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Mission to Colombia

    Mission to Colombia responds to urgent appeals from Indigenous Peoples threatened with destruction

    Posted by: Kathy Price
    9 October 2012


    It was less than a month ago that our guest Luis Evelis Andrade, leader of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, ONIC, made a gut-wrenching appeal at a press conference we organized on Parliament Hill. “I come here with an urgent message,” he said into the microphone. “Indigenous Peoples where I live are facing the grave danger of physical and cultural extermination.”

    The respected Indigenous leader added a second, even more important message. “I call on Canadians to take action to help protect the very survival of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia," he said. ONIC has placed particular emphasis on Canada because of the signing and activation of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in August 2011. This has created opportunities and obligations to ensure that trade and investment does not trump human rights.

    We, at Amnesty International, take seriously the call for solidarity from ONIC, which two years ago appealed for our help with efforts to break the silence about a devastating human rights crisis in the South American country. At least a third of Colombia’s 102 distinct Indigenous Peoples are at risk of complete destruction amidst armed conflict and the imposition of resource extraction projects on their territory.

    Colombia’s highest court describes the situation as “an emergency … as serious as it is invisible” and called on the Colombian government to take immediate action to protect the rights and survival of Indigenous Peoples. Yet effective measures -- and the political will to implement them -- will not happen until the emergency is made visible and sufficient pressure is mounted.

    It is with this in mind that thousands of Indigenous people from all over Colombia will make the long and often arduous journey to the capital for the 8th national congress of the ONIC, which begins on October 8. As many Canadians are returning from Thanksgiving gatherings, these Indigenous women and men will come together to share information about ongoing attacks on their human rights. It is an act of incredible bravery in a country where so many Indigenous people who have spoken out have been killed or disappeared.

    Amnesty International Canada’s Secretary General Alex Neve and Colombia campaigner Kathy Price will be there too, at the request of the ONIC, to provide vital international observation and accompaniment.

    “Our presence signals that Amnesty International is extremely concerned about what is happening to Indigenous Peoples in Colombia,” says Alex Neve. “This is an important opportunity to deepen our understanding about what members of Indigenous communities are confronting in their daily lives, particularly those whose territories are coveted for their natural resources.”

    “We will also share with the congress the messages of concern and solidarity that so many Canadians have sent us in the past year,” adds Kathy Price, who has led a variety of initiatives to press for action. “The signed banners, messages on maple leaves, and comments added to our petitions convey a deep resolve to stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples who legitimately, peacefully and with enormous courage claim their right to survival with dignity. Their struggle is ours.”

    Watch this blog for updates from Colombia by Alex and Kathy.

    Colombia: "It is an enormous privilege to be with you"

    Posted by: Alex Neve
    10 October 2012


    We have been planning and talking about this for months; and early this morning at long last our Latin American Campaigner Kathy Price and I arrived at the site of the Congress of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) here in Bogotá.  The national gathering, held once every four years, brings together thousands of Indigenous women, men and children from all corners of the country.  This year’s Congress, the eighth, also marks ONIC’s 30th Anniversary.

    The site for the Congress is itself quite remarkable.  This week is a school break in Colombia and the sprawling grounds of a college run by the Claretiano religious order, empty of students for the week, is where, not only the plenaries, workshops and meetings are being held, but thousands of people are now sleeping in tents that have been pitched in virtually every courtyard and hallway and communal open air kitchens keep everyone fed.

    We have come for several reasons.  One certainly is the important opportunity to convey a strong message of solidarity to Colombia’s Indigenous peoples, many of whom are on the brink of being wiped out and struggling for their very survival amidst an ongoing campaign of grave human rights violations.  We came with banners and posters and messages which we were told we would be able to share with the assembled participants sometime during the week.

    “Sometime during the week” ended up being almost immediately upon our arrival this morning.  Before we had much time to think, I was called up to the stage and. as I looked out at a sea of well over one thousand  people, I read out the words of support, respect and commitment that Kathy had eloquently crafted for me in Spanish.  We unfurled the banner with the stirring portrait of murdered Colombian Indigenous leader Kimy Pernía Domicó, whose visits to Canada over a decade ago inspired many Canadians.  We shared posters of Canadians holding up Kimy’s portrait and their own messages of solidarity.  And I told them that Canadians were aware and cared deeply about their struggle, and would continue to stand with them in that struggle for as long as it takes.

    I felt so humble, sharing all of this with people whose struggle has been unrelenting for so many long years; people who have suffered a great deal but who also have such remarkable resilience, strength and determination to defend their rights.  I felt proud as well that I was able to share messages and images that were so heartfelt; and that captured the essence of universal human rights: we cannot stay silent in the face of others’ struggles.

    The applause was warm and resounding.  And the comments from the many people who approached us afterwards made it clear that our presence and the messages we brought mattered a great deal.  I stood alongside young people who had their friends snap our photos on their cell phones.  I received email addresses, phone numbers and written statements from Indigenous leaders who wanted to share details of the particular challenges and struggles in their communities.  And already I was learning; learning the names of the many Indigenous nations at this Congress, as it seemed each person who approached me was from a different nation among the more than one hundred that make up Colombia’s vibrant and diverse Indigenous Peoples.

    As I said in my remarks, it is an enormous privilege to be here and convey the deeply felt concern and support of so many Canadians.  Over the coming days we will hear and learn a great deal.  Workshops are delving into a wide variety of pressing issues, including the human rights of Indigenous peoples, the situation faced by Indigenous women and girls, and the always critical topic of lands and resources.

    Amnesty International stands with Colombia’s Indigenous peoples.  Canadians stand with Colombia’s Indigneous peoples.   And what an enormous privilege that is.


    A surprise reunion and other encounters in Colombia tell a compelling, inspiring story about action and hope

    Posted by: Kathy Price
    15 October 2012


    It has been incredibly hard to listen to the horrendous testimonies of violence and persecution shared by Indigenous women and men at the 8th national gathering of Indigenous Peoples here in Colombia’s capital. In my capacity as an international observer, I have heard stories of immeasurable cruelty by all of the warring parties in a 45-year armed conflict, whether state security forces, the paramilitaries with whom they often collude, or insurgent combatants.

    Sitting in huge tents erected to protect participants from the elements – sometimes intense sun, other times equally intense downpours of rain – I have listened as women and men have quietly waited for their turn and then raised their voices to tell of military incursions into their territory, the shooting down of their children, the disappearance of their leaders, the rape of young women, the threats that have forced entire communities to run for their lives, with little more than the clothes on their backs, their infants swaddled in their arms.

    I have also have heard about the economic agenda behind these atrocities, which have often resulted in the “clearing” of communities from land rich in natural resources or economic potential. These stories are all the more chilling in light of Canada’s free trade agreement with Colombia, which has opened the door to an influx of Canadian resource extraction companies. “We are facing a monster,” said one community leader, his face etched with anxiety.

    It is impossible not to share his anxiety when highly respected institutions like Colombia’s own Constitutional Court have warned that at least one third of the 102 distinct Indigenous nations in this multi-ethnic society are at imminent risk of physical and cultural extermination.

    Amidst this dire backdrop, came an unexpected reunion. Thirteen years ago, I had the enormous privilege to journey by boat up the Sinu River, in the tropical rainforest of northern Colombia, to visit Embera Katio indigenous communities whose lives had been turned upside down by a hydro-electric project. Canada’s Export Development Corporation had provided millions of dollars in financing in support of work on the dam by a Canadian company. During that journey, I met Arely (I have changed her name to protect her safety), a community leader who welcomed me with friendship. She introduced me to others in the villages along the river, bridging what would otherwise have been barriers of language and culture, to ensure that I understood the devastating impact that the dam had had on her people. When it was time for me to leave this isolated region of Colombia, I waved goodbye to Arely, wondering if I would ever see her again.

    And so it was with enormous joy that I suddenly saw Arely amidst the delegation of Embera Katio who came here to Bogota to join thousands of others at this national gathering of Indigenous Peoples. With laughter we hugged and hugged again, to the delight of everyone around us.

    But I could see in Arely’s face that what has happened in the past decade has been profoundly painful. When we sat down to talk, she told me about how her people have continued to suffer hunger and disease as the dam caused fish stocks to disappear. Beloved leaders like Kimy Pernia Domico, who spoke out against the dam, were disappeared by paramilitaries, creating terror and paralysis. The violence did not stop there. As Arely told me, there have been more murderous attacks by paramilitaries, threats and abductions by guerrillas, terrifying incursions by soldiers, and the ever-present fear caused by land mines planted in Embera Katio territory. “People continue to be killed,” she said. “It is so hard, so painful. But we have not given up. We do what we can to defend our survival.”

    It is impossible not to be deeply upset by these crimes against humanity, which put the future of the Embera Katio in such danger. Yet I was able to tell Arely, and the other Embera Katio women and men who gathered with her, about the action taken by members and supporters of Amnesty International in Canada. I told them about the many letters written to government officials and the thousands of signatures on petitions calling for justice and action to ensure the survival of the Embera Katio. It was indescribably moving to share the solidarity messages that Canadians had sent me, some of them written on blue paper to symbolize the river territory that has such vital importance for the Embera Katio. Arely’s face broke into smiles as she looked at these messages, and then at photos in which our activists hold up signs saying “Justice for Kimy, Survival for Indigenous Peoples in Colombia”. She and the other members of her community understood clearly in that moment that they are not alone, that in a far away country there are people who stand with them.

    My trip to Colombia, my reunion with Arely, and all the other testimonies I have heard during this determined gathering of Indigenous Peoples, underscore how absolutely crucial it is that we continue  to raise our voices and support their courageous struggle for survival and dignity.

    This vital message is the same one that Dora Tavera, a leader of the Pijao Indigenous People and a Counsellor with the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, asked me to share: “Believe me, the actions of Canadians make a difference,” she said. “Your letters, petitions and post cards show the Colombian government that the international community knows what is happening to us and cares. But more than that, your action gives enormous hope to Indigenous Peoples here, and new strength to carry on amidst so many obstacles and dangers. Please tell your activists in Canada that we thank you so much for continuing to stand with us.”