Part 1 of a report on the indigenous Siona people in the Putumayo region in the Amazon
By David Hill
Placido Yaiguaje Payaguaje, an indigenous Siona man, was standing right where his 80-something mother was blown apart by a land-mine. There was a crater about the size of a beach ball. Surrounding foliage had been shredded, and on some of the leaves and fronds you could still see the dynamite.
This was a 20 metre, steepish climb down to the banks of the River Piñuña Blanco, deep in the Colombian Amazon. Placido’s mother had come here to fish in a lagoon nearby. It was a popular spot for singo, sábalo and garopa.
A rotten zapotilla tree trunk - covered in moss and fungi - now lay across the crater. Placido leant back against it as he spoke, furiously tearing apart a leaf, the pain on his face clearly visible.
“My mother really liked fishing. She told me, “I want to eat some fish. I want to eat some fish from the lagoon. Good fish there,”” Placido told the Guardian. “I said, “Mama, don’t go, don’t go fishing.”
Behind him, watching and listening, wearing a symbolic wooden truncheon over his left shoulder, was Placido’s brother Celio. Downstream, in their village, Puerto Silencio, Celio told a similar story: his mother had loved fishing and he had tried to persuade her to abandon her plans that tragic day, but failed.
“I said, “No, mother, don’t go, it’s better elsewhere” and she said, “No, I’m going” and I said, “No. Better together. . .” But she didn’t wait for me. She went alone,” Celio says. “Then, coming down from the lagoon, it all went wrong for my mother. That was where the mine was. She didn’t think there was anything there.”
Placido and Celio’s mother, Eloisa Payaguaje, a revered Siona elder, was killed six years ago. According to the brothers, the mine had been sown by the “guerrilla” - in this case, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) - to kill Colombian soldiers as part of the armed conflict, or civil war, that has been tearing the country apart since the 1960s. Officially conflict between the government and the FARC ended in 2016 with a historic peace deal, but many people in this part of the country - Putumayo, a FARC stronghold for decades - say that conflict continues, albeit in a slightly different form.
Puerto Silencio has been right at the heart of it, although today it is an apparently typical indigenous village in the Amazon home to some 12-14 families, with a zinc-roofed communal meeting room, school and football pitch in the centre. Hens and dogs wander around, children play, music blares from one house, and there are plots of pineapples, maize, plantains and other crops dotted around. No sense it was once a conflict zone.
But it was once - and still is - a conflict zone. There are more land-mines just behind the school, and new ones reportedly being sown further into the forest by FARC “dissidents.” The atmosphere is one of permanent suspicion, fear and sometimes downright terror. Everyone - or almost everyone - has some horrific story to tell. Celio says the FARC killed not only his mother, but another of his brothers too, after he was accused of collaborating with the government. Now Puerto Silencio’s president, he says that when the village was first settled in the 1980s it really was peaceful - hence the name - but later things changed.
“There has been a lot of violence,” Celio, who has received death threats, says. “You lived permanently frightened. You couldn’t go out at all.”
That partly explains the concern about his mother going fishing. The FARC had expelled the Siona from the village for three months while sowing land-mines in the surrounding forest, according to the brothers, but later claimed there was no danger and refused to accept responsibility for Eloisa’s death.
“The guerrilla turned up at about three in the afternoon,” Celio remembers. “They called for me. “What has happened?” I told them my mother had been killed. They said, “We’re not to blame.””
Today the Siona number roughly 2,600. In 2009 Colombia’s Constitutional Court declared them “the victims of extremely serious individual and collective human rights violations” and “in danger of being physically and culturally exterminated by the internal armed conflict”, along with 33 other indigenous peoples. A 2013 report by the National Centre on Historical Memory found that approximately 220,000 people had been killed during the conflict - with the vast majority of massacres committed by paramilitary groups - while the United Nations Refugee Agency currently estimates that more than seven million people have been internally displaced.
Siona territory centres on the River Putumayo, a major River Amazon tributary, and extends across a huge swathe of Colombia’s Putumayo region as well as over the border into Ecuador. The largest and most heavily impacted Siona village, Buenavista, numbers some 600 people and has legal title to a 5,000 hectare reserve, although the Siona are currently seeking to expand that to over 52,000 hectares under a government land restitution program established under a 2011 law.
The first armed group to enter Buenavista territory was actually other guerrilla, the M-19. They were followed by the FARC, who assumed de facto control, then paramilitaries affiliated to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, and then Colombia’s security forces - the latter receiving billions of dollars from the US from the late 1990s onwards under various programs including the so-called “Plan Colombia”, whose initial multi-millions were mostly intended for anti-drug operations in Putumayo and neighbouring Caquetá.
Effectively, this has meant the Siona have been dragged into both the US’s so-called “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror” - the FARC had been put on the US State Department’s list of “foreign terrorist organisations” back in 1997. In addition, the situation has been made even more complex by the arrival of a UK-headquartered oil company, Amerisur Resources, which will be explored in part 2.
Buenavista’s village is along the banks of the River Putumayo, about two and a half or three hours walk south through the forest from Puerto Silencio, or more than twice that in a motorised canoe. Chief spokesman - the “gobernador” - is Mario Erazo Yaiguaje. He says he has received various death threats and, when leaving the reserve, wears a bullet-proof vest and is accompanied by an armed bodyguard assigned to him by the government’s National Protection Unit. Sitting just up from the river, with several young Siona men behind him kicking a football, Mario told the Guardian that the violence has been so common it is as if the Siona have become “acculturated” to it, although that doesn’t stop them from still feeling “extremely scared.”
“Gunfire could be heard and, instead of running away, people would come out to see where it was,” he says, talking about the conflict at its most severe. “The children particularly. It was normal to hear bombs, it was normal to hear shooting.”
What kind of bombs and shooting exactly? Open battles and skirmishes on the ground, shelling by mortar, strafing from helicopters, land-mines blowing up. For years, both Colombia’s army and the FARC have regularly used Buenavista territory for camps and patrols.
The impacts of all this on the Siona are impossible to convey. Whole areas of their territory have been made off-limits, and often they have found it impossible to hunt, fish, raise crops, harvest medicinal plants or visit friends and relatives. Men and women have been killed, assassinated, tortured, mutilated, “disappeared”, kidnapped, threatened, intimidated, extorted and recruited by one side or another, as well as accused of collaborating or informing, used as “human shields” or sometimes forced to dig bomb shelters. Whole families have been imprisoned in their own homes, or fled to distant towns, or been torn apart. In a village like Puerto Silencio, in the north-east of Buenavista’s reserve, it can be terrifying just to have children - because they might stray into the land-mines.
The Siona’s spiritual and cultural lives have been impacted too. According to Sandro Piaguaje Cabrera, grand-son of Buenavista’s founder and arguably most revered spiritual elder, mortar shelling and gunfire at night has sometimes made it difficult or impossible to conduct ceremonies in which the hallucinogenic beverage “yagé” - more widely known as ayahuasca - is drunk. Yagé is fundamental to Siona culture, healing and community decision-making.
Like Mario, Sandro says he has received death threats. Like Mario too, he wears a bullet-proof vest and is accompanied by an armed bodyguard when he leaves the reserve. Sitting under his house - built on stilts on the other side of the river from Buenavista, in a Siona-Kichwa village, in Ecuador - Sandro told the Guardian how the armed conflict has been impacting the Siona for decades.
“We used to be many here, but now we are few,” he says. “There has been conflict in our ancestral territory for a long time now. It has impacted the community a lot. It has changed the way the younger generation sees things.”
There have been two periods when the conflict has been particularly intense, according to Lina María Espinosa Villegas, Buenavista’s lawyer and a human rights defender. One was in the early 2000s with “Plan Colombia”, which she argues intensified the fight over territory and led to paramilitaries like the Aguilas Negras and Los Rastrojos appearing north of Buenavista. The other was in the mid-to-late 2000s following “Plan Patriota”, another US-backed military operation purportedly aimed at recovering FARC-controlled territory in Putumayo and other southern and eastern regions.
Espinosa, from the international NGO Amazon Frontlines, told the Guardian the violence became “extreme” during those periods.
“There was more Siona displacement, more homicides by the FARC and paramilitaries, more landmines, more forced recruitment, including minors,” she says. “One boy had to sow a land-mine in a part of the forest where he knew his father walked - but couldn’t tell him.”
The Siona say they have also suffered from herbicide being sprayed from small planes in an attempt to destroy coca plants - the key ingredient in cocaine. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states that Colombia is one of the world’s top two coca-producing countries, along with Peru, and Putumayo has been consistently the country’s second most prolific region over the last 10 years. According to Espinosa, coca has been grown in and around Buenavista’s reserve since the early 1990s by “campesinos” and other indigenous people. Given the lack of viable economic alternatives, she says many Siona have found work harvesting coca and a few families cultivate it too, although only at a tiny scale.
Such aerial “fumigations” - effectively a form of chemical warfare - have been carried out in Putumayo since at least the mid-1990s, but they were integral to “Plan Colombia” and increased dramatically in the 2000s. What exactly was sprayed over Siona territory, and in what quantities? According to 2002 and 2003 Narcotics Control Reports by the US’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), within the State Department, the spraying in Colombia was done with glyphosate mixed with water and an adjuvant called Cosmo Flux-411F, while the INL report the previous year says a second adjuvant, Cosmo-IN-D, had been mixed in too.
According to Mario, Buenavista’s gobernador, the fumigations were “indiscriminate” - impacting not just legal crops like manioc and plantain, but people and villages too.
“You had to run for the house [to take shelter from the spraying],” he says. “We lost a lot of traditional plants and crops and there has been a lot of illnesses, infections and skin diseases.”
As early on as mid-2002 - before a further approximately 1.4 million hectares would be sprayed over the next 13 years - national indigenous federation Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia had called the fumigations a “national tragedy.” The Siona, like many others in rural Colombia, report devastating impacts: legal crops destroyed, land and water contaminated, and myriad health problems, including some deaths. Such claims would appear to be questioned by both the US and Colombian governments. All the way through to 2010, INL Narcotics Control Reports state that Colombia’s government investigated “all” claims of health impacts allegedly caused by the fumigations, and that the Colombian National Institute of Health never verified one single case.
The aerial fumigations have now stopped - banned by the Colombian government in 2015, following a controversial World Health Organisation report saying glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic” to humans - but the armed conflict continues. Who is doing the fighting? Numerous Siona interviewed by the Guardian identified the following: the Colombian army, new or established paramilitaries, FARC “dissidents”, some people falsely posing as the FARC, and others dubbed simply “mafia” or “narco mafia.”
In recent months various people have been killed. In April an exchange in the reserve between the army and FARC “dissidents” from its Frente 1 and Frente 48 left four people dead, according to Siona reports to Espinosa, while in March a Siona man was shot along the highway running to one of Putumayo’s biggest towns, Puerto Asís. Last month, just downriver from Buenavista along the route to Puerto Silencio, there was an exchange of fire between the army and “armed groups”, according to Colombia’s Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights Commission.
Placido, in Puerto Silencio, is adamant “the war’s still going on.”
“It’s starting up again now,” he told the Guardian. “It’s just a change of name, that’s all, but the guerrilla still exists. We’re in the same situation as before. No one is safe. The violence continues. The government says “We’re fine, we’ve made peace”, but peace. . . there’s nothing.”
His brother Celio says something similar. “The conflict is still going on. It’s the same people [doing the fighting] from the FARC. They may have another name, but they’re the same.”
Others in Puerto Silencio claim the number of armed groups has actually increased in recent years - partly filling a vacuum left by some FARC.
“The government has said it held peace talks with the guerrilla and so now there is peace,” one man, who didn’t want to be named, told the Guardian. “But for us, as indigenous people, the war goes on. Yes, we know that we no longer hear weapons, gunfire or combat, but the fact we don’t hear that doesn’t mean the armed groups don’t exist. The number has multiplied. More groups than before have appeared. Previously, there was the guerrilla and although we had heard of the paramilitaries they didn’t really have a presence, but now, with less guerrilla and this being a coca zone, new groups are fighting over the territory. The paramilitaries want to take over the coca. Other armed groups - mafia - want to come for it. We don’t know their names, but they’re here. So for us, there’s no peace. The conflict continues as before.”
Mario, in Buenavista, says this “mafia” are attempting to take control of the region. “They’ve called and said they’re in charge,” he says. ““We run the coca. The FARC aren’t here anymore, but we are now.””
One way the different armed groups attempt to assert control is by circulating threatening pamphlets. In just one month last year three appeared - two apparently from the Aguilas Negras paramilitaries and the other from the FARC’s Frente 48, which stated it is continuing with its “revolutionary resistance” although “not opposed to the peace process.” In April this year another pamphlet was circulated, from the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia paramilitaries, issuing threats to numerous individuals and saying anyone found moving around after 10 pm will be assassinated.
Espinosa, Buenavista’s lawyer, interprets this pamphlet as a warning to “abandon the area or be killed.” She agrees with the Siona that new armed groups have arrived and that control of coca - both cultivation and trade - is fundamental to the conflict. She reckons that violence levels are rising again, and that what is happening in Siona territory, like other parts of Colombia, constitutes a genuine “humanitarian crisis.”
“People were very happy when the peace deal was struck. It was like, “They won’t be shooting at us every day”,” Espinosa says. “Yet now it’s more dangerous. [At least] people knew who the FARC was, but now new people have entered and no one knows who they are. Before, people knew who to sell their coca to: the FARC or paramilitaries.”
The situation has become so alarming that Siona federation Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Pueblo Siona (ACIPS) recently issued a statement addressed to Colombia’s outgoing president, Juan Manuel Santos, and other high-level government representatives. It claims armed groups have been “constantly present” in numerous Siona communities, that people have been threatened and killed, that minors are being targeted for recruitment, and that more land-mines are reportedly being sown to protect a coca processing plant. It refers to a “reparamilitarization of our territories” and names some of the paramilitary groups: La Constru, Los Rastrojos, Los Urabeños - “seemingly interested in controlling the cultivation and trade in illicit crops, among other things.” According to the statement, one new group appeared for the first time in April and imposed a curfew between six pm and six am, threatening to shoot anyone found outside their villages during those times.
“Regional, national and civil authorities must take the necessary measures to protect the lives and physical integrity of the Siona,” ACIPS urges, “in a way acceptable to their political leaders, traditional leaders and guardia [an unarmed community protection force], in order to avoid human rights violations - assassinations, recruitment, deaths by land-mines, threats and displacement.”
10 years ago, about half an hour upriver from Buenavista, a raid on a FARC camp in northern Ecuador killed guerrilla commander Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes”, making international headlines. Today the conflict continues to spill into Ecuador too. Two Siona men were assassinated in November, and in recent months four Ecuadorian soldiers and two journalists and their driver, from Quito’s El Comercio newspaper, have been killed. The response by Ecuador’s president Lenín Moreno saying he would “militarise” the region led to an urgent statement from the Siona-Kichwa village on the other side of the river from Buenavista, San José de Wisuya, urging him to re-think his strategy.
“In the frontier zone there are disturbing situations connected to the armed conflict on Colombian soil, the post-conflict agreement and the development of illicit activities to do with narco-trafficking, the advance of the extractive frontier, the appearance of new armed actors, and the reconfiguration of paramilitarism,” Wisuya’s statement reads. “All these permanently, systematically and directly impact the communities along the Ecuador-Colombia border.”
So how have the Siona in Buenavista been responding to the desperate situation in which they find themselves? With numerous initiatives. These include forming the guardia, continuing with attempting to expand the reserve, lobbying for the land-mines to be deactivated, reintegrating some Siona who were recruited into the conflict, reviving yagé consumption, holding communal gatherings, regularly inviting government institutions to their territory, repeatedly expressing their opposition to the oil company Amerisur, and, last month, travelling to the Dominican Republic to participate in a hearing on “Indigenous Peoples and the Peace Accords” held by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Mario, wearing a customary Siona white tunic, told the Commission that the conflict is continuing and his people remain at “serious risk.” He spoke of a “reconfiguration of narco-paramilitarism” fighting with FARC “dissidents” over coca, land-mines still being sown, families still being displaced and minors still being recruited.
This decision to go international - which could include filing a lawsuit against Colombia’s government at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights - has been taken following too little progress at the national level. Mario, like so many others, talks of “total state abandonment.” Arguably the most egregious example of such “abandonment” is the fact that, despite the Constitutional Court’s 2009 ruling that a “Safeguards Plan” must be implemented within six months in order to stop the Siona from being “exterminated”, no such Plan has ever been implemented - not even after almost 10 years.
“The Safeguards are just documents that stay in the drawer,” Mario told the Guardian.
Arguably equally egregious is the government’s failure to deactivate the land-mines behind Puerto Silencio’s school or other parts of Siona territory, despite requests. The Office on Integral Action against Antipersonnel Mines (DAICMA), part of the Ministry of the Interior, visited in June 2017, but the Siona say no action has been taken as a result. In February and again in March Mario wrote to DAICMA’s Gabriel Vanegas asking when deactivation was scheduled to begin and pointing out that it was over a year since Buenavista had first denounced the issue to them, but he has received no reply.
Of course, for Siona like Placido and Celio in Puerto Silencio, DAICMA is already too late. Nothing can bring back their mother. But the brothers’ right to various forms of redress and compensation from government agency Unidad para las Victimas, established by the same 2011 law that created the land restitution program, has come to nothing too.
“Up until now, right now,” Placido had told the Guardian, standing over the crater where his mother was killed, “there’s been nothing. The lawyers came [from the Unidad] and we made the complaint, but nothing has happened.”
DAICMA’s Gabriel Vanegas did not respond to questions from the Guardian. President Santos could be not be reached for comment.