Colombia's indigenous peoples face uncertain future By Arturo Wallace
Publisher: BBC News
Author: BBC Mundo, Ricaurte, Colombia
Story date: 20/11/2011
Language: English

A group of men, women and children walk up a muddy hill carrying heavy bags filled with sand.

They all belong to the Awa tribe: indigenous people displaced by the Colombian conflict who are trying to build a new life.

Violence forced them out of their homeland in the mountains. Now they are trying to settle on 127 hectares (313 acres) of land provided by the government on the outskirts of Ricaurte, a small town in the south-western province of Narino.

We are half way between the Ecuadorean border and the Pacific Ocean, in a key territory for the Farc and ELN guerrilla groups, and for paramilitary drug trafficking gangs.

This is a corridor for drugs, weapons and, increasingly, armed men.

The Colombian army has reinforced its presence in the region and – as often happens in Colombia – the local indigenous communities have been the most affected by the escalation of the conflict.

Indigenous people are building new settlements after being displaced by conflict "There are really serious clashes. We fear for human and material losses. That's why we had to flee our land," said Carlos Ortiz, the deputy governor of El Eden-Cartagena settlement.

This newly-created settlement is home to 150 Awa families, who have arrived from different indigenous reservations.

In total, more than 3,000 Awa – almost 10% of their total number – have been displaced by the Colombian conflict during the last decade.

Community leaders have also been murdered and landmines scattered in their territory.

Three mass killings that left 33 dead were reported in 2009 alone, and the Awa blame the Farc, paramilitary groups and the army for each of them.

The Awa people rank high in the list of 35 Colombian indigenous communities threatened by extinction because of the conflict published by the Colombian Constitutional Court.

Like the Nukak Maku people in Guaviare, the Hitnu in Arauca, the Nasa in Cauca and the Embera in Choco, the Awa are victims of the strategic importance that their territories hold for rebels and drug traffickers.

And they also suffer from outsiders coveting the natural resources found on their land.

The Awa started to fight the takeover of their territories for palm oil plantations 16 years ago.

"Lately we are also worried about gold mining," said Rider Pai, one of the leaders of Indigenous Union of the Awa People (UNIPA), founded in 1985.

Although gold is found in Awa land, it is not yet attracting big multinational companies.

But in Choco mining operations have affected the environment as well as the traditions of the Embera indigenous community, forcing them from places they consider sacred.

Oil has become a problem for indigenous communities such as the U'Wa, who live in the eastern provinces of Arauca, Casanare, Santander, Norte de Santander and Boyaca.

Whatever the situation, the pattern is always the same: outside groups move in, forcing the indigenous people either to leave or live amid conflict.

According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), 2% of Colombians displaced by the conflict belong to indigenous ethnic groups.

Far from their homeland, they are particularly exposed to hunger and diseases, and they struggle to keep their traditions.

For the Awa – who call themselves "the people from the mountains" – this separation seems to be especially painful.

They have such strong ties to the mountains that some refuse to leave their homeland, despite the fighting.

But the cost of staying put is high. Seven people, including children, have died in landmine explosions in the last two years.

"If there were no mines, we wouldn't have left our land," says Jose Chingal, who fled his home in the Magui indigenous reservation.

Those who have left are determined to cope as best they can.

"That's because an Indian without land is not an Indian," says Mr Ortiz, recalling the years of paperwork needed to get the government to grant them land where his community is building El Eden-Cartagena settlement.

"In the reservation we had everything, there was no need to buy anything. But here, even finding a job is hard," Mr Ortiz told the BBC.

The community is using their new land to grow bananas and sugar cane.

They also have plans to produce fruit and vegetables and they want to set up a small sugar mill.

And the sand carried by the people we met on the road was to help build a chicken shed.

All this, however, is a completely new experience for the members of this semi-nomadic community of hunters and gatherers who live scattered across the provinces of Narino and Putumayo and in the neighbouring mountains of Ecuador.

"We have not lost the hope to go back to our land some day. Our roots, our land, everything is there," Mr Ortiz said.

"But we think that will happen in the long term. It's not going to happen tomorrow as the situation has not improved and the conflict is alive."

Colombia's indigenous people

Colombian government recognises 87 indigenous groups but the Colombian Indigenous Organisation, OIC says there are 102

35 face extinction because of the armed conflict and forced displacement, Colombia's Constitutional Court said in 2009 and 2010

These are: Wiwa, Kankuamo, Arhuaco, Kogui, Wayuu, Embera-Katio, Embera-Dobida, Embera-Chami, Wounaan, Awa, Nasa, Pijao, Koreguaje, Kofan, Siona, Betoy, Sicuani, Nukak-Maku, Guayabero, U'wa, Chimila, Yukpa, Kuna, Eperara-Siapidaara, Guambiano, Zenu, Yanacona, Kokonuko, Totoro, Huitoto, Inga, Kamentza, Kichwa and Kuiva

Colombia--Girls recruited as sexual slaves by largest rebel group
Publisher: Trust Law, Thomson Reuters, UK
Author: trustlaw // Anastasia Moloney
Story date: 20/11/2011
Language: English

BOGOTA (TrustLaw) – Girls forcibly recruited by Colombia's illegal armed groups are being used as sexual slaves, said the country's defence minister.

Child soldiers make up around 13 percent of the ranks of Colombia's largest 8,000-strong rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), according to government figures.

"The majority of girls who are recruited by illegal armed groups (the FARC) are forced to become sexual slaves, in many cases the lovers of commanders, or they are simply seen as objects of desire to motivate guerrillas," Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon told reporters at a Bogota press conference earlier this week.

"All they (the FARC) care about is if boys and girls are taller than a gun," he said, adding that children join rebel ranks at the average age of 12.


Women and girls who become pregnant are forced to have abortions in jungle camps, often with little medicine and medical care available.

One former rebel fighter, who joined the guerrilla group when she was 11, said she was forced to have an abortion while six months pregnant.

"They (the FARC) never let you keep your baby. There are thousands of girls and women who have been forced to abort. I once saw a girl who had her baby taken out at nine months and she died as a result," the former combatant, who goes by the name of Natalia, told reporters at the government-led conference held to raise awareness about the plight of Colombia's child solders.

She, like other boys and girls at the conference, declined to reveal their real names. Many said they joined the rebel group to escape sexual and or physical abuse at home.

"My mother abused me. I was fed up with living at home. A friend of mine recruited me," Natalia said.


In their strongholds, rebel groups hold propaganda meetings in schools, public squares and host parties with guns to lure children into their ranks.

With the poverty rate at around 60 percent and few jobs available in rural areas, children are drawn to join rebel armies by false promises of adventure, food, and money.

But when children arrive at rebel jungle camps, they find life is very different from the one they were promised.

"I had to walk for long hours during rainy and dark nights with very heavy equipment. It was very hard," Natalia said.

"I lost my childhood. I did it for nothing. It's not a life being there. I got nothing in return."

Camilo, a former child combatant, said going hungry and watching his friends get injured were among the hardest things he had to bear.

"It's a hard life. You have to endure hunger and see friends lose their arms and legs during (government) bombing campaigns," Camilo said.

The rebels commonly use children as messengers, porters, spies and cooks. Children are also trained to use assault rifles, grenades, mortars and to plant home-made landmines.


The FARC is on an aggressive recruitment drive to prop up their dwindling ranks – down roughly half from a high of around 18,000 in the 1990's. This comes after a series of recent defeats by government forces, prompting record numbers of rebel fighters to desert.

Indigenous children, often living in isolated and remote jungle regions, where rebels tend to have more power because the military's presence is weak and sporadic, are particularly at risk of being forcibly recruited.

(Editing by Lisa Anderson)

Red Cross relocates Colombian village swallowed by sea
Publisher: Reuters AlertNet
Story date: 20/11/2011
Language: English

The latest climate change report predicting an increase in extreme weather-related disasters is a further alarm call for the world to step up preparation for future emergencies, the Red Cross is warning.

The summary of the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX), released on Friday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), points to increasing volatility and frequency of extreme weather and a growing risk for people across the globe.

"The findings of this report certainly tally with what the Red Cross Movement is seeing, which is a rise in the number of weather-related emergencies around the world," said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and coordinating lead author of the IPCC SREX report.

"We are committed to responding to disasters whenever and wherever they happen, but we have to recognise that if the number of disasters continues to increase, the current model we have for responding to them is simply impossible to sustain.

"It is more effective and efficient, in terms of both money and human lives, to try to anticipate disasters, and build resilience and preparedness before they happen."


Colombia, a modern climate "lab", faces a dizzying array of extreme-weather impacts (not to mention seismic risk): drought alternating with flooding; the spread of malaria and dengue fever as the wet, warm mosquito-zone expands; more destructive storms; and – in some locations – super-fast coastal erosion.

After what was described as the most intense rainy season in the country's recorded history affected almost all Colombia's 32 provinces in 2010–11, nearly three quarters of a million people were directly affected in a flood disaster that a member of the government called "unimaginable".

"More than four million people in Colombia have been affected by floods or landslides over the past two years," says Walter Cotte, the secretary general of the Colombian Red Cross and one of the most experienced disaster managers in the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

"It's cumulative," he adds. "Now something like 10 percent of our entire population is directly involved, and these people need a lot of support from us. Not only on the emergency side but also how to manage early-warning systems, and deal with evacuations."

One location in Colombia where they hope Red Cross early-warning systems and drills are already saving lives is the town of Villanueva, at the foot of the towering Sierre de Perija in La Guajira province. Villanueva (population 20,000) is acutely vulnerable to flash floods that come crashing down from the mountains above – until recently quite without warning.

Now a Red Cross river-level gauge, installed a short distance upstream, triggers powerful sirens that gives people in the town below about 10 minutes' warning of approaching flash-floods. They have gone off five times since installation three years ago. There may be no other warning of the potentially lethal floods – there can be torrential rain in the mountains while skies are completely clear above the valley below.

La Guajira also includes the small peninsula that juts out into the Caribbean – the most northern extreme of continental Latin America. The vulnerable-looking geography of the department somehow makes it seem less surprising that this part of Colombia's Caribbean coast should suffer dramatically high levels of coastal erosion that strikes at both the strong and the weak alike. Every year, the Chevron Company, whose processing plant is on the shore, has to replace a line of huge sandbags, which are now the only thing keeping the waves at bay.

The Red Cross, meanwhile, has supervised the total reconstruction of the indigenous Wayuu village of San Tropel, 30 kilometres north of the department capital, Riohacha, after the original settlement was swallowed by the sea, which has been advancing at a rate of some 20 metres a year.

The early warning systems in Villanueva and San Tropel are elements of the climate-oriented network of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) work undertaken in Colombia as part of the 2007-11 Netherlands Red Cross-supported "Pledge Project".

The rebuilding of San Tropel, completed using traditional materials and methods in September 2010, was intended to specifically address the changing climate risks this village will continue to face, and as such is the first settlement of its kind in Colombia.

For more information, visit the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre website.

Justice Dept. dispute with Alabama over illegal-immigration law intensifies
Publisher: the Washington Post, USA
Author: By Jerry Markon,
Story date: 20/11/2011
Language: English

The Obama administration's legal campaign against restrictive state immigration laws has led to a bitter standoff in Alabama, where Justice Department attorneys are investigating possible civil rights violations.

The federal government already has sued Alabama over its new law, one of three such lawsuits against states that have cracked down on illegal immigration. Now, the Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation to monitor potential discrimination as parts of the Alabama law take effect.

The standoff has been over Justice's request for detailed enrollment data from Alabama schools, part of the probe into complaints that the law has prompted Hispanic families to pull their children from school. But Alabama's attorney general balked and, in a series of blunt replies, questioned the federal government's authority to demand the information. The state education department had advised school districts not to comply, but this week expressed a willingness to cooperate.

The disagreement , which could lead to a second Justice Department lawsuit, comes after the administration last year sued Arizona and, two weeks ago, filed suit against South Carolina. Government lawyers are also considering challenges to laws in Utah, Georgia and Indiana.

The lawsuits have emerged as a key part of the administration's efforts on immigration and could serve as a counterpoint to growing criticism in the Hispanic activist community over President Obama's stepped-up deportation program.

The Alabama law is considered the toughest of six new state immigration statutes, which include provisions giving police new authority to question legal status, among other things.

The dispute has stirred memories of Alabama's segregationist past, with accusations that the law targets Hispanics. A civil rights group compared Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to then-Gov. George C. Wallace (D) in 1963 as he resisted federal efforts to enroll black students at the University of Alabama.

"The intemperate language of [Strange's] letter does remind us of George Wallace in the schoolhouse door," said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which set up a hotline to monitor discrimination complaints over the immigration law. He said the hotline has received nearly 4,000 calls.

Strange, a Republican elected last year, vehemently rejected the Wallace comparison and said he would not tolerate discrimination. Supporters of the law defended the attorney general and said concerns about racial profiling of Hispanics are overstated.

"That's a poisonous thing to say," said Strange, who defeated Wallace's son, George Wallace Jr., in a 2006 primary for lieutenant governor.

Legal experts say the level of federal intervention over the immigration laws is extraordinary, particularly since the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have obtained rulings temporarily blocking all or key parts of the Utah, Georgia and Indiana measures. Federal courts also have blocked the most contested provisions of Arizona's law.

The Alabama law passed in June after last year's Republican sweep of the legislature. A federal appeals court last month temporarily blocked the most contested provision, which requires public schools to determine citizenship by seeking children's birth certificates.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit allowed other parts to take effect, pending a more detailed review of the Justice Department's appeal. Those include provisions requiring police to check immigration status if they stop someone while enforcing other laws and barring undocumented immigrants from entering into business transactions with the state or being party to a contract.

Civil rights groups say this has led to illegal immigrants being evicted from their homes, not getting paid for work and being unable to purchase some utilities. One victim of domestic violence complained that she wasn't allowed to seek a protective order from a judge, who threatened to turn her in to authorities, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"The law has had a chilling effect," said Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, who said some Hispanic families have left the state and others are signing custody of their children over to neighbors in case they are deported.

Thomas E. Perez, the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for civil rights, said federal lawyers are investigating similar complaints, along with reports of racial profiling during traffic stops, Hispanic children being withdrawn from school and bullying of children who show up.

"There's a real fear in these households," he said in an interview.

Strange said his office had not heard of such complaints. And Kris Kobach, a senior Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration who helped draft the Alabama law and is helping coordinate the state's legal strategy, said the law prohibits consideration of race.

He dismissed reports of discrimination in Alabama as "ridiculous."

On Nov. 1, Perez wrote to 39 Alabama school districts with significant Hispanic populations, seeking detailed data on student enrollment and absences and giving a Nov. 14 deadline. But Strange replied that Perez had not stated his legal authority to demand the information.

Perez cited a raft of civil rights and other federal laws; Strange replied that Justice had still asserted "no legal authority'" to obtain the data.

Alabama's interim education superintendent, Larry E. Craven, advised noncompliance in a Nov. 2 letter to school districts. This week, in a letter to Perez, he offered to help districts respond but denied any discrimination in schools.

Perez said the government will take "appropriate action" if it finds violations of civil rights laws.

Several Alabama school districts, citing the state education department's initial recommendation, said they would not comply with Perez's request.

"Why should we do it if we've been told not to?" said Nancy Pierce, spokeswoman for Mobile County schools, who said pulling the data would be "extremely labor-intensive."

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