, it was just so Out there. It was a very small and very poor community.  There was one motorbike that the whole community shared but finding money for fuel was a big problem this far out. The people were very happy to see us, especially the children.  We sat in an open area outside on benches and addressed the community. I was just in my element here. Sitting taking notes at this client meeting felt natural to me although it was a world away from my experiences with clients on Bay Street.  But as far away as it is, the feelings are the same. People are coming to you with problems that are usually the biggest stress in their lives and relying on you to help them. It’s a lot of stress, especially in a situation like this, as Jose Luis put it, when we’re their only hope and they can’t afford for us to go back to Bogota and get busy with other files.

Arriving at El Merey.

The community of El Merey, Vichada.

JL and I hard at work, El Merey.

Hernando translating from Spanish to Sikuani for the people of El Merey.

JL, Javier, Hernando and I with the people of El Merey.

Javier talking to community members.

Me with some new friends in El Merey.

Thumbs Up in El Merey.

The people of El Merey told us of the many effects of this project and of a rubber company operating within the area. Of course there had been no consultation process on any of this. From what we were told the experimental farm is outside of the indigenous reserved territory but it is still on ancestral land.  As for the rubber company, they told us of threats made to members of their community, including threats of violence if they did not come to work for the project and as a result there are in fact members of the community working for that company. We were told of a local woman who was raped by workers from the farm. We were told stories of pollution and environmental illnesses that all began after the arrival of the rubber company. Of scarcity of food and disruption of hunting patterns. Of shortages of food and the resulting hunger. These were the stories of the people in this remote community, long forgotten by most of society, unable to enjoy their inherent rights as indigenous persons.

One last goodbye, Javier and C. leaving El Merey.

We spent one night here in this outpost called El Progreso, Progress.

Morning coffee in El Progreso.

The second community we visited was Chololobo, another Sikuani community.  Although they also told us of environmental issues and scarcity of food, the problem they are most preoccupied with is the question of amplification of their territory. One of the major complications with the amplification is the proper title to a finca, or homestead, on their ancestral land. Many years ago a non-indigenous man married one of the women of the community and as a result of her death, he took power over the land and through a series of transactions the indigenous community no longer has proper title to the land, although they claim that it rightly belongs to them.  The situation has been further complicated by threats from paramilitary groups operating in the area, the non-indigenous title-holders, and lack of any protection from local authorities.

Arriving in Chololobo

The children of Chololobo.

Meeting with community members, Chololobo.

Sikuani Elder, Chololobo.

Although the visits to these communities are incredible, one cannot help but feel the weight of their hope on your shoulders. They simply cannot afford to have us come back to Bogota and forget about them.

I promised them I would bring awareness to their situations by writing about them in my blog. If you could each just pass on this link or “like”/ “share” it on facebook, you would all be helping me fulfill my promise to the people of El Merey and Chololobo.

And in case there was any doubt, Yes, I am once again, head over heels for Colombia.

Big Sky, Vichada.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ana Marìa permalink
    March 11, 2012 9:58 am

    Not only did you have fun, you also got to do very important work in this community! … Ana María…

  2. March 11, 2012 12:01 pm

    Gracias Ana Maria, Hasta la proxima! abrazos

  3. Katie permalink
    March 11, 2012 4:44 pm

    Hi Allison, I got a link to your blog from our mutual friend Sarah MacDonald (we went to Dal together). I lived and worked in Colombia for 6 months as a CIDA intern in 2010. I lived in Catagena and worked with the international oceanographic commission. I love reading about your adventure,s especially in some of the places that I was able to visit as well. It brings back some great memories! -Katie

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