Your activism has made visible in Canada the hidden emergency for Indigenous peoples in Colombia

By Kathy Price, Colombia Campaigner

It was two years ago that courageous Indigenous women and men in Colombia sent photo messages to Canada to tell us about deadly assaults on their lives and lands.

Photo messages like the one from this Kankuamo woman – who writes “We want to live in peace on our lands” – put faces on an acute yet hidden human rights emergency. The very survival of more than a third of Indigenous peoples in Colombia, including the Kankuamo, is in jeopardy amidst attacks, forced displacement and the imposition of resource extraction projects that are increasing with promotion by Canada’s free trade agreement with Colombia.

Indigenous rights defenders in Colombia, many of them threatened with death for their vital work, urged us to speak out with them. In attention-grabbing numbers, you have done just that!

Thousands of you signed our post cards to President Santos of Colombia, while thousands more signed actions to Canada’s Foreign Minister, to your MP and to Canada’s International Trade Minister. Others sent unique, eye-catching photo messages to express your concern.

At the end of April, we brought your photos and your appeals for action to Ottawa and handed them over to the government, following a press conference and public demonstration on the steps of Parliament (below). In total, more than 65,000 people signed actions calling for immediate measures to protect the rights and survival of Indigenous peoples on their lands in Colombia.

Together, we have made a long over-looked, devastating crisis for Indigenous peoples in Colombia visible. We have also made visible a growing call for action from every part of our country!

Major media including the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, CBC and Global TV have covered the story. Important organizations like the Assembly of First Nations have joined with us to speak out. So too have influential figures like retired-General Roméo Dallaire, outgoing chair of Parliament’s Working Group for the Prevention of Genocide.

All of this is highly appreciated by our partners at the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia. They know that only a strong, relentless outcry from inside – and outside – Colombia can halt ongoing, grave human rights violations, especially in areas earmarked for resource extraction projects.

Sadly, Canada chose not to acknowledge this emergency – nor to examine the foot print of Canadian resource extraction companies in Colombia – in the federal government’s recently released 2014 report on human rights effects of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Click here to learn more about this disturbing omission.

But Canada has spoken out – via the Embassy in Bogotá – expressing concern to the Colombian government about the safety of threatened Embera Chami Indigenous leader Flaminio Onogama Gutiérrez (right), echoing your appeals for effective measures to protect him from harm so he can continue to defend the rights of his people. The Colombian government has now committed to carefully investigate the threats he faces and initiated an investigation into the murder of Flaminio’s nephews Berlain Saigama Gutiérrez and Jhon Braulio Saigama. Progress on this emblematic case is incredibly important. Your calls for action have played a crucial role.

Much more is needed, given continuing assaults against Indigenous leaders and organizations asserting the rights of Indigenous peoples to decision-making about economic projects, including resource extraction, that affect their lands, livelihoods and future. 

Just last month, 15 year-old Génesis Gisselle Gutiérrez Romero in the Wayúu Indigenous Reserve of Zahíno was traumatized by a phone call warning that she and her family would be killed. The teenager’s mother Jakeline Romero Epiayu (photographed with a sign that reads “Respect my territory”) belongs to a women’s organization called Fuerza Mujeres Wayúu and recently travelled to Europe to speak out about the many dangers women face since large-scale coal mining was imposed in their region. Amongst them is an epidemic of sexual violence against Indigenous women perpetrated by state security forces and illegal armed groups alike. Indigenous women face three-fold discrimination because of their gender, ethnicity and social class. Colombia’s highest court has called for measures to protect Indigenous women, and warned that the Wayúu people face “physical and cultural extermination”. Yet the assaults continue. Indigenous women like Génesis Gisselle and Jakeline remain at grave risk.

That’s why your ongoing support is so vital. Please click here to take action now. Please be sure to send a copy of your message to Canada’s Foreign Minister. Thank you for raising your voice!

PHOTO CREDITS: Photo message of a Kankuamo woman – Credit: Juan Pablo Gutiérrez; Demonstration on Parliament Hill – Credit Paul Thompson; Flaminio Onogama – Credit Kathy Price; Jakeline Romero Epiayu – Credit Fuerza Mujeres Wayúu