News Stories, 15 September 2010
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