Getting back to take care of the forest: the Yaguara II Crusade

Three indigenous peoples are trying to return to their territory, from where they were displaced almost two decades ago, with the intention of preventing the advance of deforestation. The State has not provided the required security guarantees.

At the end of 2019, a bus left San Vicente del Caguan towards Yaguara II with 70 indigenous people. For three days, they discussed the pros and cons of returning to their reservation. Photo: Tatiana Pardo Ibarra

By: Tatiana Pardo Ibarra       Twitter: @Tatipardo2

Posted: April 22, 2020

Nothing more was ever known about Escolastico Ducuara. Those who knew him say he was a hard-working man with a strong temper and rigid against the war system. He did not hesitate to talk to the people in the mountains when they, under false promises, wanted to recruit the youngest and take them into the forest with a rifle hanging from their shoulder. They say that he was a thorn on the side for the former FARC and that, precisely because of this, on May 2, 2004, he was taken and was never heard from again. Who gave the order? Why? Where is his body?

Sixteen years later, these same questions remain unanswered. However, the elders claim that it was the guerrilla group, which signed a peace agreement in 2016 and laid down its arms a year later, that took him away at the age of 87.

Escolastico Ducuara was one of the founders of the Llanos del Yarí-Yaguara II indigenous reservation, established on February 22, 1995 over 146,500 hectares of vacant land located between the municipalities of San Vicente del Caguan (Caqueta), La Macarena (Meta) and Calamar (Guaviare). It was created to benefit 38 families comprising 169 persons from the Pijao, Tucano and Piratapuyo peoples, according to the then Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (Incora in Spanish), which is perhaps the only case of indigenous settlement spearheaded by the Colombian State.

Arriving in an Unknown Land

The first explorers were the Pijao, who arrived in 1964, transported and assisted by the Colombian Air Force from Chaparral, in Southern Tolima. They were fleeing the bipartisan violence that had plagued Colombia since the ‘40s and the dispossession of a large part of their land. It was the State that encouraged them to settle in a new region. From the Andes, they arrived in the Amazon without knowing how to hunt or navigate. They learned about nomadic farming and gradually adapted the unknown soil to pigs, chickens and cattle. They burned the forest, opened the first trails and built small bridges. Others arrived later plowing through the Tunia River looking for alternatives to rubber, animal skins and coca.

“My father asked Escolastico for permission to let us live here and he took us in as part of the community,” says the 44-year-old Piratapuyan Ilda Barra Builes. They tapped rubber trees, extracted the sap and made large thin sheets for masters. Later, they worked with wild cat skins, but that was very hard because the white men had us as slaves. The white people abused and raped women.

Barra — with smooth black hair that rubs against her hips and thin as spaghetti – remembers that it took her 25 days to reach Yaguara II from the Apaporis River basin. She and her family paddled upstream and crossed the Chiribiquete National Park in the summer season to take advantage of the rocks sticking out because, in her words, “if the volume of water grows, there are only two options left: drowning or getting lost”. A year later, everyone left, except Ilda. She was the only one who stayed, and she resisted the worst part.

The apparent calm ended in 2004. The FARC gave the order that anyone with the surname Bocanegra had to leave the reservation in less than 72 hours.

Only three families remained in Yaguara II – among them Ilda’s family, who was no longer along after having several young children. “93% of the population was victim of forced displacement (…) and the forced disappearance of three members of the community: Escolastico Ducuara, Orlando Cruz and Serafin Mendez”, according to the ‘Plan for the Ethnic Safeguard of the Pijao People’ prepared by the Ministry of the Interior. Most of these families settled in the urban area of San Vicente del Caguan, in an area called Villa Norte, where they still live. Others went to Villavicencio, Bogota, Granada, Neiva, Ibague and even outside the country. The social fabric was broken.

“That day was so very hard. Everyone was crying and deciding what little things they could take along so as not to lose what they had worked so hard for,” says Luis Carvajal (72) who already has several visible holes in his mouth due to missing teeth. “And so, the Bocanegra started leaving, but later all of them left due to the pressure and the fear of retaliations. You feel that you lost everything, you see? That everything turns around and you don’t know what to do with your life. And now when there is a desire to return as a result of this peace, I am no longer young enough to use the axe, scythe or saw. It’s another generation’s turn.”

Deforestation after Displacement

September 26, 2017 came with a triumphant air. The Ibague First Civil Court of the Specialized Circuit in Land Restitution granted precautionary measures for the protection  of the community of the Llanos del Yarí – Yaguara II reservation as a collective victim of the armed conflict in Colombia. The judge recognized not only the acts of violence perpetrated against them by the FARC, especially by the 14th and 15th fronts of the Teofilo Forero mobile column and sometimes by the first front of Guaviare, but also the “dramatic” increase in deforestation and the presence of illicit crops “as a result of the territory’s abandonment.”

In Order 0263, the same judge ordered the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, as well as Corpoamazonia, CDA and Cormacarena – the three regional environmental authorities with jurisdiction in the reservation – and the Attorney General’s Office to implement a “comprehensive and immediate strategy” to stop the indiscriminate logging of the forest inside Yaguara II. The order went further: the authorities should prosecute those who “traffic wood extracted without permission” and implement a “reforestation and environmental recovery plan.”

Based on satellite images and aerial overflights, the loss of natural forest within the indigenous reservation can be effectively identified and measured. If, simplistically, we draw a horizontal line to divide the territory in two, we will see that deforestation is concentrated in the upper part, especially in the El Retiro, El Jordan and El Morichal townships, which are part of the municipality of La Macarena, and in the Itilla township, in Calamar. There, roads -which spread like fish bones to different directions – connect with the famous Marginal de la Selva, an old and very controversial road project to cut short the 381 kilometers that separate San Vicente del Caguan and San Jose del Guaviare. Backhoes and chainsaws have been destroying part of the Colombian Amazon plant cover at a worrying rate.

In an aerial flyby carried out in 2019, the phenomenon of deforestation within indigenous territory was confirmed, as well as the expansion of lots for livestock. Credit: FCDS.

It was difficult for Yaguara II, located in the middle of the country’s three most deforested departments, to be spared by this scourge. The latest report from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam) corroborates this: In 2018, 9.3% of national deforestation (about 18,300 hectares) occurred within indigenous reservations. After the Nukak-Maku in Guaviare, Yaguara II is the most critical: 2,348 forest hectares were destroyed in a single year. That means over 6 hectares per day, the highest figure recorded in the last two decades. Each patch of felled forest, on average, measures 8 hectares.

However, data on a scale of 1:25,000 – greater than National Government’s – show a more worrying picture. The area of lots opened between April 2018 and September 2019 is of between 0.5 and 57 hectares. During that period, 2,037 hectares of forest were cut down, according to the monitoring conducted by the Foundation for Preservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS in Spanish) that works in the region. Its researchers identified two airstrips: one is in the same hamlet — approximately one kilometer long, built by the first Indigenous people who came to live in Yaguara II, and where the air force landed twice a month to provide them with enough food — and the other, a 1.4 kilometer long illegal airstrip, located on the western edge of the reservation in the Yari savannah, which the community insistently demands be disabled.

“This is one of the largest indigenous reservations in the Northwestern Colombian Amazon,” explains economist Gloria Gonzalez, in charge of relations with indigenous peoples at FCDS. “And it is important because it is a corridor that allows connectivity between the Yarí savannah and the Amazon forest, between the protected areas of La Macarena and Chiribiquete. If laid down, that flow will be interrupted.”

This means that the reservation is located in one of the most important biological corridors between the Andes and the Colombian Amazon, which allows for a genetic flow and exchange from one side to the other. At the rate at which it is being disconnected, it is becoming increasingly difficult for a species to ‘cross over’ and settle other places. In colloquial words: populations remain isolated, with little room to move, while the the landscape runs the risks of becoming less diverse.

Corpoamazonia, the environmental authority in the Caqueta department, recognizes that “it is urgent to enter the territory (to stop deforestation), but in the company of Military Forces due to the topographical and public order complexity” in Yaguara II, as it said in its reply to a right of petition to know the progress in the fulfillment of the orders issue by the Ibague judge. Its director, Mario Angel Baron, said that they have held eight work meetings (both internally and with the community), but insists that “there are no guarantees or logistical support to enter the area and carry out the verification of the environmental report filed. Despite these difficulties and “a road of access in very bad conditions”, the authority was able to prove that -in Baron’s words- “the savannahs that belong to the reservation are being burned for livestock farming purposes.”

The reply from Cormacarena, which is environmentally responsible for the area in Meta, is similar. Its deputy director for environmental management and control, Wilson Eduardo Zarate, referred to Yaguara II as “a zone of delicate public order and quite distant from the urban area,” which “conditions and limits the exercise of environmental authority in controlling deforestation and implementing the restoration protocol.” As the reservation is over 40 kilometers away from La Macarena, “it is impossible for officials to carry out their work without being accompanied by the public forces,” which “has been requested in vain,” Zarate says.

The information provided by the CDA – environmental authority in Guaviare- follows the same lines: lack of personnel, long distances, and presence of FARC dissidents. Regarding the increase in deforestation, the deputy director for environmental quality, Gabriel Polo, assures that it “skyrocketed” in 2016 due to the peace negotiations, because “the FARC had control and prohibited high levels of logging, but the rural families took advantage of this situation to expand their farms for livestock farming.”

According to the FCDS, the area of ​​the deforested forest patches is between 0.5 and 57 hectares. Photo: FCDS

While this is happening, from the air the forest looks nibbled and with several burned patches. But that is still an insufficient, macro-level perspective. The three municipalities to which Yaguara II belongs have over 36,000 biological records, according to Colombia’s Biodiversity Information System (SIB in Spanish): 27,309 in La Macarena, 6,995 in San Vicente del Caguan and 2,475 in Calamar. Only in the area corresponding to the indigenous territory there are 769 records of 400 different species.

It is precisely this biodiversity that the court order seeks to protect as well. The Ministry of Environment feels that its efforts are heading in the right direction and points to the following milestones as progress: The creation of the National Council for the Fight Against Deforestation and Other Related Environmental Crimes (CONALDEF in Spanish), Operation Artemisa, which has been underway since April 2019 and is catalogued as the government’s big push against the natural resource executioners. It also names the Vision Amazonia program – funded by Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom – and the Pact for Sustainability ‘produce by preserving and preserve by producing’.

None of these actions were taken on Yaguara II nor does the Ministry detail any strategy for that particular territory, as ordered.

The Threats

Exactly one year ago, in March, the wife of Alexander Bocanegra Mendez, governor of the indigenous council, arrived in the reservation along with three more family members. She appeared at 2 a.m. as if she were being chased. It was like she had escaped and then run across, without rest, tens of kilometers of trail, mountain and savannah hoping not to find to her husband lying on the ground, dead. She arrived without warning, after receiving a call with a brief message that pierced her body like a slash: “Tell Alex that he is going to be killed.”

There’s no cell phone signal on Yaguara II.

That same month, Bocanegra went to the Ombudsman’s Office to alert the authorities that his life was in danger. “Mr. Samuel Tumbo, who is invading the Yaguara II territory, met with a chief of the FARC dissidents on March 15  and offered them weapons and money to have me killed. He apparently accepted and said that ‘I was now a military target’. Since that day, I fear for my life,” his statement reads.

The member of the former guerrilla – who decided not to take part in the peace agreement –Bocanegra alludes to was Mario Lopez Cordoba, alias ‘Negro Edward’, who died in an army bombing in June 2019. According to intelligence reports, he had been delegated by dissident ‘Gentil Duarte’ to expand this armed group in the Caqueta, Guaviare, Meta and Putumayo departments, “specially to control the drugs production and commercialization chain of with drug cartels abroad.”

Sometime later, Alexander Bocanegra says that he met and talked for 45 minutes with ‘Gildardo Cucho’, the dissidents’ commander, to clarify his security status; however, this commander also died later in another military operation in a rural area of San Vicente del Caguan that was classified by President Ivan Duque as “meticulous and impeccable” despite the fact it was later discovered that it had caused the death of several minors, which led to a national scandal.

“So, I could never really know what happened, whether they were going to kill me or not. I was left in limbo,” he says.

Alexander Bocanegra Mendez, governor of the Llanos del Yari-Yaguara II Indigenous Council Photo: Tatiana Pardo Ibarra

Bocanegra decided to leave the area. The National Protection Unit (UNP in Spanish) assigned him a security man – an unarmed indigenous man from the community. He changed his routines and left the department hoping tensions would ease. In this country, where according to UN figures 107 human rights defenders were killed in 2019, 98% of which in municipalities where illegal activities and criminal or armed groups operate, protecting the forest, rivers, moors and animals is a job that can cost your life.

The price for Alexander Bocanegra was his peace of mind. In a meeting he held with settlers from the Monte Bello township, for example, he remembers that when he took the floor to explain the people that they were invading an indigenous territory, this was what they answered without hesitation: “you have to get killed so you stop poking your nose where you shouldn’t” and “these indigenes must be finished off so work here can continue.”

His only son is perched on a fence in order to hear his father’s answer. Maybe that’s why Bocanegra prefers to succinctly say that he’s fine, that he takes care of himself and has security. But then, when the child gets off and goes with his camera to take pictures, he pauses and cries. After a while he catches his breath: “Every day I get out of bed hoping to be able to go back to. I’m afraid of not coming home.”

The Pijao, Piratapuyo and Tucano peoples’ collective territory are included in the Registry of Dispossessed and Forced Abandoned Lands kept by the Land Restitution Unit (URT in Spanish). This means that the 146,500 hectares allocated to them by the Incora in 1995 are shielded from any action involving their alienation or transfer of property rights.

Yolima Isabel Jurado, a URT official who is closely following the process, is the one asking for the restitution of territorial rights in favor of the three indigenous communities – considering their status as conflict victims. In 96 pages, the public official detailed the facts that have affected their rights to their own government, to the effective use and enjoyment of the territory in accordance with their traditional practices, to a healthy environment, to the legal security of the collective ownership of the territory, and to food sovereignty, security and autonomy.

The lawsuit filed by Jurado, in her capacity as counsel, also draws attention to the role of nature. It stresses that the two roads built by the FARC between 1998 and 2002, at the time when then-President Andres Pastrana decreed a 42,000 km2 clearing zone that included Yaguara II in the midst of his failed peace process with the guerrilla group, “involved the cutting down of forests, the destruction of ecological niches, the flight of species, the production of lumber for bridges and, later, the arrival of settlers, hunters and fishermen who increased the pressure on the ecosystem and its resources. During that same period, “12 children and adolescents between the ages of 12 and 20 were forcibly recruited, which is a violation of international humanitarian law,” he adds.

Military aerial bombardments are also mentioned – especially the one in 1997 within the framework of operation Ejercito Destructor II (Destructor Army II), as well as the existence of 4 active hectares with coca crops within the boundaries and 4 anti-personnel mines.

Atenais Mendez, Bocanegra’s mother, fears day and night for her son’s life. She sums it up in one line in a faltering voice: “What if Alex is the new Escolastico? What if one day I never see him again?”

We Will Return, but Not Like This

At the end of December 2019, a bus carrying 70 indigenous persons on board left San Vicente del Caguan towards Yaguara II. It was 5 a.m. and the full moon still lit up the road. The adults had packed everything needed for the trip: pots and bags full of food, rolled mats, sheets, pillows, hammocks, tents, toiletries, and even a motorbike and a bicycle tied with rope in the back. The bus drove for 200 kilometers, almost 11 hours, raising red dust from the clay soil, until it reached the place they once called home. With big children and grandchildren in their arms, they arrived to define their territory’s future.

For some of them, it was the first time they stepped on Yaguara II after 16 years of displacement. They greeted and hugged each other. They enquired about the ailments that come with old age: joint pain in the knees, heat-inflamed ankles, loss of vision or hunched back. They guessed if the Tunia River would still have the same amount of fish such as Jaco, Jurari and Guaruco as before, if the corn and cassava crops were still in the same place, or if their old houses would still be standing or instead entangled with plants. They talked about the fate they faced when fear forced them to leave and the many trades they had to learn in order to survive: electrician, shoemaker, carpenter, maid, nanny, laborer, hairdresser, parcel carrier in the market place. But, most importantly, they wondered if they wanted to return and under what conditions. What if violence came knocking on their door again? “We couldn’t take it anymore,” they say. “Not again.”

“We believe that by recovering these spaces we can stop deforestation,” says Alexander Bocanegra (33) opening his arms around him. The wounds that nature has today are the same ones the war inflicted on us with the displacement, disappearances and deaths. Now we want to heal along with it, live off it and care for it for the next generations.

Bocanegra is convinced that to stop deforestation they must strengthen the indigenous guard and make their presence felt in the territory. Although during those days 90 families – out of 99 – signed minutes expressing their desire to return voluntarily to the reservation, the State has not yet provided the security and dignity guarantees required for this to become a reality.

“Within the framework of the restitution of territorial rights, the indigenous communities have access to assistance, care and comprehensive reparation measures,” explains Jurado, “which means not only making efforts and taking action to give them back their territory, but also ensuring that this return is accompanied by quality of life in accordance with the peoples’ customs and worldviews (ethno-education, Western education, health, housing construction or improvement, productive projects, food sovereignty, etc.).

The plan to return to the reservation, which was an order given by the Ibague restitution judge, was carried out by the San Vicente del Caguan mayor’s office with accompaniment of the Victims’ Unit, created by the Santos administration to identify and give reparations to the 8.9 million victims of half a century of armed conflict. The document does not detail the roadmap to make the return effective, but simply lists certain conditions to be met: provide essential first aid tools, build a maloka for community activities, build a sports area and put up a Vive Digital kiosk to guarantee school connectivity, improve the housing of 14 families already living in Yaguara II, build 68 households for the population in need, build photovoltaic cell electrification for the 82 families and a river port on the Tunia River.

The Llanos del Yari – Yaguara II reservation was created on February 22, 1995 over 146,500 hectares. The majority of the community was forcibly displaced in 2004. Photo: Tatiana Pardo Ibarra.

In any case, even if all of the above existed, one important element is missing: There is still no security. And “if there is no security, there will be no return either. People are not going to be put at risk,” says Deiby Madrigal, an official from the Caqueta Victims Unit’s ethnic affairs division. “The conflict scenario continues and is one of the difficulties for the community to be repaired; because for reparations, they need territory.”

From the list of things that need to happen for the Pijao, Piratapuyo and Tucano to return and be repaired, explains Madrigal, only two have been done: Identify who makes up Yaguara II and explain to both the community and public entities what the program consists of and what their respective competencies will be. “Once the majority returns, the prior consultation is to be conducted with the Ministry of Interior, as the damage suffered must be defined (in terms of time, manner and place) and then the reparation plan is to be formulated (which includes material and immaterial measures). The implementation of the plan takes approximately three years. It does not say how long the whole process might take.

Madrigal, however, does recognize that “the risk to Governor Alexander Bocanegra and the others is permanent. This is a territory where there are many stakeholders with their own interests… With illicit crops, drug trafficking routes, armed groups…”.

The Bees and the Chagra

In Llanos del Yari- Yaguara II, humidity mixes with the burning noon sun and crawls into the skin mercilessly. At night, however, a blanket of stars covers the sky and the coolness lulls you to sleep. In the indigenous reservation, there is a primary school with a chalkboard covered by cobwebs, some wood houses which the grass has slowly overtaken until only the roof is left visible. A ramshackle church, a truck for communal work, a cemetery, a sacred site known as “Las Cruces” and a land where elders remember leaving crops of corn, sugarcane, cassava, onion, carrot, pumpkin, cucumber, pineapple, guava, guama and peach palm.

Governor Alexander Bocanegra speaks firmly. They listen to him. He stands in front of the community and explains, point by point, the progress of the community forestry project proposed months ago to Vision Amazonia, the Colombian government’s program to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020. The proposal comprises four elements: building the life plan (which is like a road map of an indigenous community), formulating and implementing the environmental management plan, strengthening food security, and building a sustainable forest development hub. The investment, which has already been approved, is of COP 828 million, and its application is expected to last for 18 months.

“I need you to tell me if we are going to do this for real or not… and be honest,” Bocanegra asks the 70 indigenes who arrived to participate in the assembly, “because if only ten want to work, then I’ll work with those ten.” If we return, this will no longer be ‘my farm’, my piece of land, and becomes collective territory. Ours. Everyone’s. The nursery, the home garden, the chagra… we are going to be empowered because our wealth is enormous. Are we all on the same page?”

In Yaguara II, there are 769 records of 400 different species in the Colombia’s Biodiversity Information System-SIB. Photo: Tatiana Pardo Ibarra.

Bocanegra knows that the Pijao, Piratapuyo and Tucano feel like they are walking into a swamp, afraid that the mud will reach their necks and threaten to drown them; but the governor repeats the message with a strong dose of optimism: “You cannot wait for the State to come and save us. That’s just not going to happen, and you need to make peace with it.  But we will get through this with effort. We cannot go through the worst part with courage and then start doubting ourselves afterwards.” 

Ilda Barra is enthusiastic about the idea of returning. As she prepares a stew and hangs pig’s guts on a rope near a wood-burning stove, she remembers that staying in Yaguara II brought her great pain, because “blood was being spilled on both sides” and “I felt lonely all day long.”

“I was scared and sad. Sadder than anything else. I stayed here because I had many children and I wasn’t willing to go begging on the streets, unable to feed them (…) But I want them to come back, yeah? My heart rejoiced when I got to see them again. After 2004, loneliness turned to sadness.”

The three indigenous peoples are preparing. They have already written down what their rights and duties will be with their 146,500 hectares of territory. The ‘internal regulations’ make it clear that community members have the right to “responsibly enjoy the resources” but also have the duty “to protect and care for them”. Among the basic principles, in addition to equity, solidarity and collective work, respect for ancestral knowledge and nature are present.

In order to return and settle down again, they decided to bet on sustainable agricultural projects. This will be accompanied by fishing, hunting and traditional agriculture (the chagra), as well as ecotourism and honey sale. They stipulate that each family will be able to use 150 hectares (50% of which is preserved) to work in small-scale crops and livestock, but only under the silvopasture model that mixes bovine cattle and trees to achieve greater productivity per hectare.

However, the manual does not always read like a constitution. It also has passages of an almost poetic eloquence, such as those promising that Yari’s natural savannas, the slums, the moricheras, the pipes crossing the land, the lagoons and other natural vegetation areas will not be distributed to the families neither for housing nor for agricultural work. “They will be our collective responsibility.”

The community has decided that hunting animals such as deer, turkeys, great curassows and wild cats or jaguars will be prohibited. It is allowed to hunt tapirs and lowland pacas only in special cases, and cajuches (boars) and capibaras “exclusively for family consumption and regulated according to seasons and locations. The lagoons are “sacred sites for the community” and the planting or processing of illicit crops or mining will not be permitted “for any reason.”

In the midst of the turmoil, the governor does not give in.

“Llanos del Yari-Yaguara II is a biodiversity cushion for the world and it is our home. Our home,” says Bocanegra, with slight chagrin. “If we are well, the territory will be as well. Will the State help us? We’ll see.”