Sunday, September 14, 2014

R.I.P. The Defender of the Defenseless

Roberto Franco
He defended the most defenseless Colombians - those who wield only bows and arrows and spears and don't even know they are Colombians.

They are Colombia's isolated Amazonian tribes, ethnic groups who perhaps have never had contact with Westerners, or - more likely - had tragic contact and decided to have nothing more to do with the pale-skinned people wielding terrible weapons and even more terrible diseases. The Amazonians very sensibly retreated into the jungle to continue their stone age way of life.

Colombia has a few isolated Amazonian tribes, including the Yuri or Carabayo and Passé, inside the 2.47-million acre Rio Puré National Park, bordered by the Caquetá and Putumayo Rivers along the Brazilian border, and numbering somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand people.

A Maloka, house of uncontacted indigenous people in the
Rio Puré National Park (Photo: Colombian Park Service)
In 2012, researcher and indigenous rights activist Roberto Franco and others photographed traditional longhouses in the national park, thus documenting the isolated people's existence. Their work may even save the peoples' lives and culture, since a decree signed by Pres. Juan Manuel Santos in 2011 protects the right of uncontacted peoples to their isolated way of life and prohibits interference in their territory.

However, in a tragedy which received little attention in a Colombia obsessed with the antics of Shakira and James Rodriguez, Franco was among ten people killed when their small plane crashed in the Amazon earlier this month. Altho they will never know it, those uncontacted people lost their greatest protector. Franco died while returning from a visit to the huge Chiribiquete Park, where he had met with indigenous people.

Enslaved Amazonian Indians around 1900.
(Photo: Survival International)
Colombia's isolated people are more properly called 'voluntarily isolated.' Many have had tragic
interactions with Westerners, such as guerrillas, drug runners, illegal loggers, miners or hunters, who sometimes massacre indigenous people, drive them from their homes or transmit fatal diseases. During the decades around 1900, rubber companies invaded much of the Amazon, displacing and enslaving indigenous peoples. Some indigenous peoples fled deep into the jungle, where they have stayed ever since.

Tragically, Franco's mission may be ultimately futile. While rubber tapping has mostly ended, the Amazon remains under assault from loggers, miners, hunters and agriculturalists, particularly cattle raisers. Colombia loses somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 hectares of forest every year - a rate of 653 football fields each day. And Brazil, which possesses most of the Amazon, just reported that deforestation there leaped by 29% between 2011 and 2012.

Four days ago, four members of the Peruvian Asháninka indigenous people were allegedly murdered by illegal loggers in a remote region near the Peruvian-Brazilian border.

In 1981, evangelical missionaries called the New Tribes Mission made first contact with the Nukak indigenous people, who lived in Colombia near the Brazilian border. Using gifts, they drew the Nukaks out of their jungle isolation. After that, the Nukaks fell victim to disease and violence, and now live in squalor, dependent on hand-outs, in the city of San José del Guaviare.

The Karijona people are another tragic story. Late last year the Colombian government more than doubled the size of Chiribiquete Park, to almost 2.8 million hectares - triple the size of the U.S.'s Yellowstone Park. The park's expansion was in part intended to protect isolated peoples, as well as the largest pictographic archeological complex in northern South America. However, for the Karijona people, the protection came far too late. The Karijonas are believed to have drawn the elaborate pictographs in the park hundreds or thousands of years ago, when they probably numbered between ten and twenty thousand people.

But Western diseases, rubber harvesters, violence and deforestation devastated the Karijonas. Today, only 60 Karijonas survive.

Along with Franco, the plane crash also killed indigenous leader and conservationist Daniel Matapí, himself an indigenous native of the Amazon.

Today, the Amazon rainforest, and her indigenous peoples are fighting against the odds for survival. And, without Franco and Matapí, their chances got a bit worse.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Vocabat said...

Very nice piece. Such a loss.

Miguel said...

Thanks Vocabat. Sadly, outside of his circle of indigenous rights defenders, he was almost as invisible as are the uncontacted peoples themselves.


Vocabat said...

So, how do you know about him? Where did you get all this information? And all your information in general- do you read the news every day? Which papers? I know you also read a lot of books. And just talking to people?

Miguel said...

Hi Vocabat,

No, I never met Franco. For a public figure like him, I get most of my information from newspapers like El Tiempo, El Espectador and Semana magazine, as well as other website. I linked to several of them in the post. For other posts, I collect the info and photos myself.