(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

It’s more than three decades since the Awá people initiated a process to guarantee the survival of their culture and the biodiversity in their territory. This is a model that has been awarded prizes at the international level, but in the regions of this country, it’s being threatened.

“I initiated this community process personally when I was very young. Ever since I was a child, I’ve liked to share with the older people, the ones who are aware of nature and of our history and who understand our world view, our territory, and the world. This path has brought me a lot of learning and the teachings of our Mother, Nature,” explains Olivio Bisbicús, the leader of the El Gran Sabalo- the Awá people. He is also the Director of Community Environmental Governance in the Inkal Awá La Nutria Pinam Reserve.

Olivio lives on a property known as El Verde, in the District (corregimiento) of El Diviso, which is in the jurisdiction of the municipality of Barbacoas (Nariño Province), in one of the far reaches of the country, where he is surrounded by the humid tropical jungle. From there, he has supported the foundation of the Reserve for more than 20 years. It began with a humanitarian agreement for the protection of his ancestral land, and for the preservation of all of the biodiversity there, since more than 322 bird species, 300 orchid species, and 36 species of frogs live there.

He says the community governance “is an exercise of political organization under the ancestral government and the commands of nature with which they can contribute to the well-being of Colombia and of the world.” Besides that, he adds that it is a beautiful experience from which city people could learn, live, and share with nature.

However, these community governance and organization processes for the Awá people also arose as a mechanism for the defense of their ancestral land, their culture, and their world view. You only need to remember that with the expansion of the agricultural frontier came the purchase of very large estates for planting massive fields of African palm, and for mining projects, and the bonanza of illegal crops that were all added in the decade of the seventies in the last century. That led the Awá to take refuge in the interior of the jungle.

With the recrudescence of the armed conflict and the growth of drug trafficking, the Awá people saw how their territory was being damaged, how their customs were being threatened. The native vegetation of Barbacoas and its surroundings was changing, and some of their leaders had been murdered.

“Thirty years ago the Unipa indigenous people organized themselves to defend their territory and their biodiversity. At that time the ancestral territories had not been legally constituted, and the social and environmental problems motivated the leaders and ancestral authorities to defend the territorial rights and interests of the community of the Áwa people,” Olivio remembers.

In Awapit, his mother tongue, the Inkal Awá are “mountain people” and that territory extends for 516, 513 hectares and contains the Colombian provinces of Nariño and Putumayo and the provinces of Carchi, Esmeraldas, and Imbabura in northwestern Ecuador.

As a matter of fact, the Awá started their process of organization in the neighboring country in 1987. Beginning with a council, 11 communities created the Federation of Awá Centers of Ecuador (FACE). Years later in Colombia, they created the Indigenous Unit of the Awá People (Unipa) in 1990, the Awá High Council of Ricaurte (Camawari) in 1992, and the Association of Indigenous Councils of the Awá People of Putumayo (Acipap) in 1999. The four organizations form the Binational Great Awá Family.

Their goal was to be recognized as an active party in the territory shared between Ecuador and Colombia, as well as to defend their legacy and their natural and cultural diversity. Nevertheless, in spite of their efforts to protect their customs, the Awá continue to live in the midst of conflict and threats.

A communication from the Awá Territorial Unit – Telembí Zone, published last June 11, complains of combats in the Pipalta Palbí Yaguapí because they have generated turmoil.

“Just a little more than a month ago, on May 6, 2020, we reported the murder of our comrade Deiro Bisbicús, from the Pipalta Plabí Yaguapí reservation, which was in addition to the murder of our comrade Wilmer García Bisbicús on March 26. This shows the serious humanitarian crisis that this indigenous reservation is experiencing. and the situation is getting worse, as on June 11, 2020, between 5:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. we heard reports of combat in the indigenous territory. That information was reported by people who were outside the reservation but who heard the shooting, as, we have to remember that the families living on the reservation are in a confinement situation,” states the report.

Besides that, the same report states that: “all of these victimizing events, such as the threats, the murders, and the confinement, added to the current combats, could result in a massive displacement. We reported this to such agencies as the Public Defender, the Mayor’s Office in Barbacoas, and the Victims’ Unit ( . . . ) Because of the compliance with measures such as social isolation and curfew, imposed because of the covid-19 health emergency, we have not been able to put together a humanitarian committee to verify the situation in the reservation.”

In the words of the leader Olivio Bisbicús, “we aren’t just facing the challenges to the survival of our dreams, our plans, our hopes, our culture, and our permanence in the territory, but we have also had to endure the armed conflict. We have been pushed around physically and culturally, and we have even seen an effect on the wild species that are found in our territory.”

 Olivio is concerned and he asks that people keep in mind that: “now we don’t just have the threats, the murders, the displacements, and the accusations of the different armed actors. In our territory we are also experiencing a social emergency because of Covid-19. For us, this is another actor that is threatening our ancestral communities.

A leader whose model of protection is awarded prizes all over the world

In spite of how dangerous it is for the Awá people to defend their customs and their biodiversity, their work is recognized at the international level. Recently, Olivio Bisbicús received this international recognition: “Hero of Biodiversity in the Tropical Andes Hot Spot.”

This is the distinction that he received from the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF is the English acronym.). It is given to people who struggle tirelessly for the conservation of ecosystems that are unique for their biodiversity, for the many benefits that they furnish, and because they are part of the territory belonging to peoples who recreate their culture in those places.

In addition to protecting the territory and its biodiversity, the Inkal Awá also work to keep alive the Awá culture and the mother tongue that lives in the authority of the elders. That is why the Inkal Awá La Nutria Pinam Reserve is part of the Provincial System of Protected Areas in the province (Sidap Nariño) and it has a school for education of the Awá children and young people. There they learn all about their culture and their relationship to nature

For Olivio, the education of the youngest children is important “so that they do not lose our knowledge, and that is why we created the Reserve. All of this experience supports the Millennial Struggle of the people to protect life and Mother Nature. All of this harmonious equilibrium with the natural environment is important, so that the young people understand and can connect with their ancestral legacy, and make the community territory and nature their own.”

Finally, he adds that the Awá young people at present “need to have a permanent accompaniment and need to hear of the beautiful experiences we have had with the initiatives of our leaders in the process of territorial governance. They will be able to play an important role in conserving our world view and our ways of connecting with the ancestral ecology. We believe that we have left some good footprints of how they can have a good life in our territory.”

With regard to the awards he has received, Olivio says that: “it’s a motivation to keep working with dedication and commitment in the defense of the territorial rights and interests of the communities.”

The Awá territory borders the Pacific, a strategic location for their entrance to the ocean and for their communication with Ecuador. In spite of all of the risks being run now by the Awá leaders, Olivio is emphatic in concluding that “we, as ancestral communities, will continue to remain in our territory, confronting all of the situations that could happen. We will keep on fortifying the exercise of our ancestral government and territorial governance.”

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