New Internationalist

Indigenous Colombians resist toxic anti-drug spraying

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The Embera community are protesting against the Colombian government’s coca spraying programme that violates their rights. Johanna Rogers reports.

An indigenous community in Northwest Colombia, subjected to aerial-spraying of illegal coca crops, is insisting that the government respect their rights, land and lives.

‘The local Embera community has reported that the spraying has contaminated their water and crops and is causing community members, including children, to fall sick,’ says Thomas Mortensen, of Christian Aid in Colombia.

Christian Aid/ Matthew Gonzalez-Noda
The Embera community has reported that the aerial spraying has contaminated their water and crops and is causing community members, including children, to fall sick. Christian Aid/ Matthew Gonzalez-Noda

The Colombian Constitution and ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples both grant the right of prior consultation to indigenous people for activities on their land.

But this right has been violated by the government.

‘If these agreements had been upheld,’ says Mortensen, ‘the Colombian authorities could have worked with the indigenous community to manually eradicate the coca in the area and protect the Embera community from outsiders’.

Colombia is the only country in the world that permits aerial-spraying of drug producing crops

On 22 July the Colombian Air Force began a process of spraying the coca crops, used to make cocaine, in Alto Guayabal, in Chocó region, north-western Colombia. The aircraft sprayed herbicide indiscriminately, reportedly into areas where there were no illegal crops but only food crops.

The Embera do not oppose the eradication of coca, in fact, in 2012 they approached the government asking for help to eliminate it, while expressing total rejection of aerial-spraying.

Christian Aid/ Matthew Gonzalez-Noda
Colombia has over 100 indigenous groups, many of whom are struggling to retain their traditional culture on territory that is legally theirs, in the face of outside threats. Christian Aid/ Matthew Gonzalez-Noda

Colombia is the only country in the world that permits aerial-spraying of drug producing crops. The practice has been repeatedly condemned by human rights and environmental activists because of its effect on humans and local soil and water systems.

After the spraying, the community wrote to the Colombian authorities denouncing the events. In their letter they demanded respect for their rights and requested urgent health support, emergency food and clean water supplies.

The Embera are one of the 34 indigenous peoples in Colombia identified as at risk of physical or cultural extinction

Colombia has over 100 indigenous groups, many of whom are struggling to retain their traditional culture on territory that is legally theirs, in the face of outside threats.

The Embera are one of the 34 indigenous peoples in Colombia identified as at risk of physical or cultural extinction. Originally from Panama, they have lived in the forest for centuries, but now their very existence is threatened.

Colombia’s Constitution recognizes the rights of ethnic minorities like the Embera but mining companies and armed groups often disregard them.

Christian Aid/ Matthew Gonzalez-Noda
The community demands clean water supplies from the Colombian government. Christian Aid/ Matthew Gonzalez-Noda

However, the community has previously defended its territory, opposing a mining company that entered their land in 2009.

Twelve indigenous communities affected by the project stated that prior consultation was not adequately carried out, and rejected all mining in their territory.

Christian Aid partner organization, Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace, filed a lawsuit on behalf of these communities to stop the project and obtained a ruling in favour of the communities by the Colombian Constitutional Court.

This decision established a precedent regarding the right of indigenous and tribal communities to free, prior and informed consent as well as to carry out consultation processes using their own traditional mechanisms.

Christian Aid/ Matthew Gonzalez-Noda
The Embera have defended their land before, opposing a mining company in 2009. Christian Aid/ Matthew Gonzalez-Noda

Today marks the United Nations day of Indigenous Peoples – this year’s theme is ‘Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honoring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements.’

As the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrilla group continue in Havana, Cuba, Christian Aid is urging that the final peace agreement takes into account land issues and special protection of indigenous people.

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