Displaced from their ancestral homeland in the southern Colombian Amazon jungle to the plains in the east, the indigenous community of Uitoto represent resilience as they collide with capitalism and are forced to westernize.
Caught in limbo between preserving their ancient traditions and embracing their new conditions, the Uitoto’s struggle highlights the ever-present tensions in Colombia’s treatment of indigenous people and their fight to preserve their culture.
Ten years ago six families from the Uitoto community were forcefully displaced by guerrilla violence from their ancestral homeland in La Chorrera in the Amazon, where they’d freely roam across over 6,000 hectares of land. The community had learnt to embrace and tame the unforgiving Amazon, hunting its animals, using its leaves to construct houses and nurturing a symbiotic and deeply spiritual relationship between man and nature, an alien concept to us in the “developed” world.
The amounting threats to the peaceful life of the indigenous group eventually became too much to handle and a 45 hectare plot of land in Los Llanos was allocated to them by the Colombian government. Lacking the vital land title needed to be able to farm the land, and the building materials they would have had in the Amazon to construct houses, the community have spent 10 years living in plastic walled shacks with corrugated metal roofs; unwanted guests on foreign land.
|“We want our environment to last thousands of years and yet often we can’t fish or wash in the river because of the contamination from the oil companies.”|
Introduction to capitalism
So close to westernized civilization and lacking the resources to grow their own crops and be self-sustainable, the community have had to enter the world of market forces, earning money, a previously valueless concept, to make a living.
But what “living” do they want to make? For Western thinkers a “living” comprises of the constant collection of capital in order to spend it on experiences and possessions, locked into a cycle of dependency on a concept which we have created to represent value. For the Uitoto their aim is peace. They want to live a tranquil life, nurturing their traditions and passing them onto their children, for whom they conserve and protect the environment that they have so much respect for.
Attempting to explain to me the profound differences in our mentalities, Santiago, the leader of the community, expressed with complete incredulity the abuse and maltreatment of the land he sees all around him by oil companies who’s “sustainability” projects last 10 years. “We want our environment to last thousands of years,” he explains, “and yet often we can’t fish or wash in the river because of the contamination from the oil companies.”
“Development” and “progress”
From the depths of the Amazon, where despite disease and often treacherous conditions the Uitoto thrived and prospered, to Los Llanos where they’re traditional ways of life cannot continue, their plight has left me reflecting on the arrogant position of those who feel “development” and “progress” has only one face and that this is what everyone should be aiming for.
Yet the Uitoto saga grows ever more complex as the move to Los Llanos has also represented great opportunities for their children to study, enter university and perhaps reap the benefits of “development.” Santiago assured me that his 20-year-old daughter who is studying law in Villavicencio returns every Sunday to partake in traditional dances and rituals with her family and that this is still a fundamental part of her identity. It’s hard to tell if this will continue as she progresses into the rat race of the western world.
The community have recently built a traditional Meloca (large communal tipi-like structure) to keep their traditions of dancing and mambe (chewing coca leaves) alive and to attract ethno-tourists in order to sustain their very much needed income. Although the exposure of this community to the outside world brings with it the benefits of capital and perhaps increased awareness, I couldn’t help feeling the tarnishing effect that the gawping stares of tourists may represent and that this educational experience may in fact be a glorified freak show.
Indeed during my visit several tourists came and went, a few token photos taken but no further attempt to truly understand the community. It seems to me that the Uitoto community are stuck in limbo between modernity and ancestral traditions –- the two of which are necessary to embrace for their new life in the plains. They are keeping their traditions alive both for themselves and future generations but also for tourists who have a very clear idea of how they think indigenous people should behave.
The future of the Uitoto
I fear that the abrupt collision with the western world will challenge the Uitoto and continuing with their rituals and traditions may become more difficult as their children leave home and assimilate into Colombian society.
Having spent the day listening to Uitoto history, customs and traditions, taking trips down the serene river in canoes and sleeping in hammocks in the meloca, I felt a variety of emotions. Sadness at the deeply distressing tale of the community’s displacement and the slow loss of such a deep rooted culture, but at the same time amazement that such tribal rituals have continued to exist.
The Uitoto represent an important part of Colombian culture and despite the government’s reluctance to acknowledge this with the land title they thoroughly deserve, it is up to Colombians and tourists alike to respect and protect these endangered cultures.
Los desplazados make up a sizeable chunk of the Colombian population, yet stories of displaced peoples tend to focus on the influxes of city populations and crime rates rather than the deeply unsettling and indeed life-changing impacts this issue has on the people themselves. Displacement has a profound psychological impact on its victims who risk losing their identities and cultures and are forced to set up a totally different style of life on foreign land.
The Uitoto’s daily struggle represents not only the complexities of the Colombian context but also the problems in our attitudes towards indigenous peoples and their right to self-determination. It is certainly not an issue that will be solved over night but definitely one worth considering as Colombia teeters on the edge of the promise of peace and needs to consider how to compensate and include affected communities in a thorough peace and reconciliation process the future years should bring.