Indigenous tribal leaders want to leave Colombia — but can’t find another place to call home

In June, Colombian indigenous leader Carmelo Yulo and an archaeologist visited the spectacular, remote Bogota park dedicated to his ancestors.

Both found the city and the country hot and toxic.

“The climate is very, very hostile in terms of the environmental degradation,” Yulo said.

Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa has pushed relentlessly through his political agenda and a building boom since he was elected nearly a decade ago. While Peñalosa has vowed to protect biodiversity and water resources, his administration has pushed forward with a new concrete subway and an airport, both projects that locals have vehemently opposed. Residents complain that many government projects don’t consider the consequences for locals.

One of the city’s environmental setbacks lies in a small park with beautiful horses, iguanas and peacocks named after a 19th-century Spaniard named Juan de Maria Ruffillo. In some parts of the park, there have been mosquito epidemics. To worsen matters, the park was once a hotbed of guerrilla activity until it was officially designated as a protected area.

The park today is nearly deserted, and the horse riders have seen things that few human eyes have seen.

“We saw in the park where the enemy was coming, hiding under the river,” said Yulo, whose title is director general of the Colombian Indigenous Association.

Amid the region’s deterioration, the indigenous communities are becoming more vocal. They are protecting natural resources by creating their own emergency response teams, mobilizing volunteers from numerous native groups to reclaim the land around their communities and erecting fenced-in water treatment facilities to prevent construction.

They have even held referendums to decide whether to leave their land, which is now used for construction. But authorities in the country’s capital keep refusing their requests to buy land and settle in new areas.

“I blame the city. This is our primary problem,” said Federico Cirulli, head of the Environmental Protection Association of Santacruz Doce, near the San Carlos waterfall, one of the most famous in Colombia.

Cirulli has created a land committee to evaluate offers from different towns and cities. Most cities are offering more land than what the indigenous want — about 1.8 square kilometers (800 acres) versus the current space allotted of 2.6 square kilometers (1.1 acres).

In a meeting with government officials, they say, they are frequently turned down because the government says they are buying land too small, but that isn’t the case.

“The central government doesn’t understand what this indigenous movement is all about,” Yulo said.

Under Colombia’s indigenous policy, the government provides up to $25,000 per individual to move into a new area. Each indigenous organization gets $200 to $300 per person. The money comes from the government’s in-hand revenue at the national oil company, Ecopetrol.

“The government can’t help when we don’t have enough information,” said Wenceslao Nahua, president of the indigenous association for Santa Marta, where the mayor has proposed expanding roads and houses, expanding a shopping center and building a sports complex.

Yulo and Nahua have seen that even good housing can have negative impacts on the environment. They’ve seen the role of building materials such as concrete, wood and bricks, and a lack of concrete for roads and drains. They say that it’s also hard to install windows and doors on new houses.

“In Santacruz Doce, there were 200 structures and now there are only two,” Yulo said. “Some are burned, others are gone.”

The indigenous said they’ve also seen the impact of many construction projects by non-indigenous Colombian companies, which is now a major source of business for the country.

“These projects come from Amazonia,” Yulo said. “Some of the companies are from communities located in the zone where we protect the streams.”

He worries that to protect the environment, the indigenous movement has to be strengthened so that it can effect greater changes.

While they are fighting for their communities, the indigenous have turned their attention to the wider environment.

“We’re helping ourselves and our families,” Cirulli said. “Now our hope is that we can defend it for the world.”

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