Indians Negotiate Reparations for Damages Caused by Dam
By Yadira Ferrer
Embera-Katío Indians have been in Bogotá since December protesting the impacts of the Urrá dam. Colombian officials hope to resolve the tensions this week.
BOGOTA, (Tierramérica).- Marta Domicó, a 20-year-old Embera-Katío, weaves beaded necklaces to sell near the gate of an old brick mansion in the Bogotá city centre that is the headquarters of the Colombian National Indigenous Organization (ONIC, in Spanish), and where she has been living, crammed in with some 450 members of her indigenous community, since Dec. 22.
Domicó and her partner Francisco Rubiano came to the capital with their two sons -- one is three years old, the other seven months -- to demand that the government comply with the agreements signed in 2000 to mitigate the environmental and social impacts of the Urrá dam, built in the northern department of Córdoba that is the ancestral home of the Embera-Katío.
''I have many necklaces, bracelets and earrings, but the people aren't buying much,'' Domicó told Tierramérica as she set aside a basket holding 'chaquiras' (clay beads), thread and needles, in order to put warmer clothes on her younger son. The two children have suffered bouts of flu, fever and diarrhea since they arrived in Bogotá.
''The cold here really affects us because we are accustomed to temperatures of 30 degrees (Celsius) that we normally have in Córdoba,'' she said.
Marta misses her kitchen back home, with its mud walls and palm roof, and her plots of plantain, corn and rice -- but she says she will remain in the capital until the government responds to the Embera-Katío demands.
Indigenous community leader Belisario Domicó said in a conversation with Tierramérica that the group, which includes 184 children under age 16, has been living at the ONIC headquarters since being kicked out of the Environment Ministry, the building they first occupied when they arrived in Bogotá more than three months ago.
The national government promised in 2000 to take actions to alleviate the impacts caused by the Urrá dam, built in the 1990s by the government-run company of the same name. But the government has not honored that promise, said Domicó.
Another indigenous leader, who requested anonymity, told Tierramérica that the steps taken by the government ''are a long way from contributing to prevention, mitigation, compensation or reparations for the harm caused to our people.''
On Mar. 14, 72 days after the government suspended dialogue with the Embera-Katío in reaction to the takeover of the Environment Ministry, representatives from the Interior Ministry and from the Ombudsman and Attorney General's offices renewed contact with the Indians to seek a solution.
The parties agreed to negotiate behind closed doors, but Tierramérica learned that progress has been made towards a new agreement, which could include modifying the environmental permit that was granted to Urrá for operations, and conducting a new study of the dam's environmental impacts.
According to the sources, it was agreed that a consultation would be conducted with the local communities to facilitate a transition phase, and that the government would finance the development of a plan to improve the indigenous community's quality of life.
''We are going to hold a consultation to determine how the community wants us to use the resources that may be given as compensation for the damages incurred,'' said Belisario Domicó.
The Indians say that with the filling of the reservoir and the rerouting of the river they lost the fishing resources that were a staple of their diet, and they also lost a large portion of their cropland.
The Embera-Katío also demand greater protection from the irregular armed groups that are fighting in their territory, and from harassment by powerful big landowners who want the Indians to abandon the fertile lands they live on.
The International Court of Human Rights asked the Colombian government in April 2000 to hammer out an agreement with the Embera-Katío on measures to protect their land, after finding that at least 300 Indians from that community had been assassinated by illegal armed groups since 1995.
Humanitarian missions from the United Nations in Colombia reported that right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas alike have tortured and murdered indigenous leaders, accusing them of collaborating with the other side. The armed groups have demolished houses and destroyed fishing boats, forcibly displacing some 800 Indians.
The Colombian Interior Ministry said that possibly by Apr. 5 negotiations would be finalized and the protesting Embera-Katío in Bogotá might begin returning to their territory.
* Yadira Ferrer is a Tierramérica contributor.