- The Yurí-Passé are at risk of coming into contact with illegal miners and drug traffickers, which violates their right and deliberate decision to live in isolation from the Western world.
- According to one study, mercury levels in the blood of communities living along the Caquetá river and its tributaries, such as the Puré River, are much higher than the average.
- Although the Puré River area is located in a protected area, mining activity has increased following a number of threats made against park rangers and an arson attack on a cabin belonging to Colombia’s Natural National Parks authority (PNN) by FARC dissidents. Despite military operations, mining activities continue, with dozens of dredgers thought to be operating on the river.
Throughout 2022, Colombian authorities identified the presence of 40 dredgers on the Colombian side of the Puré River, with another 200 operating on the Brazilian side, where it is known as the Pururé River. This body of water crosses the border, and with it, so do various types of illegal activities. The public’s attention was first drawn to this region in the Amazon jungle through the book ‘Lost in the Amazon’, by Germán Castro Caycedo, which includes the voices of those living there. The book narrates the story of the disappearance and rescue attempts of Julián Gil, a fur trader who decided to go deep into the rainforest lying between the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo.
Since its publication, no reliable data regarding the existence of the peoples around Puré River was available until 2010, when Roberto Franco García, an anthropologist and environmentalist, carried out an investigation in the area. Now it is known that more than 200 people from the Yuri-Passé ethnic group live in the jungle between the Caquetá, Putumayo, and Puré rivers. Exact figures remain unknown because no national census has been carried out in the area, in line with the Yuri-Passé people’s wishes to continue living in isolation from the rest of society. This is a decision made out of the desire to preserve their lives and customs, and to protect themselves from evangelization, exploitation and the presence of armed groups.
What is known about these groups comes from the findings of Franco García’s investigations before his death in a plane crash in 2014 while he was flying over the Amazon. His knowledge about these communities was recorded in his opus magnus, ‘Cariba Malo,’ which detailed how, towards the end of the 19th century, the Indigenous peoples of the region migrated deep into the rainforest, fleeing rubber tappers and isolating themselves from the Western world for good. However, they now find themselves threatened by the growth of activities such as illegal mining since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the new routes being carved open in the region for drug trafficking, leaving them once again at the mercy of violence.
As Juan Felipe Guhl, coordinator of the ‘Sustainable Dynamics’ research project at the Amazonian Scientific Research Institute SINCHI, explained “these communities are not in voluntary isolation because they are isolated, but because of the dynamics of violence against these communities.” That is, that they are forced to live in isolation in order to be able to protect and preserve their lives and culture.
Protection of rainforest in jeopardy
In March 2022, an operation was carried out as part of ‘Operation Artemis’, a Colombian military strategy seeking to stop deforestation and illicit activities in the Colombian Amazon. Speaking about the action, the then Defense Minister, Diego Molano, said: “On the instructions of President Duque and after a meeting of the Security Council, it was determined that there was a threat against the Puré National Natural Park (PNN) due to illegal mining practices being carried out on Colombian territory with dredges that are coming upriver from Brazil and threatening to contaminate this tributary.”
A second operation conducted in October 2022 resulted in the destruction of seven dredges on the Puré and Cotuhé rivers, as well as the destruction of three motor pumps and seven motors. As Colonel William Castaño, director of carabineros and environmental protection of the National Police explained, “[what] we managed to learn in the course of this operation is that around five to seven grams of mercury are being poured into the river for each gram of gold that is extracted [by the illegal miners].”
Ever since its conception, Operation Artemis has been criticized by civil society organizations, researchers and environmentalists, who argue that military operations are not the sole and exclusive way to protect the Amazon from illegal economic activities. In the words of one researcher, who works in the area and who preferred not to be named for security reasons, “Operation Artemis does not solve anything. A few months ago when we flew over the area we saw a burned [dredge] and there were already two new ones next to it, restarting activities. So the operations are not effective.”
Another critical voice came from the Ideas for Peace Foundation, who said in their report, entitled ‘The Armed Forces and Environmental Protection,’ that the operations have been criticized for the disproportionate use of force against civilians, “as well as their focus on the weakest links in criminal chains.”
According to another anonymous source, the problems in the Puré River region are a transnational issue that, given the challenges and obstacles involved, should be treated as such by the different governments of the Amazonian region and the organizations on the ground, who should cooperate on the issue. “They should start by demanding that the mining bosses be tracked down, because whenever they do these kinds of operations they always just catch the woman who prepares the food or the mine workers, who are often Indigenous themselves, but they never catch those responsible,” the anonymous expert said.
About 990,000 hectares (2.4 million acres) of land located between the Putumayo and Caquetá rivers, on the border with Brazil, were allocated for the creation of the Puré River National Park. One of the main reasons for the creation of the park was to protect the Yuri-Passé people, under a 2002 resolution by the Colombian environment ministry. The other main reason was to control illegal mining practices in the region and water pollution.
The Puré National Park is divided in two: 529,000 hectares (1.3 million acres) of land, referred to as the ‘intangible zone’, in which no type of activity is permitted, are cordoned off for Indigenous groups living in isolation. The rest, measuring 470,000 hectares (1.1 million acres), is the pristine area for biodiversity research and monitoring activities, which aim, for example, to expand knowledge of the region’s flora and fauna. As previously reported by Mongabay, only 0.6% of the Puré National Park’s fauna is currently known. In 2019, some 30 species were captured on camera traps in the Puerto Franco sector of the park, named after the anthropologist Roberto Franco, where the park rangers’ cabin once stood.
The cabin was built by Colombia’s Natural National Parks authority (PNN) in 2016 in a strategic location from which access to the Bernardo-Hilo and Puré river basins could be controlled, while avoiding contact with isolated Indigenous groups. Thanks to the work of the PNN, drug trafficking routes and the presence of armed groups, especially the Carolina Ramírez Front of FARC dissidents, were held back from the intangible zone of the national park. In 2020, however, the maloca, or Indigenous longhouse, in which Luis Rivas – a park ranger and a member of the Cubé people – lived, was set on fire. The armed assailants threatened the 15 park rangers working in the Amazon region, who then were forcibly displaced from their territories. In March 2022, after the military operations on the river, the owners of several rafts were prosecuted for allegedly invading the protected area, according to information provided by the Attorney General’s Office. In the two and a half years that have passed since the start of the pandemic, the PNN have not been able to return to the region.
“It’s like a village floating on the Puré River”
The Puré river basin has historically been used for mineral extraction, on both the Colombian and Brazilian sides, which has caused great damage to the Indigenous peoples in the region, not only because of the dangers that they could be exposed to as uncontacted peoples, but also because of the significant mercury pollution, environmental degradation and deforestation.
According to the Amazonian Regional Alliance for the Reduction of the Impacts of Gold Mining – made up of a number of social organizations such as the Amazon Conservation Team, the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), the Gaia Foundation, the WWF, and the Frankfurt Zoological Society –, which investigates the effects and impacts of mercury pollution in the region, mining had been on the increase since 2019 but shot up after the park rangers were forced out in 2020 and the park ranger cabin was burnt down in 2021, two events that coincided with an increase in the presence of dredgers operating on the river. “You used to see about 10-15 rafts. In 2020, there were already 40 dredgers there. Now it’s like a village floating [on the river],” one source, who works in the region, claimed.
The Alliance have also shown how between January 2019 and September 2022 more than 620 hectares (1,532 acres) of rainforest along the banks of the Pururé River in Brazil have been affected, according to satellite images. One of the major impacts of mining activities on the river is the alteration of river channels and fluvial dynamics. This is caused when gold is extracted from the river, a process in which heavy machinery and chemicals alter the body of water, damage and destroy the riverbed, cause overflows and floods, as well as the loss of aquatic habitats, and interrupt ecological processes.
One of the organizations belonging to the alliance has monitored how the banks of the Puré River have changed over time. In their satellite images, large patches of land can be seen near the water. One might think that they are natural beaches, but these patches were in fact created after trees were felled and the soil eroded. The hoses of the dredges suck up the soil before spitting out mounds of destroyed earth back into the river. The miners use scythes to cut down the trees along the riverbank in order to prevent accidents with their boats.
Some workers set foot on land to continue felling trees, creating clearings where they build small settlements that feature numerous brothels. In a flyover in September 2022, the expert who had been working in the area for several years and who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons was able to make out a clearing of over one and a half hectares (3.7 acres), which will likely soon be turned into a small settlement where those working on the dredges will pass by to stock up on supplies.
According to the same source, 200 hectares (494 acres) of land have been deforested along the Brazilian side of the banks of the river. “The Puré River is 370 kilometers long on the Brazilian side. We have [satellite] images of 137 kilometers of this, in which there are currently, at least, 130 dredges operating. We do not have any recent images of the other 200 kilometers, however we think that there are approximately just under 200 more dredges operating there. This would mean that there are nearly 1,000 people working on the river,” the expert explained. This represents a danger to the ecosystem on the Colombian side, and with the mining taking place within the boundaries of the Puré National Park, this also represents an environmental crime. On top of this, the risk to the uncontacted Indigenous peoples of the region is great, for illegal miners may come into contact with them, violating their right to remain in isolation.
According to Colombian law, Decree 1232 of 2018 was created for the prevention and protection of the rights of Indigenous peoples in isolation. The decree establishes sanitary boundaries in order to prevent and stop the spread of diseases between communities living nearby and those in isolation. As the Amazonian Scientific Research Institute SINCHI explained, “the Yuri-Passé do not have the same immune system as we do. Those who come into contact with [Indigenous people] living in isolation are not exactly people who have an interest in them, neither in the communities themselves, nor in the maintenance of the environment. One person from wider society could bring them [into contact with] viruses that would put the whole community at risk of death.”
“Nothing will be able to grow in the river”
For the Puré River, the presence of mining activities means the production of increased levels of sediment, which occur in two moments: once when the material is removed from the soil and carried away by the current. The second instance is when material that has been extracted is washed in hoppers, a funnel-like container, and the remaining sediment left at the bottom of the container is then poured back into the water. As the alliance explained, this has several consequences, such as making the water murkier, which prevents the sun from reaching the algae, plants and microorganisms, thus rendering the river sterile and unable to support life forms.
Since 2018, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), supported by the Embassy of the United States of America in Colombia and the Colombian Ministry of Mines and Energy, has published a report entitled ‘Alluvial gold mining. Evidence from Remote Sensing’. This year the report found that the Caquetá and Puré rivers have some of the largest alluvial gold mining operations in the country . The Puré River also features on the list of rivers where the highest number of alerts for illegal mining were recorded in Colombia.
The issues caused by illegal mining activities on the Puré River go far beyond the increased levels of sediment in the river. Mercury pollution is another major issue, as it is used to separate the gold from the rest of the material from the river. In doing so, it pollutes the environment and affects the health of the local population. As one investigator from the Alliance explained, who also wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, “the environmental impacts described above directly affect the right to life and self-determination of Indigenous peoples, and are especially harmful to Indigenous peoples living in isolation, given their absolute dependence on natural resources for their survival.”
According to a study on the impacts of mining activities carried out by the Colombian department of Amazonas’ health secretary, the environmental body in charge of this region of the country, Corpoamazonía, and Colombia’s Natural National Parks authority found that mercury levels in the blood of Indigenous communities on the Caquetá River – of which the Puré is a tributary – are much above the average. According to Colombia’s National Institute of Health, an individual that has been exposed to mercury should have no more than 15 micrograms of the metal per liter of blood. It is therefore cause for concern that, at least in the middle Caquetá River basin, these limits have already been exceeded.
The World Health Organization (WHO), has stated that mercury consumption can be toxic and that it causes major neurological disorders as well as malformations in fetuses and children. This is further complicated for two reasons, as Sergio Vásquez, the Gaia Foundation’s advocacy and strategic communications advisor, explained. Firstly, there is not even a word in the Indigenous communities of the region’s language to describe what is happening due to the consumption of contaminated food. And secondly, there are no clear figures and impacts on the populations living in isolation. As several different organizations belonging to the alliance have stated, mercury contamination levels could be much higher in the region since the Puré River, unlike the Caquetá River, is much narrower and also has more illegal rafts operating on it, which would mean that higher concentrations of mercury are present in the water.
“They are at constant risk”
Mercury pollution is affecting the lives of Indigenous communities across the Amazon. The Gaia Foundation has studied the impacts that activities using mercury have on these communities, including specific impacts on Indigenous women, children and the elderly. The investigation divided the types of impacts into several categories, starting with the impact of mining activities on their cultural and organizational rights. It has been observed that the number of negative impacts increase in cases where it concerns more than one category of individuals that the Colombian constitution is supposed to protect, such as women and Indigenous people. According to Sergio Vásquez from the Gaia Foundation, mercury contamination and changes in the ecosystem have a different impact on women.
Some of the other impacts caused by mining activities, as another of the organizations from the alliance explained, is that illegal actors and the dynamics they create with their actions are pushing uncontacted Indigenous peoples into a corner and making the intangible zone of the Puré National Park ever smaller. Another factor that is impacting the lives of Indigenous peoples living on the Puré River and in the protected area is the presence of drug trafficking. As one source who works on the ground said, the routes that are being opened for illegal commerce to flow through the Puré National Park and over to the Brazilian side of the border are passing directly through Indigenous territory. These armed groups that travel down the Caquetá River are, according to an investigation by InSight Crime, part of the major organized crime groups of Brazil (such as the Familia del Norte UN, the Comando Vermelho – CV and the Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) that control illicit trade in their countries and the drug trafficking routes to Europe. Their presence in the Puré River region is a direct violation of the Yuri-Passé’s right to remain uncontacted.
Mining on the river has also led to an increased competition for resources, as the thousands of people who work on the rafts and dredges compete for food with the Indigenous population of the Amazon rainforest. Like the Indigenous peoples of the region, the miners also hunt and fish, which leads to a shrinking pool of resources for the Yuri-Passé. There is also the fact that “it is not even known whether the miners are also consuming fish and water that has been contaminated with mercury. But it is almost certain they are,” as one researcher working on the ground said.
To date, no efficient environmental practice for mining prevention and control by the Colombian government exists. The body in charge of the area, Colombia’s Natural National Parks authority is unable to maintain a constant presence in the area due to the threats and harassment faced by their park rangers. In fact, in response to a right of petition, the body acknowledged the constant threats from illegal armed groups in the national park. Two of the organizations involved in the Alliance agree that this activity increased dramatically in 2019 and that everything got worse after the burning of the Puerto Franco cabin.
Illicit activities make their way down the Puré River into Brazil without any kind of control. There is no border to change the dynamics of the river. According to a study by the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), at least 7% of the 112 tons of gold produced in Brazil in 2021 was of illegal origin, with a further 25% potentially being of illegal origin. The communities of the region continue to be at risk of being contacted by armed groups or miners, as well as being threatened by the risks posed to the Amazonian ecosystem and biodiversity. One can only speculate what the Yuri-Passé people think and make of the consequences of mercury pollution on their land, when in their language the words for this kind of “poison” do not even exist.
Banner image: Nothing holds back the destruction wrought by mining rafts and dredges on the Puré River. Image courtesy of the Amazonian Regional Alliance for the Reduction of the Impacts of Gold Mining.
In 2022, the presence of at least 40 dredges in the protected area of the Puré River was recorded. Credit: the Amazonian Regional Alliance for the Reduction of the Impacts of Gold Mining.
This investigation is part of a partnership between Rutas del Conflicto and Mongabay Latam.
This article was first published on Nov. 17, 2022, here on Mongabay’s Latam website.
Editor’s note: This coverage is part of the “Amazonian Rights in Focus: Protection of the Peoples and the Forests” project, a series of investigative articles about the current situation surrounding deforestation and environmental crimes in Colombia. It is financed by Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. Editorial decisions for the project are taken independently and not on the basis of donor support.