- Adiela Jineth Mera Paz is an Indigenous leader and coordinator with the Cuiracua Mai Yija, the Indigenous Guard of the Siona people’s Buenavista reservation in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, on the Colombia-Ecuador border.
- Indigenous communities have experienced water contamination from nearby oil extraction since 2014, affecting the communities’ health and wildlife corridors, says Mera Paz.
- In this interview with Mongabay, Mera Paz discusses leadership roles taken on by Indigenous women and the growing risks her community faces from armed groups, drug trafficking and the oil giant, Geopark.
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz wakes up every morning with only one thing on her mind – protecting her land in Puerto Asis, Putumayo, on the Colombia-Ecuador border. However, this is not an easy task. Along with 44 other volunteers from the Cuiracua Mai Yija, the Indigenous Guard, she is responsible for looking after 4,500 hectares (11,120 acres) of the Buenavista reservation, the primary territory of the Siona people, also known as the ZioBain.
Of the four coordinators, she is the only woman. She was also the Guard’s first female mayor between 2019 and 2020, is a qualified ethno-educator, and she has undertaken leadership training with the U.N. She now leads the reservation’s guardians, who confront drug trafficking, armed conflict, anti-personnel mines and, above all, pressure from extractivists.
Mera Paz’ leadership ambitions first began in childhood. In her grandfather’s “House of Thought” (the space occupied by a wise elder), she would bring together young people and form community leadership groups. Later, as part of a women’s organization, she focused on learning about plant diversity, medicine and the land. She says that it was at this point in her life that she became inspired to focus on protecting her people’s traditional knowledge. According to Mera Paz, spirituality helps her build the resilience and strength needed to protect Mother Earth.
“Zio Bain bos’ëcua cuiracuyija, we are the young caretakers of our territory,” says Mera Paz in the Siona language – emphasizing that her culture is, and will be, preserved.
This is what she lives for, she says, and no other person or entity has been able to convince her otherwise. This includes an ongoing battle against the oil giant Amerisur, now called Geopark, which has long shown an interest in the community’s ancestral territory, home to 210 families. Residents have opposed the multinational’s arrival, having already seen and experienced the impact of an industry that, they believe, thrives on exploitation.
In this interview with Mongabay, Mera Paz talks about the key to protecting her territory and the pressures the Siona community is facing from the extractive industry.
INTERVIEW WITH ADIELA JINETH MERA PAZ
Mongabay: What is your greatest fear?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: I am afraid that the countries [Colombia and Ecuador] which have the authority and duty to protect our rights, will not do so. I am afraid that we will disappear. We are living in a world where war and the interests of a few are prevailing over all else.
Mongabay: The Constitutional Court recognized your community as at risk of physical and cultural extinction. Do you think this is a real possibility?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: Yes. We are facing this risk because the state has abandoned us – because of [anti-personnel] mines, oil companies, illegal armed groups, drug trafficking, pollution […] But even in the face of all this, we continue to defend what is ours and preserve our legacy.
Mongabay: What measures do you use to protect your territory and guarantee your community’s continued existence?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: In the past, it was the elders who protected the territory. Because of their spiritual knowledge, they protected the land with their medicine and transformed it into what it is today. The territory was also protected spiritually. However back then, we did not face the same amount of pollution, invasion, isolation and territorial limitations that we see today in Colombia and Ecuador. This territory has now captured the interest of many because they know that we have preserved the land’s richness. That is why we were born as guardians, as the Cuiracua Mai Yija. Although we continue our legacy of spirituality, we now also take care of the land and biodiversity itself.
There are 45 volunteers, including men, women and young people. Of these, four of us are coordinators. I am the only woman, and my role is to support the general coordinator. Our day-to-day work is hard because we have to keep an eye on 4,500 hectares (11,120 acres) of land. We are the ones on the front line when risks arise, but when we need more people, the rest of the community supports us.
Mongabay: What particular issues do the Siona people in Puerto Asis face?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: Because of state neglect [and poverty], both in Colombia and Ecuador, there are families that take risks producing illegal crops. In order to survive, they are involved in different parts of the supply chain and its commercialization. The recruitment of children by illegal armed groups has also increased.
Between 2009 and 2015, which were the hardest years, our Guard was highly impacted by the planting of [anti-personnel] mines. It restricted us because we couldn’t move around; We were trapped, and we had many fatalities. There have been talks of mine clearance, but this has not progressed. We are limited in our ability to travel through the territory, and we still have to put ourselves at risk to prevent multinationals and armed groups from exploiting our land. We have said it before, and we will continue to say it: We do not want extractive companies on our territory.
Mongabay: With so many limitations in movement, how does the Guard manage to travel around the territory and confront territorial threats?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: We, the Cuiracuas Mai Yija, are prevented from moving freely but we still do it in order to protect Mother Earth. […] The Amazon has a lot of wealth and protects life, but the multinational corporations, that support pro-extractivist governments, do not see this importance. Meanwhile, we Indigenous people are in the midst of war and exploitation.
Many of our elders had to abandon their territories, but we will not do that. The Amazon is being abused, and the only ones who can fight at this time are Indigenous communities – as is our legacy. We have to protect it, not only for ourselves, but for future generations. That is what motivates us and keeps us going.
Mongabay: How has oil extraction affected your community?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: We are in the area of influence of a company that used to be called Amerisur, which is now called Geopark. In 2009, the company wanted to enter our territory but we did not allow it. Then, in 2014, they held a consultation, and we again responded with a resounding “no”. Within our Guard, customs are still maintained and we are determined to preserve our way of life. The company was planning to carry out seismic work, with seven lines that practically crossed the center of the community. We knew that the blasts would affect our animals, plants and water, so we decided not to allow them access.
Mongabay: Although Geopark did not successfully gain access to the protected 4,500 hectares (11,120 acres) of land, they now do work in the ancestral territory surrounding them.
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: The company created ruptures around our territory and affected wildlife corridors, which literally give life; They are the places our water is sourced from. They are the plants that feed us and the animals. The company dumped toxic waste and polluted the area.
In 2015, for example, a pipe was running through the bottom of the river, crossing the nearby Putumayo River. Despite the damage and complaints that we made, there was no compensation. When waste is dumped, sometimes the smell coming downriver is unbearable. That is just one example of the enormous damage being done to a small portion of our territory, where we can no longer even consume the water. Now, imagine what is happening in the rest of the area.
Our elders tell us that “we used to go there to hunt and fish”. Today, those places are occupied by oil companies. They were important for our people. We used them to hunt, fish and gather food for sustenance and medicine. In this territory lies our spiritual resistance. For Indigenous people, territory is life. Without land, we are not Indigenous.
Mongabay: Has the health of anyone in the community been affected by the toxic waste?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: Yes, of course. We women can no longer go to the river or bathe, because vaginal and skin infections have increased. We have evidence to prove this. You can no longer drink the water either. So, we wait for rainfall to collect rainwater and drink in order to try to reduce the amount of contamination.
Mongabay: Do you have less access to medicinal plants and food?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: Yes, we do. The most significant medicinal areas of our sites have been invaded with mines and contaminated with waste dumping. When the wildlife corridor was cut, some plants dried up. Even the animals started to leave. We can no longer feed ourselves as we used to.
We eat fish from the river, but we don’t know what harm it could be doing to us. It probably contains mercury as the water has toxic waste. But what else can we do? We have to take the risk. There is no state to protect us, so it is up to us. Our land is our lifeblood, and we will continue to care for it so that it can carry on sustaining us as human beings.
Mongabay: Has the arrival of oil companies in your ancestral territories caused division among members of the communities? Has it affected your customs in any way?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: When we were consulted in 2014 by the company that wanted access to our territory, it did create divisions. We were going to reach a decision between the three communities in the area, but the company began offering money to our elders to [campaign] in their favor. This led to a spiritual, social and community breakdown when their way of thinking and interests changed.
They offered 180 million pesos ($46,600) to my Guard (Buenavista), in order to compensate for potential damage. The ambitions and bad faith of the company led to a lack of unity as a people. I do not know what they offered the other two communities, Santa Elena and Piñuña Blanco, but they said yes to approving the seismic exploration. Everyone went their own way.
After that, the two communities managed to receive a proportion of what the company offered. But later, when they saw the resistance our community was putting up, they came to terms with the importance and respect that Mother Nature deserves – which was going to be violated. We are now more united and conscious.
Mongabay: How challenging is it for an Indigenous leader to go up against a multinational company when you are also surrounded by legal and illegal armed groups?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: As a leader and as an Indigenous woman who lives in this territory, I have seen that going up against oil companies and confronting the interests of those involved in developing extractive activities poses a threat to the integrity of our community. We have already shown that the increased risks we are facing are directly related to our struggle. The threats against us increase as extractive interests grow.
Although there are groups that say they will protect us, like Colombia’s National Protection Unit (NPU), there are no guarantees. They do not take into account that we need a different type of protection. For example, they entrust our protection to people from the city who just cannot understand what our risk factors are. For example, they gave us cell phones even though we practically have no signal. They do not consider the reality of our daily lives.
Mongabay: What is the situation for other neighboring Indigenous communities?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: In Ecuador they are also resisting. We have worked with the Kofan community of Sinangoe. Although they are not experiencing the same conflict as us, they are experiencing other types of violence. They are currently fighting extractive industries and recently won a court ruling to protect their 67,000 hectares (165,560 acres) from illegal mining, which also impacts and pollutes the territory. Like us, their way of life is at risk of extinction. That is why, together with different communities and organizations in Ecuador and Colombia, we are working on initiatives to defend the land, making it clear to extractive companies that Indigenous people are not for sale or partake in negotiations.
Mongabay: The state also plays a role in protecting Indigenous people. Do you think this is being done?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: We have been granted precautionary measures both nationally and from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to whom we have reported the damage we have suffered. But even then, the Colombian competent entities have not complied with their orders. This means that we do not have a state that can guarantee our protection. We have filed complaints with the National Environmental Licensing Authority, with Corpoamazonia, and with many environmental organizations, but nothing happens. We know that as Indigenous people there are laws to protect us, but they are being ignored. That is why we have to continue to fight.
Mongabay: What is the most difficult part of being an Indigenous leader? What challenges does a woman like you have to face?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: Indigenous women leaders have to overcome many obstacles because inequality persists. They think we can’t do it. I was mayor of the Buenavista Guard for two years (2019-2020), but it is not easy for women to access leadership positions. Many people disagree on the subject because they fear that we cannot take charge of certain situations. But even though I am not the mayor this year, I am still working and assuming the risks that leadership entails: threats, accusations, stigmatization and rights violations. Women are willing to face them.
Mongabay: Several studies have shown that Indigenous people play a fundamental role in preserving biodiversity, such as protecting the Amazon. How can you make governments understand this?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: I really believe that most governments, not just the Colombian government, are highly extractivist and that their primary concern is capitalist interests. Disasters that have occurred have happened because nature itself is asserting its power; it senses what is happening around the world. Unfortunately, those in power do not understand that.
Our [Indigenous] knowledge serves to protect the planet, that much is clear. How beautiful would it be for these territories to become a place of peace? A place where new generations feel the love, the deep roots, the struggle and resistance that have endured for so many years. As Siona people, we are millenarians. My wish is that someday we can live in peace and preserve the territory.
Mongabay: Is that your greatest dream?
Adiela Jineth Mera Paz: It is my greatest wish. That the legacy of the ZioBain people is upheld, that we can continue to fight and resist, that someday we can say, “we did it”, and that we can all live in peace – true peace.
Banner image: In 2019, Adiela Mera Paz was the first female mayor of the Siona people’s Buenavista Guard in Putumayo. She is now 39 years old and coordinates the guard that protects the territory. Image courtesy of Adiela Mera.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here: