Social Issues

Indigenous group on Colombia-Panama border struggles to preserve way of life

By Irene Escudero

Arquia, Colombia, May 11 (EFE).- The Tule, an indigenous group whose lands straddle the Colombian-Panamanian border region, are struggling to preserve their customs and way of life and fend off a decades-old threat posed by rightist paramilitary squads and their successors.

That people – also known as the Guna – occupy more than 2,800 hectares (10.8 square miles) of mountainous jungle near the Darien Gap, where they live in small timber-board houses with roofs made of tree branches.

Because of the paramilitaries’ control of that frontier region, the Tule communities in Colombia were long cut off from family members living on the Panamanian side of the border.

“This is a public road, the guerrillas have come through here, the illegal armed groups,” Nelson Yabur, the senior secretary of an indigenous reserve in Colombia that is home to around 2,000 of a total Tule population of 60,000, told Efe, pointing to the road that leads to Unguia, the nearest municipality.

He added, however, that of all the groups the Tule have encountered the paramilitaries caused the most harm to their communities.

Like they did in many other areas of the Andean nation, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries threatened the Tule, accused them of collaborating with the guerrillas and extorted payments from them.

Yabur says that paramilitary bloc imposed a weekly surcharge on food purchases that amounted to 20,000 pesos (around $7), although that indigenous people were able to resist by growing the food they needed on their fertile lands.

“Then, Mr. Aleman (paramilitary leader Freddy Rendon Herrera) threatened the cacique (indigenous leader) because he wanted this territory as a rural estate, as a finca,” Yabur said.

Men hold positions of leadership in Tule communities, while women devote themselves to the home and wear traditional, hand-made textiles known as “molas” that are notable for their geometrical patterns and animal designs.

While a woman bathes a small boy in a large pot, other children inside a community kitchen listen to a Bad Bunny video on a cellphone and another boy, lying on a hammock, watches a boxing match.

“I feel very proud to be indigenous,” Johanna Garrido, a 26-year-old woman said, adding that she will teach her own children about their traditions so “their “culture isn’t lost.”

For years, the people in this Tule community were isolated and unable to communicate with their families in Panama.

And even today they are unable to access several of their sacred places due to the presence of the Clan del Golfo, a neo-paramilitary group that controls the region and maintains coca crops and cocaine laboratories in jungle areas.

“The peace process (then-President Alvaro) Uribe carried out with the paramilitaries was not a demobilization,” Yabur said, adding that the process that government launched with the AUC in 2003 served only to “create more groups.”

He said the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group that led to the signing of a peace accord in 2016 also has failed to achieve its objective.

“So for us there was no peace deal in Colombia,” the indigenous leader said. “If there had been peace, we wouldn’t now be killing one another.” EFE


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