BOGOTA, Colombia - A white van rolled up outside an indigenous council center in Colombia’s Northern Sierra Nevada mountains. Unidentified men barged in, and forced out five leaders from the Arhuaco tribe, including the chieftain.
“You’re mistreating him!” protested bystanders as they filmed elder Gelver Zapata shout and struggle against his kidnappers during the incident in August.
The kidnapped elders allege they were tied up and beaten. Days earlier, 300 Arhuaco leaders met to name a new board of directors in a contested election that violated both the tribe’s protocols and the government’s restrictions on mass gatherings mid-pandemic.
“This situation is unprecedented,” said human rights defender Leonor Zalabata. “Our tribal unity and consensus has never been threatened like this.”
Yet Colombia’s Interior Ministry rapidly registered Zarwariko Torres as the new council governor, ignoring protests by some leaders that emphasized how less than a third of communities had participated in the irregular and rushed election.
Tribal authorities claim that the main motive for the government’s unprecedented interference in their electoral process could be their industry ambitions in the territory, particularly in mining - a key element in President Iván Duque’s proposed economic reactivation following the pandemic.
Zalabata said that governmental entities may see Torres as a key player who will be open to collaboration. “I believe that these state interventions [in the election] have economic intentions for the land and its natural resources,” she said. “But they aren’t resources, they are values of the earth that permit an ecological equilibrium.”
Since the election, the government has bulldozed ahead with proposed regulations that critics say will prioritize corporate interests on rural land while restricting tribes' constitutional right to veto industrial applications within their own reserves. Without mandates that industry officials must consult with tribes prior to implementing new projects, and compounded with a new development zone initiative that contradicts the Peace Accords of 2016, the consequences could be devastating. The National Commission on Indigenous Territories warned that they could be left defenseless against mineral exploitation, megaprojects, and deforestation.
On January 14th the government broadcast its development plans in the Sierra Nevadas, with President Duque highlighting that industry expansion in the region will be key to the nation’s economic recovery. The National Mining Agency announced that investors and prospectors could apply for copper mining titles by the end of February.
Beyond the threat of mining, some Arhuaco officials have denounced Torres’ past. In 2011, he was condemned by their autonomous justice system for sexually assaulting and raping a 13-year-old Arhuaco girl. VICE World News was able to obtain the documents detailing the accusations and sentencing of three months for the crime.
For the past two decades, Torres has been the Arhuaco delegate for a private healthcare company in the Sierra Nevadas which has been under investigation since 2016 for suspected embezzlement, fund misallocations, and ghost companies.
The previous chieftain Jose Arroyo Izquierdo told local media that the new board rushed the election to “cover up bad management” from Torres while expanding their economic power via access to government funds.
Following Torres's election, Arhuaco elders asserted that not only did his selection process threaten their tribal autonomy, but that Torres as chieftain could be detrimental to the Sierra Nevadas.
They fear he could pave the way for controversial projects within their autonomous reserve - elders detailed meetings Torres has had with governmental entities who have expressly indicated their interest in mining, such as the mayor of neighboring city Valledupar and members of the Interior Ministry.
“It is not suspicion, but fact,” said elder Gelver Zapata.
Jairo Zalabata, general secretary of the new Arhuaco directive board (not related to Leonor Zalabata) denied those claims and said Torres does not have the authority to make those decisions. “This [mining] is a collective question that the Arhuaco people will never permit.”
But Jenny Ortiz, a researcher at the Center of Investigation and Popular Education, told VICE World News that mining corporations currently hold land titles for three percent of indigenous reserves in the Sierra Nevada, but could soon own 14 percent with pending applications. She stated that multinational corporations like Best Coal Company plan to reactivate their mining activity, and armed groups are already illegally mining the zone.
“All mining projects cause irreparable damage to the territory and the life of the tribes,” said Ortiz. “There are no guarantees of effective participation that respect and ensure their rights, and [the projects] do not bring benefits to the communities.”
President Duque has long advocated for fracking and mineral extraction as “sustainable growth.” In October of last year, he inaugurated the largest gold mine in Colombia so far, which will augment the country’s gold production by 20 percent.
Now, it appears that he has set his sights on the Sierra Nevadas: in a televised speech, he called the Besotes dam project a “necessary instrument” for economic recovery. Leonor Zalabata said that the river which Duque’s government plans to dam is a sacred place for their indigenous tribes. The project, reportedly in the works for half a century but only now approaching its official launch, will displace several indigenous communities from their ancestral homes, say tribal authorities.
The Arhuaco believe the Sierra Nevada mountains are the heart of the Earth. They hold the highest number of endangered mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians in the world, with 44 species that cannot be found anywhere else.
Yet the area has been systematically subjected to large-scale infrastructure projects, illicit mineral exploitation, illegal coca plant production, armed conflict, and fumigation. Indigenous leaders are routinely assassinated, and Colombia was recently labelled the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists.
In late December, the Ministry of Environment replaced the previous director of natural national parks, who defended the Arhuaco’s tropical jungle against corporate interests for 16 years. The new director holds no experience in environmental conservation and previously razed forests to install artificial turf fields.
On January 31, the Interior Ministry tweeted its support for “the unity and harmony of the Arhuaco people.” Yet they ignored a letter of opposition to Torres’ confirmation that was signed by over 100 Arhuaco authorities, and courts rejected the elders’ lawsuit.
Local media Revista7 released an investigation accusing Luz Helena Izquierdo, an official from the Interior Ministry, of ‘trafficking influence’ to speed up Torres’ confirmation while postponing others, in exchange for a recurring monthly payment of ten million pesos ($3000) via a contract signed by Torres. Izquierdo is also an Arhuaco who reportedly participated in the assembly that elected Torres, but she did not respond to requests for comment.
“This intervention [from the government] is scandalous... it is imprudent that they would take a side and involve themselves in our governance,” said jurist and elder Rubiel Zalabata (Leonor’s brother).
The Arhuaco have led the fight against industry ambitions for decades, staunchly protecting their land even while at “risk of extinction” according to the Supreme Court. “An important question to ask is, ‘Who benefits from these tensions within the tribes?’” said Ortiz.
Ortiz warned that, if the government does not support indigenous communities in the Sierra Nevada, “in a few years we will have a complex panorama of extractive advances on ancestral lands.”
In the meantime, authorities will hold an assembly this week on restoring harmony and responses to the new directive board, which has remained for the past five months despite harsh critiques from opponents, academics, and local media.
“We may argue or fight, but we never divide,” said Leonor Zalabata. “The strength of our people lies in our unity.”