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Colombian indigenous culture flourishes again in Panama

News Stories, 30 May 2007

© UNHCR/M-H.Verney
A Colombian indigenous woman weaves traditional handcrafts in her new Panamanian home.

VISTA ALLEGRE, Panama, May 30 (UNHCR) A year after they fled Colombia, 11 families of the Wounaan indigenous group are beginning to feel safe again in Panama.

After months of wandering, the 48 individuals last December became the first indigenous group to be granted refugee status in Panama. They have found a home in the small Vista Allegre river settlement in the Darién Gap a large swath of undeveloped swampland and jungle separating Panama and Colombia.

"We will always remember the day we arrived in Vista Allegre. It was half past seven in the evening and everyone was waiting for us by the river. They had prepared a welcome feast for us," says Jose*, one of seven Wounaan leaders who had received death threats in Colombia.

Reachable only by small boats, Vista Allegre consists of a few wooden huts built on stilts, one school and a tiny shop that sells tinned food and soft drinks. Home to some 150 people before the Wounaans' arrival, the community is now going through a population boom.

There are signs of activity everywhere. The school has two new teachers, and pirogues carrying fish and bananas downriver stop frequently to sell or barter in Vista Allegre. Many of the wooden huts are shared between three or four families: local people have moved out of their own houses to make room for the newcomers.

The men are busy with building work. The UN refugee agency has trained them in carpentry skills and given them the tools and equipment to set up a workshop. The community badly needs more homes and UNHCR, along with the International Organization for Migration, is providing kits for 11 new houses, which the men will build themselves in the local style.

The refugee agency has also reached an agreement with UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund, to install a water system in the community. There is water in abundance from the rivers in the Darién, but Vista Allegre like many other settlements lacks any sanitation or even tanks to collect rainwater.

"We are seeing in Vista Allegre how a whole community can benefit from the arrival of refugees when everyone joins forces to help," explains José Euceda, UNHCR's representative in Panama. "The lack of housing and the strain on basic resources are very real problems. If left unaddressed, they can create tensions and jeopardize refugee integration. Everyone stands to win if these problems are dealt with jointly and as early on as possible."

The Wounaan odyssey began in April last year, when they fled their ancestral land in Colombia after an irregular armed group killed two of the community's members. They wandered for weeks across the Darién Gap, before risking the dangerous crossing by sea to reach safety in Panama.

"We had the little ones on our shoulders during the whole trip because we were scared that the waves would carry them away," recalls 22-year-old Dana*, whose son was less than two at the time.

The 11 families reached the small Panamanian port of Jaqué in May last year. But the Wounaans are river people and felt they could not thrive in a seaport. They asked to move further inside the Darién and in November the government agreed. A month later, it granted refugee status to the entire group.

"It was a landmark decision, the first time that Panama granted refugee status to an indigenous group," said Philippe Lavanchy, UNHCR's director for the Americas, who met the Wounaan group several times, both in Colombia and Panama. He added that most other Colombians in the Darién region are living under a temporary regime that imposes a number of restrictions, notably on freedom of movement.

Many of the Colombians who have sought a haven in Panama from the armed conflict in their homeland belong to indigenous groups. UNHCR has repeatedly expressed concern about the impact of forced displacement on these communities, whose culture and traditions are closely linked to the land.

In Vista Allegre, the Wounaan culture is beginning to flourish again. Dana is now selling her traditional woven handcrafts through a cooperative system UNHCR helped set up. The refugee agency has also given the community two sewing machines and runs workshops to help the women learn new skills. It is not much of an income yet for Dana, but enough to give her hope.

* Names have been changed for protection reasons

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Vista Allegre, Panama

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UNHCR country pages

Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

In a violence-ridden corner of Colombia, a group of courageous women are putting their lives at risk helping survivors of displacement and sexual violence. In a country where 5.7 million people have been uprooted by conflict, they live in one of the most dangerous cities - Buenaventura. Colombia's main port has one of the highest rates of violence and displacement, due to escalating rivalries between armed groups. To show their power or to exact revenge, the groups often violate and abuse the most vulnerable - women and children.

But in Buenaventura, the women who make up "Butterflies" are standing up and helping the survivors. They provide one-on-one support for victims of abuse and reach into different communities to educate and empower women and put pressure on the authorities to uphold women's rights.

Many of Butterflies' members have been forcibly displaced during the past 50 years of conflict, or have lost relatives and friends. Many are also survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It is this shared experience that pushes them to continue their work in spite of the risks.

On foot or by bus, Gloria Amparello , Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina - three of the Butterflies coordinators - visit the most dangerous neighbourhoods and help women access medical and psychological care or help them report crimes. Through workshops, they teach women about their rights and how to earn a living. So far, Butterflies volunteers have helped more than 1,000 women and their families.

Butterflies has become a driving force in raising awareness about the high levels of violence against women. Despite attracting the attention of armed groups, they organize protests against abuse of women in the streets of their dilapidated city, determined to knock down walls of fear and silence.

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Struggling with the threat of extinction

Among Colombia's many indigenous groups threatened with extinction, few are in a riskier situation than the Tule. There are only about 1,200 of them left in three locations in the neighbouring departments of Choco and Antiquoia in north-western Colombia.

One group of 500 live in Choco's Unguia municipality, a strategically important area on the border with Panama that is rich in timber, minerals and other natural resources. Unfortunately, these riches have attracted the attention of criminal and illegal armed groups over the past decade.

Many tribe members have sought shelter in Panama or elsewhere in Choco. But a determined core decided to stay, fearing that the tribe would never survive if they left their ancestral lands and gave up their traditional way of life.

UNHCR has long understood and sympathized with such concerns, and the refugee agency has helped draw up a strategy to prevent displacement, or at least ensure that the Tule never have to leave their territory permanently.

Struggling with the threat of extinction

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

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