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Narcotrafficking Endangers Colombian and Ecuadorean Siona Community

Narcotrafficking Endangers Colombian and Ecuadorean Siona Community

By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo
January 20, 2021

The Siona community, located on the banks of the Putumayo River in Colombia and in the Sucumbíos province in northeastern Ecuador, risks extinction due to the presence of armed groups, paramilitaries, and narcotrafficking, according to the December 3, 2020 report Narcotrafficking Violence Destroys Forests and Corners the Siona People on the Ecuador-Colombia Border of the environmental news portal Mongabay Latam.

Mongabay Latam reported that the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Global Forest Watch (GFW), after monitoring this binational indigenous territory by satellite in coordination with the Ecuadorean media outlet GK, had received about 4,157 deforestation alerts along the border between Colombia and Ecuador from January to October 2020. Of these alerts, 4,027 came from the Colombian Buenavista community.

“We found patches of deforestation located far from the roads, which may indicate the presence of coca [plantations],” Mikaela Weisse, GFW manager, told Mongabay Latam. The monitoring activities also confirmed that these deforestation patches are linked to narcotraffickers, who clean the area to set up labs for the illegal production of cocaine.

This photo taken on October 2020 shows the deforestation in the area inhabited by the Siona community, due to illegal coca crops that destroy forests on the border between Colombia and Ecuador. (Photo: Colombian Ministry of Environment)

About “400 deforested hectares are likely the result of illegal coca crops of armed groups and narco-paramilitaries,” the report says. This is not the only threat to the Siona people; they are also facing the environmental impact caused by drug labs, which use highly toxic chemicals.

On November 26, 2020, Lieutenant Colonel Liz Cuadros, head of the Colombian National Police’s International Center for Strategic Studies against Drug Trafficking, told the Colombian magazine Semana that “the damage to the ecosystem is incalculable. Water pollution with sulfuric acid [used in cocaine production] is something that concerns us more with each passing day.”

According to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, another threat affecting the Siona people is the antipersonnel mines planted by armed groups that seek to control the border area to grow coca and sell the drug.

These explosive devices have not only led to the forced displacement of indigenous people, but have also confined the Siona people to a few known areas, making their traditional practices, such as hunting, fishing, and food gathering, prohibitively risky, the U.S.-based human rights NGO Amazon Frontlines indicated.

In April 2020, armed groups told the Siona people that those who were infected with COVID-19 would be executed, Mongabay Latam said. The threat spread fear and alarm throughout the region. For many years, this Amazon community has coped with violence, the organization added.

Some of the criminal groups identified in the border area of Sucumbíos and Putumayo are dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who belong to Fronts 48 and 49, Los Comuneros, and La Constru, “who not only engage in narcotrafficking, but also have networks dedicated to transporting substances, such as chemical precursors and gasoline, among others,” InSight Crime, a journalistic and investigative organization that specializes in organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, reported on its website.

“In the territory, there is a logic of forced recruitment, or of a threat against community members, which goes: ‘either you plant coca, or you leave,’ or ‘either you collaborate with us, or you leave,’” María Espinosa, legal adviser for the Ecuadorean and Colombian Siona communities, said. “There is an urgent need to implement concerted, immediate, and effective measures to confront the forced recruitment of children and adolescents, who are increasingly at risk,” the Colombian indigenous group Siona ZioBain Buenavista-Wisuya said on Twitter on November 20, 2020.

The Mongabay Latam report concluded that the Siona efforts to protect their territory are extensive, but they are not enough to halt the loss of forests and avoid their own disappearance as a community. “Whatever some may say, I am willing to fight for my community,” said Adiela Jinet Mera Paz, the young leader who appeared in the short film Siona: Amazon’s Defender’s Under Threat presented by The New Yorker magazine on June 23, 2020.

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