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Colombian Indians Accuse Government

By Margarita Martinez, AP,
Wednesday 25 July 2001xo, 12:56 AM ET

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - Indian leaders are being gunned down. Warring factions are encroaching on the reservations. A U.S.-financed drug eradication offensive is dumping herbicide on Indian land.

Yet - although indigenous rights are enshrined in the constitution - the government is doing nothing to protect Colombia's 800,000 Indians, says a group representing the nation's 65 tribes.

Our survival and Colombia's cultural diversity are at risk, Armando Valbuena, director of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

If indigenous people, who now account for only 2 percent of Colombia's population, disappear, the government will be to blame, he said.

The indigenous group accused President Andres Pastrana's government of not taking seriously a 5-year-old commitment to hold periodic meetings to resolve problems confronting the Indians.

The government only sends low-level emissaries to the encounters, which are held too infrequently, the Indian group said Monday in a message to Pastrana.

Unless Pastrana promises within 30 days to improve the situation, the Indian group said it would boycott the talks for the rest of his administration, which would be a public slap in the face. There was no immediate response from Pastrana, whose term ends in one year.

In the past decade, 365 Indian leaders have been assassinated, the Indian group said. So far this year, 37 Indians have been killed in civil strife that has extended into the reservations.

On June 2, gunmen believed to belong to a right-wing paramilitary group abducted Kimy Pernia, a leader of the Embera-Katio tribe who gained international recognition for campaigning against a hydroelectric project that threatened his tribe's ancestral lands. He remains missing and is feared dead.

The situation is dramatic, because each of these communities makes an enormous effort to educate a leader, and the death of one leaves an enormous vacuum, said Francisco Rojas Birry, who is the vice president of the Senate in parliament - the first Indian to occupy that post.

Furthermore, Indians have been seeing their crops of coca and poppy, which produce cocaine and heroin, and some of their food crops shrivel under the U.S.-backed aerial eradication campaign.

The fumigation offensive, which also targets white-owned lands, was criticized Tuesday by the top U.N. anti-drug official in Colombia. It's not fair ... because in our view the peasants and the indigenous people are not criminals, Klaus Nyholm said at a news conference in Bogota.

Indians in the southwestern states of Cauca and Narino have threatened to begin blockading the Pan-American Highway next Tuesday unless the fumigation, financed as part of a $1.3 billion aid package from Washington, of their lands is halted.