Colombian Army Helps Rebuild FARC-Ravaged Indigenous Tribal Villages

By Dialogo
September 03, 2013

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Just after midnight on New Year’s Day, Embera Katío tribe leader Reinaldo Domico — an anthropologist and indigenous rights activist — was changing music on his stereo when a man barged into his home in Colombia’s northern mountains. The assailant, masked in a black balaclava, shot Domico four times in the back and head.
Domico’s killer has not been identified or captured, but other Embera Katío tribe members speculate that he was murdered because of his efforts to work with the Colombian government, including the military, to reconstruct his village.
“From the moment we took the decision to work jointly with the state, we have been targeted,” Hector Torres, another Embera Katío tribe leader, said at an Army-sponsored forum last month in Medellín. “But we chose to run this risk because to cross our arms and watch our people die of necessity is not a solution.”
Torres’ village, on the Jaikerazabi reserve in northwest Colombia, has seen the benefits of cooperation with the military. In 2011, it became the first of nine Indian villages that the army’s 7th Division is reconstructing — in a region whose tribes have long found themselves thrust into conflicts among left-wing guerillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug trafficking gangs.
Gen. Hernán Giraldo heads rebuilding project
The driving force behind the army’s involvement in the reconstruction of Jaikerazabi was Gen. Hernán Giraldo, commander of the 7th Division.
Under Giraldo’s command, army engineers built roads, schools, community salons and a health center in Jaikerazabi. They also constructed 200 homes in the traditional Embera style, with thatched roofs and circular wooden frames. Other government branches followed with programs to aid artists, craftsmen and indigenous youth.
Torres saw that Giraldo could provide more than just manpower and security. “The army, led by Giraldo, has been most valuable in coordination between all the institutions of the state,” he said.
With the success of the pilot effort in Jaikerazabi, the 7th Division is now planning on rebuilding eight more Indian villages: six in the department of Antioquia, and two in the department of Córdoba. The projects will benefit about 3,000 indigenous people, including other Embera communities as well as members of the Senú and Kuna tribes.
Bracelets, hats, live chickens and guanabanas
Indian leaders recently honored Giraldo, baptizing him as one of their own at a ceremony where he was given a guanabana (a native fruit), a handcrafted Embera bracelet, a sombrero volteao (a hand-woven hat that’s also the Colombian national symbol) and a live chicken.
Though it may seem unorthodox for a general tasked with rooting out and fighting three different fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to be concerned with the well-being of indigenous populations, Giraldo sees this work as being part and parcel to his primary mission. The guerrillas, he said, often occupy areas encompassing many indigenous reserves.
“The war is integral, there is no way of detaching one of the problems,” Giraldo told the Medellín newspaper El Colombiano. “And it is more difficult to win a war if you are not in the heart of the communities, or of the villages that you represent.”
Hilda Maria Baldovino, tribe leader for 149 Senú families on the Vegas de Segovia reserve in the municipality of Zaragoza, said that Giraldo had recently visited her village, one of the eight selected for rebuilding. He walked the reserve with her, learning of its many problems, among them extreme poverty and lack of schools.
“What he is going to bring and do for my village,” she said, “it is something that I am proud of.”
Colombian Army helps rebuild destroyed villages
Baldovino took part in the army’s forum, held in August at the main military brigade in Medellín. The forum brought together indigenous leaders, military brass and government officials to discuss issues affecting indigenous tribes. These include human rights violations, deforestation and mining.
On her trip, Baldovino’s bus encountered labor protests and was set aflame. Many of her belongings burned, but she still made it to the forum. “I am a tough woman,” she said. “And I’m fighting for my village so that we can have a different life.”
Marco Antonio Ruíz, leader of a Senú tribe on a reserve in the municipality of Necolí, said that about a decade ago the tribe members fled their ancestral lands, uprooted by war and threats from armed gangs. Many have still not returned.
“We are looking for a reconciliation between the army and the indigenous because before we felt like we were abandoned,” he said. “Now we are looking to unite us, to work hand in hand with the institutions of the state.”
Jaikerazabi: An example for other indigenous communities?
Ruíz’s attitude was largely shared among the forum’s indigenous participants, whose reserves are within the jurisdiction of the 7th Division. Their desire to cooperate with the army is made more impressive by the fact that about a year ago in the southwestern Cauca department, the Nasa tribe — weary of being caught in the long-running conflict’s crossfire — demanded that the army leave its lands.
Carlos Salazar, director of the Office of Indigenous in Antioquia, said that Giraldo and the army’s work with the indigenous is “noteworthy” and that it could serve as a lesson to other departments that cooperation is possible.
Torres, the Embera Katío leader, said other indigenous communities will benefit from the type of collaboration that rebuilt Jaikerazabi. “It is something that can be applied to any indigenous community, here in the country or outside of it,” he said.
As a person who studies the indigenous problems in the Amazon, I notice Gen. Hernán Giraldo and the Colombian Army’s initiatives as an excellent strategy to fight terror and other criminal activities that take a significant place inside the Amazon Rainforest.
The indigenous populations, usually excluded from the State’s establishment, become vulnerable and end up involved in illegal activities. I congratulate Gen. Hernán Giraldo and I hope that his initiative is copied by other Amazon Commanders.