The Siona Governors and Their Disputed Territory

On the Ecuadorian border, over two hours downstream from Puerto Asis in Putumayo, two Siona women – Milena Payoguaje and Martha Liliana Piaguaje – govern indigenous territories within one of Colombia’s most disputed areas. There is a company that wishes to extract oil and some seismic explosives that nobody knows whether or not they will be detonated. 

The water reaches her shin, about ten centimeters from the edge of her rubber boots. Her waterproof pants are already wet. On the belt, he carries a machete and a pouch to store essential objects. The governor of the Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco reservation, Martha Liliana Piaguaje, carries her baton across her chest as she records on her cell phone camera one of the points where the company Amerisur Resources (recently sold to Chilean company Geopark) installed Sismigel explosive charges to carry out seismic studies.

This photo was taken in early October 2019, when Liliana and her indigenous guard went to their reservation’s limits with representatives of Amerisur and the Ministry of Interior, among other officials of Corpoamazonia and other local control agencies, to tell them that the aforementioned company should never have buried that material there. The company states the explosives are outside the Siona indigenous territory, but Liliana and her colleagues claim they have evidence to prove that Amerisur crossed the reservation’s limits, located two hours downstream from Puerto Asis, on the Colombian side of the Putumayo River.

Milena Payoguaje, governor of the Bajo Santa Elena council, looks out over the Putumayo River. Most of her people, the Siona, live on the banks of these waters which, at this point, are the natural border between Colombia and Ecuador. Photo: Cesar Rojas Angel.

“We are a Putumayo original people, we don’t come from anywhere else; our grandparents are family, we have Tucano roots, we are their descendants, same as with the Siona Secoya of Ecuador,” says Martha Liliana Piaguaje when describing her people. In Putumayo, one of the gateways to the Colombian Amazonia, there are 12 Siona communities. Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco is one of six legally constituted reservations in the department.

Martha Liliana Piaguaje does not use her first name. In her reservation, almost everyone calls her Liliana. She is one of the leaders of this indigenous community in Putumayo, Southern Colombia. Thirty minutes upriver, on the road to Puerto Asis, Milena Payoguaje, Governor of the Bajo Santa Elena council, lives. She is the first woman to govern this community and a leader who, although she has had no direct contact with the advances of the extractive industries, knows the risks of defending the territory just as much as Liliana. Both have suffered due to the conflict; both closely see the coca crops and their growers seeking to expand their borders. They are also aware that the river that serves as a gateway to their communities is one of the most disputed drug trafficking corridors in the country and both Milena and Liliana have been threatened by different stakeholders seeking to control this territory. 

In these two communities, as well as in other indigenous organizations in the region and throughout Colombia, women are protagonists in the defense of both the territory and their collective rights, all amidst a hostile environment.

On August 22, 2019, the Cundinamarca Administrative Court ruled in favor of the community of the Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco reservation. The judge ordered Amerisur to suspend the seismic studies, urged the parties to form a negotiation table to resolve the dispute and requested the National Land Agency (ANT, in Spanish) to make a visit to determine the reservation’s geographic limits and thus clarify whether the Sismigel charges are inside or outside the indigenous territory. 

The last meeting of this negotiation table -a means to follow up to the guardianship ruling- took place last December 6. Since then, the community of Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco has had no further contact with Amerisur Colombia, the Colombian branch of British company Amerisur. By that time, there were rumors already that the company was going to be sold. The deal was made public on January 16. Chilean company GeoPark, which in addition to its parent company has operations in Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil, bought Amerisur for US$314 million. With this transaction, GeoPark acquired the 13 blocks the British company held in Colombia, 12 of them located in Putumayo.

In December, when the sale seemed imminent, the Buenavista reservation, the Siona people’s largest reservation in the department which was also facing the advances of the oil company, declared in anticipation: “We warn the multinational @GeoParkEmpresa, possible buyer of @AmerisurResourc, that we will NOT allow extractive activities in our lands and that by acquiring the referred assets it acquires the responsibilities of @AmerisurResourc for the violation of human rights and our territorial rights.”

Tensions between the oil company and the Siona people began in 2013, when the first step towards a prior consultation process was taken. In an investigation published at the end of February 2020, environmental organization Ambiente y Sociedad highlights that Amerisur separately initiated prior consultation processes with the communities of Buenavista, Bajo Santa Elena and Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco. The Buenavista reservation rejected any intervention, but the other two communities signed agreements in 2014. Today, Liliana, governor of Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco, explains that they did not have enough information, that by doing the consultation separately they tried to divide the Siona people and that, in any case, the area where they installed the explosives for the seismic study was not included in their agreements.

Martha Liliana Piaguaje is 35 years old and has been governor of the Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco reservation since 2017. Photo: Cesar Rojas Angel.

That is why the ruling in her people’s favor issued in August was a small victory for her in the midst of a long dispute between the oil company and the Siona people. But the celebration was short-lived. The ANT heeded the Court’s call to delimit the territory and has already issued its opinion: “The Sismigel charges are outside the Siona Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco Indigenous Reservation.” The community interprets that this could open the door for the oil company to continue exploration activities. Liliana Piaguaje and her community do not know what the next step in the process is. The possibility of the oil project’s advance adds to other latent concerns, such as inhabiting a territory historically affected by conflict, disputed by different armed stakeholders outside the law and surrounded by illicit crops. 

Putumayo is the third-largest department in the country with more hectares of coca crops, according to the 2018 report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Integrated Monitoring System for Illicit Crops. Those 26,408 hectares are equivalent to 16 per cent of the total registered cultivation in the country. In addition, 10% of the country’s coca crops are located in indigenous reservations. Regarding the threats that this implies, the report is clear: “A greater presence of coca crops is directly related to internal forced displacement, harms by public forces (murders or injuries), and terrorist acts, attacks, fighting and harassment at the municipal level.”

As if all that was not enough, Liliana has to deal with her own security situation. As a leader, in August 2018 the government’s National Protection Unit provided her with a security detail comprising two escorts, an armored van and a cell phone with minutes. The detail arrived a year after her appointment as governor and accompanies her solely in the urban area of Puerto Asis. 

But the threats, which are transmitted by word of mouth or by a anonymous notes, have been received at her reservation, where neither vans nor cell phone signals reach.

The Siona, An Endangered Indigenous People

“We are ayahuasca people,” says Liliana, “we drink a lot of yoko and we purge ourselves with tobacco, which are part of our elders’ beliefs; we as the young people are passing those beliefs on to our children, so that they’re not lost.” In Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco about 40 families, almost 200 people, live who have stayed despite several years of violence and isolation. “The general census reported 105 families,” says Liliana, although she quickly clarifies that the figure includes displaced families, who, as she says, “have left to improve their quality of life and live in the urban areas.”

The Siona use tobacco to purge themselves. But it is also a fundamental element in their ceremonies. Here, on the way to a sacred lagoon near their territory, tobacco -they claim- helps ward off evil spirits. Photo: Cesar Rojas Angel.

For several decades, the Siona people have lived in the crossfire. Located on both sides of the Putumayo River, in both Colombian and Ecuadorian territory, the indigenous people have seen paramilitary groups, guerrillas and Public Forces pass by. 

Some, like the inhabitants of the Bajo Santa Elena council, bear deeper scars. In 2011, before the peace process began, demobilized members of the then Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) reported that they had installed anti-personnel mines near the territory. The Colombian Campaign against Mines (CCCM) has already cleared some of the known devices, but there is a new field to be dismantled. The community is simultaneously proceeding with the Ministry of Interior so that its council becomes a reservation. Milena says that if they were a reservation, they could have access to collective ethnic budgets directly provided by the central government.

The governor feels that, with that State recognition, the community could have better tools to face those who unscrupulously cut down the forest, expand the agricultural frontier or increase the number of hectares of illicit crops, such as coca leaf. In the end, 13,903 hectares of forest were cut down between 2017 and 2018 in Putumayo, the fourth-most deforested department in the country, according to the annual deforestation report prepared by the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM, in Spanish.)

Meanwhile, Milena and Liliana have always defended their neutrality and, unarmed, have done everything in their power to prevent any of these stakeholders from entering their territory.

“Threats? Of every kind,” says the governor of Piñuña Blanco. Neither she nor the Indigenous Guard can do the monitoring tours they used to do in the most remote areas of their own reservation. “If you come back this way, you’ll leave in a bag,” Liliana was told by a settler, one of many farmers who have settled near the reservation to cut down the forest, plant coca leaves or exploit the fertile lands of the Amazon foothills on their own way. Liliana prefers not to talk about it. She doesn’t know if retelling the threats is riskier than keeping them to herself, and simply recognizes that danger surrounds her and her fellows.

Most of these indigenous people live on the banks of the Putumayo River and take only what they need to live from its waters or from its tributaries. The Putumayo is also their main means of transport. But in recent months, transit on the river has been prohibited from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. It is an unspoken rule nobody really knows whom it came from, but they prefer to abide by. Photo: Cesar Rojas Angel.

This community can only be reached by river. A speedboat leaving from Puerto Asis every morning takes about two and a half hours to reach the banks of Piñuña Blanco. In this area of the department, the Putumayo River is wide and plentiful, but it has no rapids or abrupt turns. It meanders through the jungle, which grows thicker as it moves away from Puerto Asis. A few minutes after leaving the municipality’s modest pier, the light posts disappear and, almost simultaneously, the cell phone signal is lost. A village comes into view a full hour later, on the left bank of the river, a sign three or four meters wide: “Buenavista Reservation,” the Siona people’s largest one in the department. 

The Siona of Buenavista do not look kindly on GeoPark either. Two oil blocks were granted to the company by the National Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH in Spanish), but no attached production rights. They are located outside the reservation’s limits, but in an area the indigenous people have been claiming as part of their ancestral territory since 2018. They have even asked the First Civil Court of the Specialized Circuit for Land Restitution, which hears cases of land dispossession on account of the armed conflict, to claim their right to 58,000 hectares. The have also requested precautionary measures for these lands. The court granted these measures, so that on August 21, 2018 it ordered the company to stop its activities in the area until ownership of the territory was properly defined.

One hour by river from Buenavista and about 30 km away, Liliana says that even her reservation has received messages for her to stop opposing the oil company’s intentions, she has been told to “save yourself the troubles.”

The history of threats and precautionary protection measures is long. In Order 004 of 2009, the Constitutional Court included the Siona in the list of the 34 most threatened indigenous peoples in the country due to conflict and forced displacement. Nine years later, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued precautionary measures to protect the integrity of the lives and territories of the Buenavista and Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco reservations. The Commission asked the Colombian state, among other things, to adopt measures so that the communities in these reservations “can live safely in their territory, without being subjected to violence, threats, and harassment.” Both communities claim that the Colombian State has not met these obligations, while they see that risk factors grow more and more diverse.

“[to army] “I’ve been forced to go and tell them to leave. Then they say that we are harboring other groups, that we are the ones who are accompanying them.””

Milena Payoguaje

“The Army has come here, and neither the Army nor any group can enter here,” says Milena Payoguaje of the Santa Elena Council. “I’ve been forced to go and tell them to leave. Then they say that we are harboring other groups, that we are the ones who are accompanying them.” And the accusation is repeated in many ways. The governor tells FARC dissidents, who went back on the peace agreement and kept their weapons, that they cannot be in their territory, to which they responded saying that she is on the army’s side. And if she rejects the presence of an illegal armed stakeholder such as the so-called ‘Mafia’, she runs the risk of being associated with one of their enemies. For years, indigenous leaders have insisted that they do not take sides, and so they advocate for the expulsion of all armed stakeholder from their territory, something that is not well regarded by any of the parties. 

Milena Payoguaje governs the Siona Bajo Santa Elena Council, an hour and a half downstream from Puerto Asis, Putumayo. Near her territory, there are minefields that have not been dismantled yet. Photo: Cesar Rojas Angel.

Governors in the Crossfire

On September 26, 2019, the Ombudsman’s Office issued an early warning that highlighted the risk situation in the Piñuña Blanco area, where in addition to the reservation governed by Liliana, there are other villages and small towns.

The State entity monitoring human rights compliance in Colombia reported eight violent episodes between July and September 2019. Among others, one of the episodes occurred when one of these groups – which insists on being called FARC – arrived on July 28 in the Pueblo Bello village. They told the community that they planned to stay and in the afternoon, in a neighboring village, they confronted the so-called ‘Mafia’, a group partly made up of former paramilitaries. One farmer was injured and taken to a hospital in the urban area of Puerto Asis. Between 29 July and 2 August, there were no classes in these villages. The inhabitants took refuge in the school and the health center, the only concrete structures in the hamlet.

Liliana recalls that similar episodes were experienced in the reservation during the 2000s. The army and the guerrillas fought mere meters from their houses and the community had to take refuge behind the most solid structure’s walls. That was why many of the people left.

“The continuous individual displacements have also entailed risks for the people who have been exercising leadership within the peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, since any violent action against them necessarily and directly impacts on the territorial autonomy of the communities and their mechanisms of self-protection and resistance in the face of armed disputes between FARC-EP dissidents and the Mafia,” the Ombudsman’s Office says.

Among its recommendations, the Ombudsman’s Office asked the Army – in line with the requests made by the Constitutional Court for several years – to “fully apply the principles of IHL” and to “evaluate” the best action for the “effective protection of its inhabitants.” The control entity also stressed that the operations must “contain concrete measures to reduce the risks that may arise as a reaction to the presence of the Public Force.”

In addition, the Ombudsman’s Office requested urgent action from the National Government, the Putumayo Governor’s Office, the Puerto Asis Mayor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office. But the risk is still there. “The control entities did nothing,” Governor Liliana says. 

The school of the Bajo Santa Elena Council is called Zio Bain, which in the Siona language means “People of the Chagras” or “People of the Country”. Despite being located more than 100 meters away from the river’s edge, the classrooms were flooded during the last flooding of the Putumayo River. Now, the community is looking for the resources to move the institution to a safer area. Photo: Cesar Rojas Angel.

“The recommendation is not to go there until the situation gets better,” says Amanda Camilo, a respected leader of victims who today is also the Putumayo and Southern Huila territorial coordinator of the Commission for the Clarification of the Truth, a State entity created with the peace agreement to reconstruct the country during 52 after years of war. Amanda, who works in the urban area of Puerto Asis, has not been able to travel with her team to the Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco reservation to interview the inhabitants and clarify the truth about what happened to the Siona.

“The recommendation is not to go there until the situation gets better”

Amanda Camilo, líder de víctimas

This activist is familiar with different Putumayo women-led processes in defense of the territory, water and fauna. She knows that, in order to limit their actions, some stakeholders direct their threats at their families and children, and in many places they discredit their arguments simply because they are women. “Unfortunately, despite the strong female leadership in Putumayo, women are stigmatized, because many concepts of a patriarchal culture are still in place, where negotiations should not be held with women, but between men,” says Amanda.

For several years, she has also worked with the Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres (women pacific route) and is one of the founders of the Alianza de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida del Putumayo (Alliance of Putumayo Women Weavers of Life), an organization that supported Liliana Piaguaje and the Siona people of Piñuña Blanco in the guardianship proceeding that was ruled in their favor in August. 

In particular, Amanda knows what the Siona indigenous people have faced. “They are a people that historically have been affected and have been losing their integrity and their status as a native people of the Amazonia,” says the leader. “They have stayed between Puerto Asis and Puerto Leguizamo and every time this boom in extractive economies -including oil production- comes around, they lose a little of their idiosyncrasy and their community becomes affected. They have had to move around and lose much of what living a harmonious life in the territory means.” 

The Siona and their ancestral territory

Liliana Piaguaje explains, while successively pointing to her crown, her belly and the ground, “in the environment we have our being, the belly of our children, and life, which is in the ground, which gives us the strength to continue in this struggle to defend the territory.”

That defense of the territory is present in their daily conversations. Liliana effortlessly remembers a reconnaissance excursion in the reservation when she talks with her neighbors. Her struggle for land is part of all their assemblies, they instill it in the youngest, and on many occasions it is the subject of conversation with her husband, Manuel Carlosama, president of all the Siona people in the department. When they take the remedy, as many people in Southern Colombia call ayahuasca, they ask their grandparents -their ancestors and spiritual guides- for advice to guide them in their struggle. 

But now, there are some explosives buried in one of its cananguchales, a complex floodable ecosystem, dominated by palms which roots protrude from the surface and which are a source of life and connection to the earth for the Siona. When you hear Manuel talking about these Sismigel charges, you can feel the anguish in his voice. He and the governor are uncertain about what GeoPark’s next move will be. “Now we are at the last stage, at the endgame, you could say, where the judge orders a negotiation table to be set up among the parties, the company and the community,” Liliana explains. Three meetings have already been held. In the last one, held last December 6, the ANT concluded that the oil company was operating outside of Siona territory. 

Since the sale is recent, GeoPark says it is studying its processes and does not want to meet in person with journalists yet. After several weeks of attempts, it was not possible to arrange an interview. 

“GeoPark is in a stage where it is assessing and understanding all the processes and details of operation in the area. Once we have all the necessary information, we will prepare an action plan that we will share with our interest groups,” the company wrote to us via email on January 23, in response to a request for an interview.

Eight days later, its connections coordinator, Maria Camila Casallas, wrote to us again. “On August 22, 2019, the Cundinamarca Administrative Court issued a ruling ordering the creation of a negotiation and compliance table chaired by the Ministry of Interior and made up of delegates from the National Land Agency (ANT), the Ombudsman’s Office, the Delegate Attorney for Ethnic Affairs, Corpoamazonia, two delegates from the indigenous reservation elected by the community and representatives of the company. Since that date, the seismic acquisition project has been preventively suspended pending the agreements reached at the negotiation table,” she said.

However, the company has not provided this information to the community. Days before this last email, this was the version that Governor Liliana had: “The company tells us that they have a schedule ready to come and detonate the Sismigel charges they have buried, and so far we are very concerned because, if they come to detonate them, we would have a huge loss in our territory because all the fauna and flora that is in that part would be lost.”

“we are very concerned because, if they come to detonate them, we would have a huge loss in our territory because all the fauna and flora that is in that part would be lost”

Gobernadora Liliana

In the photo taken by one of the reservation’s Indigenous Guard members in early October, almost four hours on foot from the center of the Santa Cruz de Piñuña Blanco reservation, a tree branch with a handmade sign reading “STK 1241” stands out from the cananguchal. These are the initials that mark the points where sensors are installed to determine if there is oil in the subsoil after the detonation of a charge. Other signs, also marked by hand on red posters, say “SP”, marking e detonation points. Some branches with signs are broken, others are illegible. 

The charges are buried about ten meters deep and no one is comfortable with them remaining there.

Tierra de Resistentes

Base de datos de Tierra de Resistentes

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