Seeing in the Dark: The Huitoto in Colombia

Leticia, Colombia

By Laura Schroeder

Spinning Stories in the Jungle

It was pitch black save for the stars that pierced the night sky and the faint glow of bioluminescent leaves underfoot, but Manuel could see. The hum of cicadas surrounded us as we wove around the thick growth of the jungle, and I tried not to stumble over the vines that snaked up ancient trees. Pointed stick in hand, Manuel spun stories of encounters with jaguars and deceitful ex-lovers as we traipsed to the river in hopes of catching a fish to bring back to our camp, where a caiman already hung from a line alongside our hammocks.

I had just completed a U.S. State Department-sponsored Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Colombia, and two members of my cohort and I had decided to spend some of our saved stipend on a trip to the city of Leticia, which is nestled between Brazil and Peru in Amazonas, a department in the south of the country. Having already taken the obligatory boat trip down the Amazon River to see monkeys, capybaras, and birds of all hues, we tasked ourselves with planning the remainder of the trip. However, when a man stopped by our hostel advertising a jungle trek with a local Huitoto guide, we were skeptical, as we had heard horror stories of cultural tourism gone awry. Luckily for him, he was persuasive and after five minutes, we paid him a small sum to go on the trip. Luckily for us, we spent three informative days conversing with our guide, Manuel, and his grandfather and aunt about their lives in both the city and the jungle, the history of the Huitoto people, and their struggle to keep it alive.

Manuel and his family readily shared the challenges posed by interactions with the national and international community with us, giving policies that I had read about a distinctly human dimension. There in the middle of the forest, we could not have felt further from Washington, and yet U.S. initiatives such as Plan Colombia, designed to fight drug trafficking and violence, have impacted the land rights, livelihoods, and human rights of vulnerable populations including indigenous groups in Leticia and elsewhere. Although indigenous people in Colombia have more protections than any other indigenous group in Latin America under the 1991 Constitution, today, with a legacy of violence and marginalization, the Huitoto face various challenges and fight for dignity.

The Huitoto People: A Brief History

The Huitoto (also spelled Witoto), historically located in southeastern Colombia and northern Peru, have lived in a number of regions across the Amazons. They were enslaved by the rubber barons of the early 20th century. Facing disease, forced migration, and extreme violence, their population declined to approximately 1,000. Today, Huitoan groups are composed of around 8,500 members, with roughly half of whom speak the Huitoto language. However, according to the Colombian Constitutional Court, the group now faces extinction. Practices like cattle raising, commercial agriculture, and water pollution have threatened the well-being of the Huitoto. Other concerns, particularly among older Huitoto, are loss of language and traditional cultural practices being eclipsed by technology use and commercial culture. The Colombian government recognizes 87 indigenous groups, among them the Huitoto. It is important to note that many Huitoto spend their time primarily in cities and do not live the romanticized lives many non-indigenous would believe them to. Despite this, as Manuel told us, many maintain rich traditions and are especially renowned for their knowledge of traditional hunting and fishing practices, songs, stories, and medicinal plant use.

Today, many Huitoto live in the Amazonas department. Known for its ecological diversity and rich natural resources, this department is one of the least populated regions of Colombia, far from the country’s economic hubs. Amazonas has been labeled one of the most corrupt departments in the country, and a long history of drug trafficking and law enforcement abuses of authority have plagued it, disproportionately affecting the indigenous population. During the armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), indigenous youth who felt oppressed and marginalized were widely recruited by guerrilla groups. In particular, due to its location along the border of three nations, the city of Leticia has been a major hub for drug trafficking. In fact, an estimated eighty tons of cocaine are moved through the area per year. Reports of security forces often being outnumbered by drug traffickers have also surfaced. Whether living in an area catering to and molded by the priorities of rubber barons, guerrillas, drug traffickers, military forces, or multinational corporations, though, the Huitoto, caught in the crossfire of conflict, have often found themselves at the whim of exploitative actors.

The Fumigation of Coca

Coca is a plant of both spiritual and practical use for the Huitoto. Huitoto use mambé, or mashed, roasted coca mixed with the ashes of yaruma leaves, as a storytelling tool, and this vividly green powder is, for many, a staple of the day-to-day that both ties them to the past and anchors them firmly in the present. Due to both Colombian and U.S. government actions, coca was fumigated under Plan Colombia in an effort designed to fight drug production, trafficking, and consumption. Between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. spent 7.3 billion USD on Plan Colombia, a military and economic aid program, and from 2001 to 2013, Colombia successfully reduced coca cultivation from 160,000 to 48,000 hectares, for the most part to the detriment of the Huitoto.

Indisputably, although its original goal of cutting cocaine production in half by mid-decade was unsuccessful, there have been significant decreases in violence, criminality, and the strength of illegal drug operations. However, alternative livelihood programs for previous coca growers have been, for the most part, poorly planned and executed. The use of aerial fumigation sprays have harmed small farmers and disproportionately affects indigenous communities, leading to its ban in 2015. Earlier this year, during a meeting in Washington, President Donald Trump called on President Juan Manuel Santos to lift the ban on fumigation, despite its environmental and human risk. According to a Brookings report, fumigation has been found to exacerbate deforestation and cause cancer and miscarriages in humans. Despite this, the U.S. government has pushed for the Santos administration to reinstate its dispersal. This is unlikely to occur under Santos, but with presidential elections approaching, the future of fumigation is unclear.

Mineral Extraction and Climate Change

Although there are several land reserves granted to the Huitoto, petroleum extraction, mining, and deforestation continue to directly harm them. At the World Conference of Indigenous Women, Huitoto activist Clemencia Herrera stated that Huitoto “lands have been confiscated by big landowners;…there is forced recruitment; mining, timber and petroleum extraction mega-projects have overrun our territories…” The indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin continue to suffer from the effects of environmental degradation at the hands of the government and multinational corporations that seek to widen profit margins. What is more, climate change has altered the length of natural seasons and average temperatures, changing the growing patterns of the plants that the Huitotos grow, consume, and use medicinally.

What Does the Future Hold?

The Peace Accords between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), ratified in December 2016, represent progress for the nation; however, even as ex-guerilla members reintegrate into society, the rights of indigenous groups are being denied. Explicit, immediate threats like coca fumigation and mineral extraction, combined with more protracted threats like climate change, present distinct challenges for the Huitoto. The Colombian government as well as foreign governments, including that of the U.S., has the responsibility to ensure that its policies are not adversely affecting vulnerable populations. Multinational corporations must practice social and environmental responsibility and be held accountable for violations of land rights and pollution standards. Above all, these multiple actors must continue to engage in coordinated efforts to respect Huitoto sovereignty and human rights.

The Colombian Constitutional Court-mandated group The Witoto Ethnic Safeguarding Plan of Leticia (PSE) attends to forced displacement in the context of the armed conflict and allows for indigenous representation in the local, regional, and national decision-making process. However, it has been criticized for forcing the Huitoto to communicate and express themselves in the context of official State discourse, creating a situation of unequal footing. The Huitoto must be incorporated into decisions for actions that will implicate them and given sovereignty over the choices they make for their communities. Efforts involving small, recurring grants and trainings have seen success in doing this. Organizations such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have allocated funds to the Huitoto, particularly women, in the form of grants, and trainings with themes including territorial management and use of GIS tools have been conducted.

Education about the Huitoto for society as a whole also has the potential to encourage indigenous rights and a respect for dialogue and understanding. One such effort that holds promise is the project Colombia Games, designed by Juan Camilo Nates. This online platform allows anyone to play games while acquiring knowledge of indigenous groups such as the Huitoto and the challenges that face them. It can easily be implemented in classrooms across the nation and continent.

Civil society efforts to protect indigenous land rights and promote the wellbeing of the Huitoto have been highly effective. Indigenous-lead organizations such as the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) mediate between indigenous groups and the State during conflicts and continuously advocate for both self-determination and inclusion in the country’s decision-making process. While not factionalized, they have engaged in strikes, boycotts, and marches to highlight their cause. The Coordinating Group for Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) and the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC) have held forums for indigenous people such as the Huitoto to engage in discussion and collective action.

The night we went fishing, I had trouble seeing, but Manuel, who had grown up in the area, skillfully navigated the thick undergrowth. Scholars and policymakers are, at times, blind to specific contexts or the realities lived by others, but must value local knowledge and be critical in the construction of approaches to diplomacy and development.


Image: Wikimedia