- The Siona Indigenous group inhabits communities in two Indigenous territories: Buenavista in Colombia and the smaller Wisuyá in Ecuador.
- Both territories have seen increasing deforestation in recent years, which sources attribute to oil extraction, logging and the clearing of land for illicit crops – mainly coca, which is used to make cocaine.
- Armed groups control the trade and processing of coca and sources say those who oppose them face violent reprisal.
The Siona are a binational people, their territory straddling two countries: Sucumbíos province in northeastern Ecuador and in the Putumayo department in southeastern Colombia. But the forest they depend on and even their very lives are under increasing threat due the growing of coca crops to produce cocaine and the armed groups that are trafficking it.
“The quarantine has only worsened the problems they already had before the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Andrés, a member of the Siona Indigneous group who prefers not reveal his real name for fear of reprisal. He added that, “the pandemic has put the whole world into quarantine, but in fact it has not quarantined some of the extractive activities in the territories.”
Two Indigenous territories belong to the Siona: Buenavista in Colombia and the smaller Wisuyá in Ecuador. While both territories have seen a rise in deforestation rates over the past several years, Adriana Rojas, from the Colombian Gaia Foundation, says the Wisuyá area is the more affected of the two.
Sources say oil drilling, mining, logging and, in particular, the cultivation of illegal crops are behind the territories’ rise in deforestation. Lawyer María Espinosa believes that this “has a direct relationship with the coca business and with the expansion of extractivism.”
Andrés said there are illegal coca crops in his territory, as well as “cooking facilities” — mobile homemade drug laboratories that are used to process coca into cocaine. He said added on the Colombian side “there are crops, but on the Ecuadorian side there is homemade drug making and the processing of crude oil to extract fuel and supply it for processing coca leaves.”
Espinosa said that forest is cleared to create these mobile drug labs. “Then in the lower region all the infrastructure is developed which, as has been pointed out, is a mobile homemade infrastructure, so you can have a cooking facility located somewhere for a few weeks or months and then move it,” she said. In other words, each time a lab is moved, a different part of the forest is cleared.
According to a 2019 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) seven cocaine production enclaves have been identified since 2015. One of them is situated in Putumayo, on the border with Ecuador.
However, broad gestures to protect land may not be enough to stem the tide of deforestation while safeguarding Indigenous communities. In Ecuador, the government launched a strategy in 2010 to protect forest along its border with Colombia via the creation of the Cuembí Triangle Protective Forest, a protected area of 104,238 hectares that would be controlled by the Armed Forces. However, the decision was rejected by Siona Indigenous communities who alleged it was made without Indigenous consultation and consent. In July 2020 the Constitutional Court of Ecuador ruled in favor of the Siona and declared the designation of the Cuembí protected area unconstitutional.
Between 2010 and 2017, while the Cuembí protected area was in effect and forest protection shifted from Indigenous community members to the armed forces, the loss of forest doubled, according to EcoCiencia.
“The designation did not seem to reduce the trend in deforestation to any extent,” said María Olga Borja from EcoCiencia. Borja added that this deforestation has increasingly encroached into Siona territory.
In addition to deforestation, sources say the cocaine industry is also polluting water sources that the Siona depend on. Processing coca leaves into cocaine requires using lime and acid, as well as large amounts of water. Because of this, drug labs are usually installed near water sources such as rivers, which may become contaminated with cocaine waste.
According to María Espinosa, these illegal activities are controlled by “third parties, non-Indigenous people, who come with the incentive of being able to cut down the forest to plant coca.” Espinosa said three such armed groups are known to operate in Buenavista and Wisuyá.
According to the Office of the Ombudsman of Ecuador, armed groups active in the area include the First Front and La Mafia. The First Front is a dissident faction of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). La Mafia is a paramilitary narco structure made up of dissidents, according to Espinosa. The third group, Border Command, emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Espinosa told Mongabay that in April 2020, the armed groups announced to the Siona as well as other Indigenous groups who also live along the border river, that anyone who became infected would be executed in order to control the infection rate. Espinosa said this caused fear throughout the area, but it also forced communities to take the pandemic more seriously and compelled them to establish strict quarantine protocols.
Threats and harassment from armed drug groups are not entirely new. A report from the Office of the Ombudsman of Ecuador states that on August 7, 2018, the Siona requested humanitarian assistance “given the serious human rights situation that we face due to the active presence of various armed groups in the area, disputing territorial control, a presence that to date has meant confinement through the control of schedules and mobility and the laying of new antipersonnel mines.”
Harold Burbano, general coordinator for the protection of Human Rights of the Ecuadorian Ombudsman’s Office, says the complaints and requests for help go back to 2008. He says that, so far, they have received three related to the “issue of the violation of their right to self-determination by Colombian armed groups.” In accordance with Article 57 of the Constitution of Ecuador, communities are guaranteed “not to be displaced from their ancestral lands.”
Burbano acknowledged that there is harassment of Siona and other Indigenous leaders.
“For example, we have even had complaints about armed strikes in this area” and curfews, he said, adding that monitoring and enforcement by the Siona Indigenous guardians – a group of Indigenous people charged with patrolling the territory – has been effective against invasions.
Espinosa said that the presence of the guardians has been vital for preserving their territory. Although there has been an increase in deforestation, she said the guardians have helped keep it from the reaching the center of Buenavista territory.
However, Borja cautions that while the guardians are doing an excellent job of protecting their forest, “they are not indestructible and do not have the resources to be able to form perfect barriers to deforestation.”
Burbano says that they have asked the authorities “for a greater effort in relation to border control, not military control, but some other kind such as radar so that there are no incursions.”
Between 2012 and 2013, the FARC laid landmines in Buenavista, according to a report by the Ministry of the Interior of Colombia, the Office of the Ombudsman, the State Attorney General’s Office and other Colombian institutions. The report states these mines were laid “with the aim of controlling the movement of the civilian population through the territory and avoiding activities by the Armed Forces to eradicate illicit crops” and that the planting of mines caused the forced displacement of Indigenous Siona from Buenavista and the confinement of those who refused to leave. Even though the FARC officially disbanded in 2016, local residents say they still live in fear of stumbling over a forgotten landmine.
On July 14, 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted protective measures for Siona authorities and families in Colombia due to the threats they face from armed groups. However, more than two years later, the situation remains unchanged.
Jorge Acero, a lawyer for the organization Amazon Frontlines, says that over the years many people have been leaving Buenavista and Wisuyá communities. Those that remain, he said, have more or less acclimated to a threatened way of life.
“Throughout history, the people in the communities have lived with this situation, so in some way they have adapted to this way of life,” Acero said.
Espinosa said that there is a “logic of forced recruitment through threats against community members of ‘either you sow coca or you leave; either you collaborate with us or you leave’.”
This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was first published by Mongabay Latam on December 03, 2020.
Banner image by Mateo Barriga Salazar / Amazon Frontlines.
Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.
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