At 4AM on the morning of January 30, 2010, three helicopters and a Kfir combat plane attacked an area in the northern part of the Colombian department of Chocó, where two hours earlier a spy plane had detected fire and smoke. According to the army, fire and smoke are telltale signs of guerrilla activity.
The attack, however, did not produce any guerrilla casualties, and the machine gun fire and bombs instead converged on a house with 5 people inside: José Nerito Rubiano Bariqui, his wife Martha Ligia Majoré Bailarín, their 8-year-old son Giovanni, and Martha Ligia’s niece Celina Majoré and her 20-day-old baby. Martha Ligia was wounded in one leg by a projectile, while José Nerito suffered a firearm-induced thorax wound which resulted in a broken spinal column, leaving him paraplegic. The new-born died three weeks later.
As it turned out, the zone furiously attacked by the armed forces is home to 87 families, or about 330 members of the Emberá People’s Community of Alto Guayabal-Coredocito — declared “So Bia Drua,” a humanitarian area of the Uradá Jiguamiandó Indigenous Reserve — in the municipality of Carmen del Darién, department of Chocó. So Bia Drua is about 145 kilometers northwest of Medellín.
The army claimed the attack was an innocent mistake and President Alvaro Uribe stated that the armed forces are always careful not to bomb civilian areas. But the government’s policy of offering “democratic security” to the privileged has resulted in too many of this kind of “mistake”, as well as the extrajudicial killings, for such disclaimers to merit much credibility. Moreover, the inhabitants of the bombed area claimed this was not a simple error but a premeditated and concerted effort to sow terror in this community and surrounding ones.
The Uradá Jiguamiandó and the Emberá-Caito Indigenous Reserves are home to rich deposits of copper, gold and molybdenum. The Colombian government’s unscrupulous obsession with Foreign Direct Investment resulted in the awarding in 2005 of a 30-year mining concession contract on a 16,000-hectare site to the infamous La Muriel Mining Corporation. The Mande Norte mining project, as is called, is the largest copper mining project in Colombia. Mining giant Rio Tinto has an option to enter a joint venture or profit-sharing arrangement with Muriel Mining.
Indigenous and afro-descendant communities, however, commenced legal actions on April 23, 2009, to stop the explorations. They claimed a lack of environmental impact studies, and, most importantly, a lack of prior government consultations with communities living on the collectively-owned land, which is in clear violation of Colombia’s Law 70 of 1993 as well as International Labor Organization Convention 169.
On January 6, 2009, Muriel Mining’s representative in Colombia, Pedro Lemous, claimed—with official documents on hand and in front of indigenous leaders— that the government had indeed conducted consultations (see report by David Goodner and Megan Felt on Colombia Reports last year). Legal actions by the indigenous were rejected in two instances by the courts, thus allowing Muriel Mining to continue its explorations.
During the legal proceedings, the total opposition of the indigenous community to exploration was further supported by a People’s Referendum. This led to the militarization of the zone by the government in order to ensure security for the mining company, while simultaneously contributing to harassment and threats to the local community. In previous years the army in collusion with paramilitary death squads killed hundreds and forcefully displaced thousands of indigenous and afro-descendant communities from the area.
The indigenous version of the January 30 attack, while possibly sounding like a conspiracy to some, has been validated by two recent decisions. On February 25, 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures for 87 families of the Emberá People’s Community of Alto Guayabal-Coredocito.
And perhaps most importantly, on March 24, 2010, the Constitutional Court ruled that Muriel Mining had to stop its explorations as part of the Mande Norte project until environmental studies and appropriate consultations with the local population are carried out. The Court found that the government’s consultations were conducted with people that neither belonged to the indigenous communities nor had any legal power to represent them— this is not the first time the government conducts bogus consultations to benefit commercial interests.
Over the years, the Emberá People’s Community has sought to carry out healing ceremonies to prevent being punished by the spirits for not having done anything to stop the effects of mining, which contaminates community rivers and lands. As the Rubiano Majoré family can attest to, it is apparently not only the spirits who are capable of inflicting punishment in the form of sickness and death.
For some this situation may be reminiscent of the movie “Avatar”, but, given that the national government is directly implicated, this is more sinister.