Community farming helps tribe without frontiers survive in Ecuador

News Stories, 15 September 2010

© UNHCR/A.Durango
Members of the Epera indigenous group gather in a community building by the Cayapas River to meet UNHCR visitors.

ESMERALDAS, Ecuador, September 15 (UNHCR) The Epera have never really understood or recognized the formal border between Colombia and Ecuador. They are an indigenous people who have always lived in the rainforest on both sides of the frontier. "Colombians and Ecuadorians, we are one nation," tribe member Carlos told recent UNHCR visitors to his community.

But in recent decades many of them have become victims of violence in southern Colombia, a country where more than 30 indigenous groups are officially classified as at risk of extinction, largely as a result of violence and forced displacement. Scores have fled across the border and sought shelter with their kin in north-west Ecuador.

Today, an estimated 450 of the Epera live along the Cayapas River in Ecuador's coastal Esmeraldas province and about 20 per cent of them are believed to be refugees from Colombia. Over the past two years, UNHCR has been reaching out and trying to help this group of vulnerable people.

By keeping in regular contact with the group, who can only be reached by canoe, UNHCR staff in Esmeraldas are facilitating access to Ecuador's asylum system and providing a protection role. But the refugee agency, through support of an agricultural programme, is also helping these refugees to integrate and become self-sufficient.

Most of the Epera who fled to Ecuador since 2000 were escaping from the threat of forced recruitment by irregular armed groups as fighters, porters or guides. But when they got to Esmeraldas, already traumatized by their forced displacement, the tribespeople found that there was a shortage of land. Without land of their own, their whole way of life was threatened.

"We want to preserve our culture, our identity and our language and we don't want young people to leave the community," explained Salvador Chirimia, president of the community of Santa Rosa de los Eperas. Without land, that would have been almost impossible.

But with the help of the Catholic Church, the Epera were able to secure a 340-hectare plot of land, some of which has been designated as a nature reserve. They have built homes and, with help from UNHCR and the non-governmental Fondo Ecuatoriano Populorum Progressio (Ecuadorean Fund for Popular Progress), are practising environmentally friendly community farming to feed themselves and to earn money from produce sales.

Rafael Zavala, who runs UNHCR's office in Esmeraldas, said this help from the refugee agency and its local NGO partner "improves the quality of life of the community members and strengthens the integration of the Epera, because all family members work on the farms."

They mainly cultivate high quality cocoa trees for their beans, from which chocolate is made. But the Epera also grow trees for their timber or fruit, including oranges and bananas. Beans and maize are also grown under the project as well as native plants. Only natural fertilisers are used. The Epera women also produce handicrafts for sale, using the produce of the forest.

The project has helped to boost the confidence of the Epera, who feel a real sense of ownership. They sell some of the produce in the town of Borbon and invest the money in their community and farms. It's all contributing to their survival as a community and to the protection of their way of life and culture.

Those who work with the small community, which continues to welcome new arrivals who have fled Colombia, find them immensely inspiring. "I get great satisfaction from working with the Epera," said UNHCR's Zavala.

By Andrea Durango in Esmeraldas, Ecuador




UNHCR country pages

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented the Colombian women's rights group, Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future, with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday night.

The volunteer members of Butterflies risk their lives each day to help survivors of forced displacement and sexual abuse in the Pacific Coast city of Buenaventura. This city has some of the highest rates of violence and displacement due to escalating rivalries between illegal armed groups.

Drawing on only the most modest of resources, volunteers cautiously move through the most dangerous neighbourhoods to help women access medical care and report crimes. This work, deep inside the communities, helps them reach the most vulnerable women, but also brings with it danger and threats from the illegal armed groups.

The Award ceremony, in its 60th year, was held in Geneva's Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, and featured musical performances by UNHCR supporters, Swedish-Lebanese singer-songwriter Maher Zain and Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. The Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela also performed at the ceremony.

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

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.

Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie visits Ecuador

Angelina Jolie, in Ecuador this past weekend, on her first field visit as the new Special Envoy of UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

In her previous role as a UN refugee agency Goodwill Ambassador, Jolie has conducted more than 40 field visits over the last decade. This is her third time in Ecuador - home to the largest refugee population in Latin America.

Ecuador currently hosts some 56,000 refugees and 21,000 asylum-seekers. It continues to receive 1,300 new applications for refugee status each month from people fleeing Colombia. Many live in remote and poor areas of the country close to the Colombian border.

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie visits Ecuador

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