In response, the Constitutional Court of Colombia prepared a list of 34 ethnic groups, including the Jiw community, at risk of disappearance. “The Caño La Sal reservation is exposed to the dynamics of armed groups and the dispossession of their territorial rights, which could lead to the physical and cultural extinction of the ethnicity. The priority of the institutions should be to guarantee them their land,” said Ana María Jiménez, the defense lawyer for the people of Meta.

Palm owned by no one

A team of journalists from Mongabay Latam traveled to Caño La Sal to uncover the problems facing the Jiw community. Thousands of acres of palm surround the roads leading into town. Members of the Jiw community and leaders in Meta say some of the palm is crossing over into their territory. The exact amount of their land being invaded is unknown because the indigenous community’s territorial boundaries must first be verified by the National Land Agency (ANT) of Colombia.

“We don’t know if it’s 1, 2, or 10 hectares, but we are sure that they are on our land. We don’t know who it is because there is lots of palm without an owner. We believe that it could be the paramilitary groups, because they may have brought it here when they arrived,” said David*, a member of the Jiw indigenous community.

The National Federation of Oil Palm Growers of Colombia (Fedepalma), which represents legitimate growers, acknowledges that there are serious deforestation problems in the northwestern Amazon, especially in the departments of Meta and Guaviare. “We have evidence that oil palm has been planted in deforested areas, and we denounce these illegal activities before the Ministry of Environment, the Office of the Inspector General, the police, and the government of Guaviare,” the organization said.

Although the identities of those growing oil palm illegally are still undetermined, individuals or groups with power are likely behind these illegal crops, according to Jiménez, the lawyer in Meta.

This region of Colombia has certain conditions that make it very attractive to armed groups. It’s close to the Colombian Amazon and has little governmental presence, making it a strategic corridor for those seeking out large areas of land on which to plant illegal crops. According to the Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia, some groups also use the area around Puerto Concordia for illegal mining and for trafficking of cocaine, weapons and and fuel.

The loss of forests and water

“We know of the large number of palm crops in many villages in the municipality, not only in [Caño La Sal]. They are legal crops that have a disadvantage: where they are planted, the water sources dry up. Palm absorbs lots of water,” said Edilberto Rincón Tovar, the administrative secretary of the government of Puerto Concordia.

Members of the Jiw community experience water shortages during summer. They often need to walk 40 minutes to the Guaviare River to collect water under the beating sun. During these shortages, diseases associated with water consumption increase dramatically among members of the community. “Water is the bare minimum that humans need to survive, and we don’t have it,” said Hugo*, from Caño La Sal, who also blames the shortage on the cultivation of oil palm.

“The government of Meta promised the construction of an aqueduct, but we have not seen progress. The objective is that they always have drinking water,” Rincón said. He added that when the area’s indigenous people become sick, the municipal administration guarantees them health care and lodging services.

Fedepalma has stated that many other rural indigenous communities in Colombia lack sufficient access to drinking water and that the problem is solely the responsibility of their mayors. Nevertheless, they claim to promote a type of “sustainable palm cultivation” that does not affect the environment.

Finding an environmentally friendly method of cultivating palm is essential, as the current method has put the indigenous people’s food security at risk. Many species of plants and animals that were previously consumed are no longer found in the area.

According to a study by biologist Diana Tamaris of the National University of Colombia, it is likely that deforestation is even causing birds to seek shelter elsewhere. “The absence of birds modifies the architecture of forests and the dispersion of fruits and seeds, impeding the growth of new trees and generating fewer logging resources,” according to the study.

Invisible patterns

According to a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), illegal crops in Meta and Guaviare departments covered 7,258 hectares (about 18,000 acres) in 2018. Although this figure was down 30 percent from 2017, the actual amount of land with illegal crops could vary based on the presence of drug-trafficking routes.

The Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia warns that the precarious government presence in these rural areas, combined with the vulnerability of the Jiw community due to their “relatively recent contact with Western culture,” facilitates the actions of illegal groups aiming to impose their own models of social, economic, and political power.

The Jiw community also recently experienced two massive displacements. The first was in 2011, when armed groups threatened them and they sought refuge in San José del Guaviare. Then, in 2015, two community members disappeared. To protect themselves, the more than 380 people in the Caño La Sal reservation moved to the urban capital of Puerto Concordia, where they lived in municipal housing for almost two years. The body of one of the two missing men was found in 2017 in the Guaviare River, but the case remains unsolved.

Carlos Alberto Cuéllar, a colonel in the National Army of Colombia, said his battalion is currently in control of the area and is focused on guaranteeing the security of the population. “We are always present. Caño La Sal is close to us and there are different ways to get there, like by river or by road, so we are aware of what happens there. That land is included in an early warning and is a prioritized area. It is not abandoned,” Cuéllar said.

A land dispute

Another problem facing the Jiw community is that about 10 families of settlers have invaded their land and begun to restrict their free movement. “We have yucca, bananas, and corn in various places, but the [settlers’] cows eat them. The ‘whites’ do not let us fish either, because they threaten us. They exploit the pipes and the river. We have even seen them mining and polluting everything,” said Alberto*, a member of the Jiw community.

Jiménez says that last year, her office filed a guardianship action — a mechanism that serves to protect fundamental rights in Colombia — before a court in Villavicencio, the capital of Meta. The court ruled in favor of the indigenous community and ordered that the ANT must determine the boundaries of Caño La Sal. “Based on [the boundaries], they need to pay for the recovery of those who occupy the territory. The idea is to establish territorial rights and define limits, because the indigenous worldview is very different from that of the settlers,” Jiménez said.

It is evident that the region is often targeted by large groups of powerful people who aim to implement monoculture regardless of the environmental and social impacts. It is very important to the Jiw community that the authorities act quickly to guarantee them the right to their land so they can cultivate the food they need to survive. For this community, having the right to this land is far from being a luxury. It is the only way they can continue to resist the outside forces that put their community at risk of extinction.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

 Banner image: A Jiw family from the Caño La Sal reservation, by María Fernanda Lizcano.

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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