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COLOMBIA
Conflict engulfs Bari
Mike Ceaser
6/24/2003
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Guerrilla and paramilitary activity threatens indigenous community in border region.

Many of the Bari indigenous people living near the border with Venezuela continue to pursue a lifestyle similar to that of their ancestors: fishing and hunting with bows and arrows and ignoring the international frontier which now slices through their territory.

However, living as if in another century has not protected the Baris from modern horrors, as Colombia’s civil war has escalated and shifted north and west into their territory.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas who are fighting to overthrow Colombia’s government arrived here circa 1985, and their paramilitary enemies, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) in 1999. Both groups are classified as terrorists by the US government. Yet, for years, the Bari, who survive by hunting, fishing and growing yucca, corn and bananas, mostly for their own consumption, were generally left in peace.

"When the guerrillas first entered, they wanted us to work with them," said one Bari man. "But we told them ‘we are on our own.’" He also said that the guerrillas offered them coca (from which cocaine is derived) to plant, but the Bari rejected the idea.

The requests, however, eventually became demands so Colombian Bari representatives from many of the 23 communities in the Norte de Santander department met recently to address the issue. Out of fear of retaliation, they spoke on condition of anonymity.

The latest escalation in the conflict, fuelled by almost US$2 billion in United States mostly military aid to the Colombian government (LP, April 10, 2000) and the FARC’s May 5 execution of 10 hostages has meant increased fighting in Norte de Santander, near the Bari peoples’ territories. The coca plantations are also expanding onto Bari land, as the irregular armed groups seek to bolster their income, which has brought aerial fumigation and more problems. "Within our territory, they haven’t fumigated," said a Bari leader. "But the wind carries the poison. It kills crops and sickens people."

Colombia’s non-indigenous campesinos have frequently been dragged into their nation’s 39-year civil war by opposite sides, pressuring them to collaborate or, truthfully or not, accusing them of aiding their enemies. Now, the Bari increasingly find themselves in the same situation. "[The guerrillas] tell us ‘You collaborate with the paramilitaries,’" said a woman who attended the recent meeting. "But we’re not with either side."

The Bari also fear being drawn into the conflict in other ways. FARC forces often cross Bari territories when fleeing into Venezuela from the AUC and Colombian military (LP, Oct. 7, 2002). Bari leaders fear the day they are caught in the crossfire. The Baris also refer to attempts to forcibly recruit their children as fighters.

The FARC and the AUC have also been fighting a deadly battle for control of the nearby Rio de Oro and Catatumbo rivers, which form stretches of the shared Venezuela-Colombia border. Many Bari communities depend on these rivers for transport in the road-less region, but now they run the risk of being shot at from the jungle in efforts to cut off river traffic, like sitting ducks in their canoes.

The irregular armed groups’ arrival has also served to intensify longstanding conflicts between the indigenous people and the non-indigenous campesino colonists who arrived in the area in the mid-1960s and who the Bari claim sometimes invade indigenous lands. The Bari accuse the FARC of supplying campesinos with firearms, dramatically increasing their firepower. The Bari, in contrast, defend themselves with bows and arrows. In addition to the army, guerrillas and paramilitaries, the Bari also refer to a fourth armed organization, which the Bari call "the civilians," composed of campesinos.

Paradoxically, however, the fighting has also reduced colonizing pressure on Bari territory by forcing campesinos to flee the area. At the same time, say Bari community members, oil and coal companies have increased prospecting activities on their territory — usually without first obtaining the Baris’ permission. "We are requesting that they make agreements, but until now there are none," said a Bari man. "[The oil companies] only ask the municipalities."

The two concerns have become intertwined, as some Bari say the oil companies have hired paramilitary groups to defend their installations.

The Baris’ increasing troubles come against a backdrop of many already existing problems, such as poor education, limited access to medical supplies, and high malnutrition and infant mortality rates. Still, the Bari do not want to migrate to cities, where indigenous people often find themselves worse off than they were in the first place. "We were born here," said one man. "We must die here."

 

 


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