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From robertmykle@worldnet.att.net Mon Mar 6 20:26:10 2000
From: Robert Cappiello <robertmykle@worldnet.att.net>
To: <brownh@hartford-hwp.com>
Subject: Embera Indians: South America
Date: Mon, 6 Mar 2000 18:56:38 -0500
X-UIDL: dd2cd725c34c9a988a61319b04c23a58

The Emberas: Colombia's tenacious Indians

By Robert Mykle, 6 March 2000


In the Choco-Uraba area of northwestern Colombia lies the vast Murindo rainforest, one of the largest virgin tracts of jungle left in South America. Harboring an enormous variety of species of flora this last tract of undefiled jungle in northern South America has been called rather euphemisticly, the lungs of the world. Here, unfolding in a microcosm of long running national conflicts, is a fierce human and natural drama that threatens the viability of an Indian tribe and an irreplaceable biosphere.

Jutting off the back of the Choco Department, like a question mark, the isthmus of Panama provides a convenient land bridge for the immigration of flora and fauna making the Murindo rain forest an important biological convergence point that has created an immense melting pot of genetic material. With the second heaviest rainfall in the world and a tropical clime, the Murindo rainforest incubates a vast species creating pool, making it one of the world's most diverse bio-systems.

Deep inside the protective reaches of the Murindo jungle dwell the native Embera Indians. Living for the most part along rivers at village sites like Guagua and Ilsas they etch out a living from subsistence farming, fishing and trading goods they make in the local towns of Murindo, Mutata and the turbulent port-town of Turbo. The women continue to wear their traditional colorful skirts that resemble those worn by the Seminole Indians in Florida, but the men bowing to marketplace realities, for the most part dress in 'civilized' clothes when away from their villages. Many work in the sprawling conflict ridden banana plantations of Uraba. After finishing their time of labor they retreat back to their villages and isolated farms deep in the Murindo forest. Here in the relative protection of the jungle they continue their traditions and culture. Most important to the Emberas is the protection of their lands and the vast jungles covering them. The Embera Indians are the environmental gatekeepers of the Murindo rain forest.

While many native South American tribes have been decimated or out right exterminated through contact with Europeans, the tenacious Emberas have survived with much of their culture intact. Unfortunately, the Emberas are now engaged in a violent struggle that could see their tribe annihilated.


Ironically, the Emberas were one of the first South American tribes to come into contact with Europeans. In the early 1500s the Spanish founded the first settlement in South America at the Acandi area near the Panamanian border, where they hoped to mine the abundant alluvial gold found in its streams. The Spaniards came into contact with the Cuna and Embera Indians. The colony failed however one of its junior members, Francisco Pizarro, went on to Peru and conquered the Inca empire.

Today the Emberas continue the 500 year struggle - fighting to keep colonizers out of their lands. In order to placate landless peasants the Colombian government has encouraged people to settle in virgin lands and bring them into production. The colonist usually armed with only an axe a hammock and determination stakes out a tract of land, cuts away the forest, burns it, then plants a subsistence crop of bananas, manioca, corn or beans. These plots are called 'mejoras' or improvements. Unable to sustain crops for any length of time the land is usually converted into pasture for cattle, sold and the colonist moves deeper into the jungle to repeat the process. After establishing their subsistence farms the colonist farmers lobby for new roads to bring their produce to market and to further penetrate the rain forest. Most of the Emberas live along the easier transit routs along the rivers and are opposed to any roads being built in the area. Roads have served only as access to their traditional territories by colonists who slash and burn the jungle away in order to plant subsistence crops of Yuca, corn, rice and of course coca.

Sometimes jungle clearing is done on a more massive scale. A few years ago a major logging company planned to clear cut the virgin forest bordering on the Embera's reservation. Through astute political and legal moves the logging was halted and the company left the area. It was a first for a Colombian Indian tribe.

This was one fight the Indians won, said Marcos Galan a local sociologist at National University. For once the white-man's law worked in favor of the natives. This has embolden other tribes like the Awas fighting Occidental Petroleum.

The Emberas try and patrol their vast lands, to prevent illegal colonization and logging but there are only a few Indians and colonists have encroached repeatedly on their traditional lands. Aside from encroachment from the 'white' settlers, the Emberas have to battle te special rights claims, recognized by the new constitution, of the majority black community. The Choco Department has a black majority concentrated in the cities and along the rivers. These are legal recognized as black communities or communidades negrasand have certain rights to land use. The blacks, like the 'white' colonos, settle on the Indian's traditional lands and compete with the Indians for land use especially along the rivers that still serve as the only transportation routes.


Colombia is entirely crossed north-south by three branches of the Andes. Two of the world's greatest rivers, the Orinoco and Amazon, drain its waters. It has coast lines on the Caribbean and Pacific and of course it abuts Panama creating a geologically recent land bridge to North America. Colombia is called the emerald country not only for the high quality and quantity of it gem emeralds it mines but because most of the country is still covered in verdant jungle. For biologists Colombia is a paradise. Unfortunately, the very geography that makes Colombia a biological paradise makes it perfect for guerilla war.

Today Colombia is racked by a three way civil war. The forty years guerilla war against an indifferent government has escalated in recent years as millions of dollars from drugs, extortion and kidnaping filling the guerilla coffers to purchase new arms. In recent years a new armed force has emerged - the paramilitary and Autodefense groups. Virulently anti-guerilla the paramilitary have engaged in a vicious campaign against the guerillas and their collaborators that has resulted in many human rights abuses on both sides. As in most civil wars the people who suffer the most are the innocent. As one group takes control of an area, reprisals against suspected enemies are carried out indiscriminately an many parts of Uraba have suffered through innumerable violations and tragedies. Whether by design or circumstance many Emberas have taken sides in the civil conflict. And a mini-civil war is raging between the various clans. The plight of the Emberas has become an almost forgotten side show in this forty year guerilla war.

The Choco-Uraba area of Colombia is one of the most strategic areas of Colombia. Leftist guerillas use Uraba and its proximity to Panama as a transit point for many of their arms as well as a quick trip with their extortion and drug money to deposit in Panamanian banks. Without money and arms the guerilla movements can not exist. The paramilitary and the Autodefense Groups understand this and have taken as one of its chief objectives the capture and control of Uraba. The major towns have been brought under paramilitary control forcing the guerillas deeper into the jungle. Deeper into the lands of the Emberas.

We Indians are neutral in this conflict, I was informed by Guzman Dominico one of the Indian leaders of the Organization Indigena de Antioquia, OIA, the organization the represents the Indians in Antioquia including Uraba.

Neutral though they may want to be, many Indians have taken sides in the conflict whether through conviction or survival. Thus they have opened themselves to the repeated reprisals perpetuated by each side.

Mario Casima and his son were killed by guerillas, I was told by the mayor of Mutata.

Mario was the headman for the Mutata Emberas. I had a number of opportunities to work with Mario and found him to be a quite and very knowledgeable person who defended his people's rights.

Later the paramilitary entered the villages of Islas and executed Emberas they accused of collaborating with the guerillas who control the area. The vicious cycle continues and unless peace is achieved it might spell the end of the Emberas.

The bottom line in this conflict is poverty, said Raul Murillo a local school teacher. There are many social injustices in Colombia. But nothing justifies these massacres by the guerillas and the paramilitary. Nothing.

Numbering a few thousand the Emberas have fought tenaciously to preserve their culture. Where enslavement, culture genocide, and official isolation and neglect have not destroyed the Embera people, the present violent conflict might succeed.


The tribe is trying to acquire land through lobbying the government to make new reservations to trying to purchase lands now legally owned by colonists. They are far from being a wealthy tribe and are frustrated in their efforts to acquire land they believe is important to protect their reserves.

The irony is that the Emberas have the potential to become on of the wealthiest tribes in the Americas. Underneath their traditional lands is a mountain called La Rica that is perhaps the largest undeveloped copper deposit in South America. That in its self is another concern as a potentially great force that could change their culture. But most the Emberas realize that they can not waddle in rank poverty for ever and that progress does come at a price. Eventually the economic realities will over take them and perhaps consume them.

Will the Emberas survive? Most likely. A tribe of people as resolved as the Emberas will always survive. Will their culture survive? A more tentative possibility. And whether their beloved Murindo rainforest weather the storm will depend on many factors most of which are beyond a few thousand Indians fighting to preserve and persevere under most adverse conditions. There can be no question if the Emberas relinquish their vigilance the survival of the Murindo rain forest will be in doubt. If there is a tribe that can endure it is the Emberas. Change is inevitable but if left alone the Emberas and their charge, the Murindo rain forest, will survive if not prosper.