This article was a finalist in the competition on indigenous journalism run by Survival International, democraciaAbeirta and El Espectador.
On the banks of the Curilla, a small tributary of the Putumayo river, in the heart of the Colombian Amazon rainforest, a group from the Murui Huitoto indigenous community entered the dense jungle to combat illegal timber trafficking with a single weapon: words.
Seated in 2 boats, a group of 15 Murui stared at the mouth of the Curilla River. Martín Charry, one of their leaders, reminded them of the recommendation made by the highest traditional authority of the Association of Indigenous Communities of Upper and Middle Putumayo (Acilapp), Grandfather Braulio Okainatofe.
“We must be cautious,” emphasized Martin, repeating the old man's words. Days before, the natives gathered in the maloka of Puerto Leguízamo to chew coca. Each one took the floor and, speaking in Murui, discussed the preparations for their expedition and verified the complaint made to them by a number of different communities that settlers were cutting down trees and stealing wood from their territories.
Equipped only with swamp boots, tents, rolled up shirts, two shotguns for hunting and a global positioning device (GPS), the natives are still afraid to face these threats in their territory. The demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-FARC is still recent, and new illegal groups are beginning to arrive.
The deadly impact of drug trafficking and the guerrilla who controlled the area for more than three decades can still be felt, even though the latter recently ended with the demobilization of the guerrilla forces and the signing of the peace agreement with the Colombian government.
Despite progress towards peace, these communities still face many problems, such as the illegal planting of coca and the exploitation of forests. Along with livestock and illegal mining, these activities are killing the forest. And with it the community’s way of life.
This is not the first time that strangers have taken advantage of their land. In the 1970s and 1980s there was a timber bonanza which led to the demise of cedar forests by the 1990s and 2000s.
El Curilla is a windy, lonely river of dark waters, which originates in the jungle of Putumayo (the largest in the country). It measures 36 kilometers from Puerto Leguízamo and borders several Murui and Quichua indigenous communities.
In the mouth of the river, canoes with indigenous people and settlers throw their fishing nets. Tugboats also go down with consignments to the depths of the Amazon and approach the shore when the indigenous people have something to sell, such as fish and wood.
At the mouth, the loggers deliver the cut logs from both the Colombian and Peruvian sides to the tugboats that will later request safe-conducts from Corpramazonia, the environmental agency that they will need to take them down the river. This practice has historically been a way of laundering illegal logging from remote areas.
For months now, the indigenous communities have tried to verify if strangers were coming onto their territory, taking advantage and extracting their resources without
authorization and, therefore illegally. They also wanted to verify that the boundaries were between the communities were clear and not subject to conflicts.
An hour later, upstream in the Curilla, the indigenous community members found wagons laden with wood a centimetre out of the water. “It’s achapo” someone on the boat cried cautiously, one of the most expensive types of wood from the Amazon, used for furniture, doors, beams and columns. They counted 90 blocks of wood, worth up to a million pesos in Puerto Leguizamo.
They remembered that in July 2017, the indigenous guard found wagons of achapo on the same river, which was illegally cut down from the rainforest. They assured us that that nobody has permission to do this, but they are doing it anyway.
This has caused confrontations between indigenous people and loggers, since many consider that they are over-exploiting their forests and with the agreements they have made with intermediaries, the communities have very little left.
This was confirmed by the leader of the reserve, Francisco Charry. "We had a license, but the community has said: '' enough." In Yarinal, where people live from sowing food and sacha inchi (an Amazonian plant from which they extract oils and other products) in small peasant communities and from fishing, they cut wood because of the widespread poverty and sell it onto the tugs.
However, the impact of uncontrolled logging has already been felt. At 5pm, the indigenous expedition set up tents and two of them took out shotguns to go hunting. In the rainforest, hunters know that animals go out at night to find food. They usually find tapirs and spotted paca (a type of rodent) which are staples of their diet. But in the morning, they returned back empty handed.
“Now hunting is a matter of luck,” said Fabio Valdez Masicaya, an indigenous elder who guides the exhibition. He believes that one of the reasons for the growing absence of animals is the sound of chainsaws. “It scares them” he concluded.
Six hours upstream, the forest becomes denser. On both sides of the Curilla there are streams (small rivers covered by wetland), which are impossible to see from the air.
Here, Martín explains, the problem is that there is no clarity about boundaries, which allows people to exploit resources without permission. The distance between communities and emptiness also makes it possible for strangers to do the same with wood.
In a bend of the Currilla, the boats stop at the bank of the river, where they find another stash. “It’s perillo” one of the indigeneous people says, a type of wood in great demand for furniture and sold in the interior of the country. Whilst one of them takes charge of the illegal logs, the others set off to see if there are people chopping down the wood close by.
Half a kilometre away they find an entable, or a group of wooden houses where they chop the trees into logs. They reckon that two perillos were cut down around 4 days earlier, one young tree and one much older. They know because the bark of the tree is fresh but dying.
“The perillo is a species that they are really going for,” admits Martin, who says the cutting of trees is affecting the food chain of some monkeys who eat fruit and have been disappearing from the region.
The discovery of this brings out the conflict between the Kaiyano, La Quebradita and La Samaritana communities. A member of the native guard claims that the logging had not been agreed by them. “The agreement we have is that what is taken out of the stream (Curilla River) should be discussed with the three communities. We are concerned that they are working without legalising the territory,” said an indigenous leader who knows these lands.
In their opinion, the wood in the entable was illegally cut because it is in a disputed territory and in order for it to be extracted, a prior consultation process was required that was never carried out.
This entable, where the blocks of wood are cut, is located in disputed territories between the Kaiyano, Quebraditas and La Samaritana communities. Members of the indigenous guard claim that logging there is illegal. On the floor are blocks of perillo wood, fruit bearing and part of the food supply of the local monkeys.
Very close by, one hour from where the entable was found, is the main settlement that benefited from the logging of the La Quebradita forest, which was approved in February 2017 by Corpoamamazonía. It is a rustic house surrounded by wooden blocks drying in the sun. There they find Arcesio Carvajal Hurtado and his wife. He is the camp administrator.
Luis Alberto Cotte Muñoz, who accompanies the guard and is in charge of the Acilapp territory area, explains that they found another entable nearby with wood that they believe is illegal. Martin believes that the logs that they take from here will be legalized later, using safe conducts from other areas.
Arcesio assures them that they are cutting perillos y achapos from authorized sites. “‘It’s all legal” he says. Nevertheless, he says his workers found a huge trunk of wood on their way to La Samaritana, another safe haven for the loggers, an hour away, and he agreed that he had seen illegal loggers there.
Both Martín and Luis Cote warn the communities about the cargos they are going to take through the mouth of the river because they will continue through the controls. Meanwhile, some of the guards check the place and coordinates, to verify what the logger says.
They leave with the intention to let the quichua community, the owners of the land here, know and to inform the environment agency about the illegal logging they have discovered. They are clear that the wood is in danger, and with it the jungle. This could be the last chance there is to protect it.