Page last updated at 11:45 GMT, Friday, 10 April 2009 12:45 UK

Colombian Indians seek security

By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Kankarwarwa

Arhuaco men wait for President Uribe's visit
The Arhuaco people are hoping for an end to violence on their land

Colombia's indigenous peoples have traditionally opposed attempts by any side to involve them in the country's long-running conflict between left-wing rebels, government forces and paramilitary gangs.

But Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has recently managed to recruit one tribe, albeit with difficulty, into his campaign against Marxist guerrillas.

Just out of sight of the Caribbean Coast, the mountains of the Sierra Nevada climb to snow-capped peaks of 5,800m (19,000ft).

This part of the country has long been fought over by guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drugs cartels, who all want control over its drug crops and the routes that roll down to the sea and across to the US.

Some 1,000 metres above sea level lies the heart of the reservation of the Arhuaco people, one of the more traditional indigenous tribes, whose members wear white robes and speak a language that greeted the Spanish Conquistadors when they landed here some five centuries ago.

Many of the tribe are gathered at the new village of Kankawarwa, built in the traditional style with thatched roofs and wicker sides, designed to allow the slight breeze to circulate and keep the beating sun at bay.

The village has been built with government money in a joint venture that has allowed the Arhuacos to reclaim land that was once controlled by paramilitaries and enabled the authorities to continue their push up the mountains, with troops backed by helicopters crawling up the slopes in the search for Marxist insurgents.

Rocky relationship

So important was the inauguration of Kankawarwa ("place of the sacred bank" in the Arhuaco tongue) for the government and so significant the agreement between the state and an indigenous tribe, that President Uribe himself flew to the village in a helicopter at the end of March.

Villagers await President Uribe's visit
Some Arhuaco fear the price for security will be too high

Troops and snipers took up positions in the surrounding hills to protect the head of state.

"It generates confidence this inauguration, it brings us closer and this is fundamental," said Rogelio Mejia, the Arhuaco governor. "I do not think the indigenous people have ever applauded the security forces, certainly not here in the Sierra."

Colombia's 80 different indigenous peoples have long been in the front line of the 45-year conflict as the illegal armies seek territorial control over their reservations, domination over drug crops or smuggling routes.

Recently, a commission of the Awa tribe in the southern province of Narino recovered eight bodies of their people killed by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

In the western province of Choco, at least 400 members of the Embera tribe were driven from their homes at the end of March as rebels from the smaller rebel force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), clashed with a drug-trafficking gang over drug routes.

Although their rights and autonomy are enshrined in the 1991 Constitution, Colombia's diverse indigenous tribes have had a rocky relationship with President Uribe.

Their position has been that they want no outsiders in their reservations, neither rebels nor soldiers.

Mr Uribe has insisted that no part of Colombia should be outside government control and sent troops into many reservations, long redoubts for the warring factions.

The Arhuaco tribal elders have taken a gamble, co-operating with the security forces in the hope that peace will return to their reservation and their people. However, not all of the tribe are in agreement.

Leonor Zalabata fears that this is just the first stage of a government plan to impose greater control on her people, in contravention of the autonomy guaranteed by the constitution.


Dressed in the traditional white robes with coloured beads draped around her neck, Leonor fears the consequences of allowing troops to move freely into the reservation.

Members of the Awa people which was the target of attacks in February
The Awa people were the target of deadly attacks in February

"It is not the retribution that the guerrillas might take, but the actions of the troops themselves," she said. "We have already received reports of soldiers abusing and raping women."

The other fear expressed is that not just the safety of the tribe is under threat, but also its culture.

"The more contact we have with the government, the more people that come to the Sierra, the more they will try to dilute our culture, our traditions," said Diego Garcia.

President Uribe was quick to calm fears expressed by many of the tribe.

"We are not here to take anything, but rather to give," he said.

"We want to give peace and security, we want to help the Arhuacos continue to preserve the environment of the Sierra, to continue their roles as the guardians of these mountains."

Back in Bogota, at the offices of the National Organisation of Indigenous Communities (Onic), many look at the Arhuaco experiment with expectation but also some caution.

Luis Andrade of the Onic knows better than anyone that the very survival of some of the tribes is at risk.

"For hundreds of years we have been attacked, we have been threatened with extinction, both physically and culturally," he said, the sounds of traffic almost drowning out his soft voice.

"We have to resist as we have always resisted, we have to trust in ourselves."

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