Noel Amilcar Chapues Guevara and Julio Ricardo Solarte Ascuntar are speaking from the lands of the Ishu Awá reservation, close to the Colombian Pacific Coast.
It was here, in the region of Nariño, on the border with Putumayo, that their grandparents arrived 30 years ago after fleeing violence. Today, recording themselves on their cell phones, the Indigenous Awá leaders tell the tale of how the pandemic has blighted the Awá and left them isolated and desperate for their plight to be heard.
"In our territories, the entry of different people and companies that are exploiting resources such as gold, coltan, water, oil and timber is advancing," they warn.
According to Julio, throughout history the Indigenous Awá have been forced to flee from their ancestral lands of the Pacific coast of Ecuador and Colombia. From colonial times through to the Colombian armed conflict, they have had to move over and over again, leaving them without a territory of their own. Often, their settlements are temporary and very small.
The Awá currently live in an area of 610,000 hectares in the Andean-Amazonian border area, of which 480,000 hectares are in Colombia and 116,640 hectares in Ecuador. According to the National Department of Statistics, the Awá number 44,516 in Colombia. Of these, 39,000 are in Nariño and 5,000 in Putumayo.
The Awá consider themselves "people of the jungle and the mountains”. They make a living from fishing and hunting, grow yucca, plantain and corn. They work with basketry and preserve their mother tongue: Awapít. However, with each day that passes they lose their customs and their territories shrink. The reason for this is always the same: the presence of outsiders, who displace them in order to take their natural resources.
For more than a decade, the struggles against oil exploitation have marked the path of the Awá, Julio says. He recalls that in 2011, during the process of formalizing the Awá’s rights to the reservation, the Awá managed to prevent the construction of 74 wells for oil extraction. Their concern at the time was that 5,800 hectares of their territory would be ceded to the oil companies and they would once again experience the pain of abandoning their lands. But in 2014, the oil industry's explorations were still ongoing, according to public prior consultation documents from the Ministry of the Interior. Today, in nearby areas, hydrocarbon exploitation continues.
Since 2011, the Awá realised that they had to be informed and prepared to fight. "Not only social protest, but in the legal issue, in education, in information so that they know our rights, and now in the environment," says Julio.
The same is happening to the communities in Putumayo. Oil companies are present in nearby areas of almost all the reserves of the Awá, Nasa, Kofán, Pastos, Ingas and Embera Chamí ethnic groups. The map of hydrocarbon production at the territorial level, from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative of Colombia, shows the municipalities of Putumayo, in the south of the country, with areas in red that show oil extraction.
According to Noel, the oil interest continues in his community of Awá Tatchan, in the Guamuez Valley. He says the destruction of the environment caused by these exploitations has led to food shortages and limited hunting. He adds that multinationals invade their land, coming close to the Awá’s farms, and on several occasions rivers and streams have been contaminated by oil spills, which seriously affect the fauna and crops.
"The squirrels, birds that we know as the panguana, and even fish, are no longer available. The bushmeat, which was naturally consumed, is almost no longer seen, so the communities began to buy beef, pork or fattened chicken," explains Noel. He says these new eating habits cause the Indigenous culture to dangerously weaken.
Three years ago, continues Noel, "in the community of Mataje Alto, in Ecuador, the Great Awá Family issued a mandate against mining and industrial exploitation of resources. In 2019, the mandate was reinforced and in the demand for respect for human rights and in the defense of the territory." The Awá people have seen how both the Ecuadorian and Colombian governments "have continued to approve more and more titles for extraction in natural areas inhabited by us".
Concerns have increased during the pandemic, with many fearing that the need for economic recovery of both countries will be realized through the acceleration of mining and oil concessions. The Awá saw how, during the months of mandatory quarantine from March to September 2020, oil extraction operations continued at full speed and they fear these will continue at an even faster pace post-COVID.
Eradication has not only affected the food security of the Awá, but has also led to confrontations with security forces. The 2016 signing of a peace treaty between the former guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government was just an illusion for the Awá. They have not seen an end to the conflict. "There are all kinds of illegal groups. We are worried about the non-compliance with the peace agreement", says Noel.
Even so, local authorities in Putumayo maintain that "after the agreement was signed, conditions have improved", as assured by the mayor of Villagarzón, José Andrés López Muñoz, who also says that the Awá territory "is affected with illicit crops" and that "it is the FARC dissidents who pass through that area (...) in a more sporadic way". Other officials from the governor's office of Putumayo did not respond to the multiple calls made by this journalistic team.
"We are convinced that one day we will be calmer and we will not have these threats. The message is that we will not give up in the struggle, that we will continue defending life, territory and our people, our people," Julio said with hope.
On the way to create the binational Awá reserve
Noel and Julio know that one of the ways to protect their survival is to preserve the rainforest. For this reason, they have several projects such as reforesting 350 hectares, and getting a territory of approximately 40 and 50 thousand hectares of primary forest declared as a binational reserve.
Noel explains that in the reforestation process they hope to plant timber, edible fruit and medicinal plants, and to recover the traditional foods they lost when their land was deforested. "It will benefit eight communities in the border integration zone, it will be a great step forward."
The objective is to declare four conservation areas for the Great Awá Family in Colombia and Ecuador. "The organizations UNIPA [Unity of Indigenous People Awa], Camawari, Fecae and Acipap are planning to create a binational conservation corridor of importance for our people," Noel says. They hope to achieve this with the support of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.
This reserve zone will help safeguard their culture and beliefs. "We say that we are an element of life. So, the Awá have a strong relationship with the land, the water, the trees, the animals, the spirits, with everything that lives there. The territory will be monitored and guarded by a newly created Indigenous Awá guard, so that the guardians will be the ones who support conservation," Noel concludes.
And so, from a traditional chagra (open spaces for planting) where they grow plantain and yucca, Julio and Noel raise their voices so their plight can be heard. In the middle of a pandemic, with no end in sight,, the Awá are trapped between oil exploitation, illicit coca crops and illegal armed groups that dispute the territory. They know they are under serious threat. But they are still standing, and they are fighting.