The Ongoing Pacification of Colombia’s Amazon Indians
Inírida is a backwater Amazonian town like many others throughout the remote reaches of eastern Colombia. Located near the Venezuelan border at the juncture of the Inírida and Guaviare Rivers, it is only accessible by river or plane. The economy of Inírida and its surrounding environs in the department of Guainía has experienced several boom and bust cycles over the past century. Initially, rubber was the driving force behind the local economy; later it was gold, and then coca. None of these boom periods benefitted the indigenous peoples, who constitute 90 percent of Guainía’s population and who have endured numerous intrusions into their territories and culture over the past century.
Today, Guainía is in the midst of a bust period. It is also enjoying a greater degree of peace than at any other time in the past couple of decades, thanks to the national government’s “democratic security” strategy. However, the militaristic pacification of the region is the not the first pacification that has impacted the local indigenous population. In the middle of the 20th century, an evangelical missionary arrived to “civilize” local indigenous peoples.
The arrival of rubber barons early in the 20th century had proven devastating for many indigenous tribes in Guainía as they were brutally exploited as virtual slave laborers. But in 1944 a savior arrived in the form of an American evangelical missionary named Sophie Muller. She initially lived among the Curipaco tribe, which had largely succeeded in avoiding contact with outsiders due to the remoteness of its communities situated along the Guainía River.
Muller had been attending art school in New York City when she “found God” and joined the newly-formed New Tribes Mission. She was dispatched to the Colombian Amazon in order to bring the word of God to remote indigenous peoples. After travelling for several weeks by river deep into the Amazon rainforest she encountered the Curipacos, who befriended her. Over time, Muller learned their language and eventually devised a phonetically-based written form of it. She then began teaching the Curipacos to read and write. Muller devised simple texts based on the New Testament and successfully converted the Curipacos to Christianity.
In the ensuing years Muller began reaching out to the other fourteen indigenous tribes in Guainía and, utilizing the same strategy, also converted the overwhelming majority of their members to Christianity. The Puinave tribe had survived for thousands of years on sustainable agricultural practices and by hunting and fishing. The Puinave had successfully preserved their own religious rituals by relocating on numerous occasions in order to escape the efforts of Jesuit missionaries to “civilize” them. Muller, however, succeeded where the Catholics had failed.
Muller’s arrival in the Colombian Amazon initiated what anthropologist Nancy Flowers has called a “messianic movement.” According to Flowers, “The aim of the missionaries has been to eradicate all aspects of the native belief system and to train native pastors to carry on their work. Young people have been taught to reject their own cultural traditions, but nothing has effectively replaced them. Like many other Amazonian groups, the Puinave have lost more than they have gained from the ‘civilizing’ process.”
Anthropologist Jonathan David Hill, who worked with indigenous peoples in the Colombian Amazon during the 1990s, concurs with Flowers’ assessment: “Indigenous people were taught to be ashamed of their social and religious practices, which were labeled in frankly denigrative terms as ‘evil’ forms of ‘devil worship.’ Indigenous shamans and chant owners were especially targeted as agents of evil, and most of them were ostracized by their kin group.”
When it was suggested to Muller that her missionary work was eradicating the traditional practices of the indigenous, she replied, “Drinking and dancing without stopping; you know that dancing leads to immorality. Those idiots used all that sorcery. The men would drink and dance all night long; then they would go and mount the girls and do immoral things.”
Tiverio Acervero runs an indigenous cultural center in Inírida with the objective of reviving the traditional practices eradicated by Muller. He claims that the American evangelist had both a positive and negative impact on the local population. According to Acervero, “The positive was that she organized the indigenous people and created a plan for living. The negative was that she prohibited indigenous music, dances, chicha [traditional alcoholic drink] and traditional medicines because they were from the “devil.” Muller also viewed non-indigenous traders and Catholic priests as “devils.”
According to Maria Fernanda Aristizabal, a government lawyer who has worked on behalf of indigenous rights in Guainía, Muller helped instill pride in many indigenous people who had become downtrodden through the exploitation and abuse they experienced at the hands of outsiders. Muller was also responsible for ending much of the violence that was commonly waged between indigenous tribes and established a peaceful process for addressing problems. As Aristizabal notes, “Muller gave the indigenous tools like reading and writing. In many ways, she empowered the indigenous more than the Catholic priests did. She helped them to feel it was okay to be proud to be indigenous.”
Aristizabal met Muller in the early 1990s at one of the regular assemblies that the missionary organized to bring together evangelical indigenous community leaders from throughout the region. Aristizabal explains that it was immediately apparent upon meeting Muller that the missionary had a strong and charismatic personality. But she also remembers being surprised that Muller’s theology was very simplistic. When Aristizabal arrived at the gathering, Muller was lying in a hammock. “When she saw me, she immediately assumed I was an anthropologist and jumped out of the hammock yelling, ‘Anthropologist! Anthropologist! You are the devil!’” said Aristizabal.
Muller spent forty years living with the indigenous in Guainía and, with the aid of the New Tribes Mission, successfully translated the New Testament into fourteen indigenous languages and converted 90 percent of the population to evangelism. But in the 1980s, the Marxist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) arrived in the region and viewed the evangelical missionaries as agents of the U.S. government. Twenty years later, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez would threaten to expel the New Tribes Mission from that country for the same reason. In 1984, under threat from the FARC, Muller fled across the border into Venezuela where she continued her missionary work with the indigenous in that country and only returned to Guainía for occasional visits.
In contrast to the Liberation Theology that was being practiced by increasing numbers of Catholic priests throughout rural Latin America at the time, the evangelical missionaries were far more conservative and reflected the individualistic values that dominated U.S. culture. According Hill, “The missionaries’ ideology equated ‘good’ with ‘Christianity,’ ‘modernity,’ and ‘capitalist prosperity.’ Much like the founding ideologies of the architects of independent nation-states of the early nineteenth century.” Not surprisingly, the FARC viewed the evangelical missionaries of the New Tribes Mission as ideological enemies, even killing three members of the Mission in northern Colombia in 1996.
The FARC´s 16th Front came to dominate much of Guainía and the neighboring department of Vichada during the 1990s. At the same time, the cultivation of coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine, increased dramatically in Guainía, as it did in many other departments in eastern and southern Colombia during that period. In Guainía, coca filled the economic void created by the end of the gold rush that had occurred in the late 1980s.
The indigenous population had to once again learn to live with outsiders, and they managed t co-exist with the FARC in relative peace, although they were never supportive of the guerrillas. As one indigenous leader in Inírida explains, “The guerrillas never did anything for us.” Despite a lack of active support from the local indigenous population, the FARC gained control over much of Guainía and was firmly ensconced in the jungle directly across the river from the departmental capital Inírida. In 1999, hundreds of guerrillas launched an attack on Inírida, but failed to capture the town.
In 2002, President Alvaro Uribe launched his Democratic Security Strategy, which sought to establish state control over the 40 percent of the national territory that was dominated by the FARC. During the ensuing years, the number of military personnel based in Inírida increased dramatically from approximately 600 to almost 3,000 members of the Army, Marines and National Police. The increased troop strength, along with training, helicopters and intelligence provided by the U.S. government, allowed the military to aggressively attack the guerrillas. The military has now gained control of all the rivers and most of the department’s sparsely-populated territory. The FARC’s 16th Front has been forced to retreat to the most remote regions and its current troop strength in Guainía is estimated to be less than fifty fighters. As one Inírida resident explains, “Ten years ago the guerrillas were right across the river, now they are nowhere to be found.”
Military operations against the guerrillas coincided with the eradication of coca throughout much of Guainía. Initially, the eradications were conducted through aerial fumigations, but later they were performed manually. The eradication of coca hurt the economy in rural regions and in the town of Inírida. Meanwhile, according to local indigenous leader Alexander Bira Vare, the defeat of the guerrillas opened the door for the neo-paramilitary group Aguilas Negras to move into western Guainía along the border with Vichada. The paramilitaries now control cocaine production and trafficking along that section of the Guaviare River.
Over the last eight years, most indigenous communities have experienced another shift with regard to the outsiders who impact their lives, this time with the FARC being replaced by the government. While the armed conflict has mostly ended in the region, the government presence remains primarily military in nature. According to Bira Vare, the state has failed to implement any significant social and economic programs in rural indigenous communities that have been hurting economically since the eradication of coca.
Similarly in the town of Inírida, the massive military presence constitutes the principal face of the national government. As a departmental capital, the town should have at least a Tier Two level medical clinic. However, the clinic is poorly staffed and inadequately equipped, resulting in many seriously ill residents having to take the long flight to Bogotá to be treated.
The presence of almost 3,000 military personnel in the town has also failed to boost the regional economy because all food and other supplies are flown in from Bogotá to serve the needs of the troops rather than being purchased from local merchants. The military’s principal social and economic impact on Inírida consists of the money troops spend in the bars and on prostitutes every Sunday, which is their day off. As one male resident explains, there is much resentment of the military among local men because “the local girls want military boyfriends and many of them end up pregnant and the soldiers don´t stick around.”
At the same time that the military has established security in many rural regions, the government has offered the country’s natural resources to multinational companies for exploitation. This process is also evident in Guainía as mining appears to be the next economic boom that will attempt to alleviate the region’s widespread poverty. In 2009, the government announced that coltan reserves had been discovered in Guainía. Coltan is a precious metal that is essential for producing capacitors used in cell phones, video game players, computers and other electronics. Canadian mining companies have already surveyed the region as producers seek alternatives to the reserves that are fueling the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Indigenous leader Bira Vare is concerned that the national government will hand over concessions in indigenous reserves to foreign mining companies. He says that, according to the government, the indigenous people only own the surface rights to the land and that the state owns the sub-soil rights to minerals such as coltan. Consequently, Bira Vare is fearful that indigenous tribes in Guainía will once again be negatively impacted by outsiders who impose their ways on them.
In the meantime, the removal of the FARC from much of Guainía has allowed foreign evangelical missionaries to return and again become active in the region. One American missionary who was visiting Inírida to review a revised translation of the New Testament into one of the indigenous languages lauded President Uribe’s achievements. And in reference to the widespread human rights abuses perpetrated under the government’s democratic security strategy, he argued, “I know there have been some problems, but Uribe would never have been so successful if he’d abided by international law.”
The current wave of missionaries is intent on continuing the work of Muller, who died in 1995. Given that certain sectors of the indigenous population are now working to revive the traditional cultural practices that Muller eradicated, they may well seek to replicate her moralistic approach. Aristizabal acknowledges that Muller’s legacy is controversial, but nevertheless claims, “She was the most influential person of the 20th century in this whole area, in Guainía, because she changed the balance of relations between the indigenous and non-indigenous traders.” And it appears that those relations will continue to change for the indigenous peoples of Guainía in the 21st century, but it remains to be seen if these changes will be for better or worse.