Emberá are Colombia’s third largest indigenous people with an estimated population of around 196,115 people. They are nomadic and found in different regions of the country, although around half of the population resides in the coastal Pacific basin of the department of Chocó. Other significant communities are located in the departments of Antioquia, Risaralda, Quindio, Caldas, Valle, Cauca, Putumayo, Caqueta and Narino.
‘Emberá‘ means ‘people’ (or ‘gente‘ in Spanish). This indigenous people constitute one of Colombia’s most socially complex and diverse ethnic groups which is reflected linguistically, geographically and within Emberá mythology. There are thought to be around seven different dialects of the Emberá language which are differentiated according to geographical location. Emberá also distinguish themselves as a people based on geographical terrain. The three main groups are the people of the mountains (Eyebida) who inhabit the western mountain range of the departments of Antioquia, Risaralda, Caldas and Valle; the people of the river (Dobida) found living in the department of Chocó; and the people of the sea (Pusabida), who can be found in the river tributaries of the Pacific Ocean towards the southern port of Buenaventura.
Emberá trace the living concept of ‘difference in identity within one tribe’ back to their mythological beginnings, which also reveal a history of conflict and competition between earthly and spiritual beings.
Waunans are of the same linguistic family as Emberá and both communities agree on a common identity based on cultural heritage and theories of creation. Modern historians and anthropologists are unable to identify the exact historical period in which intra-ethnic demarcations occurred, but according to the mythology recounted by Waunans, they and Emberá originally lived together on the banks of the San Juan River until Emberá were forced to leave. While Waunans have a more homogenous ethnic identity which is maintained across all regions in which they are situated, Emberá in contrast go further in distinguishing themselves as Chamies, Katios, Emberá and Epena. These are viewed as regional identities.
The regional dispersal of the Emberá community is said to have coincided with the Spanish colonial conquest from the beginning of the 16th century. Emberá put up a fierce resistance to defend their culture and territorial integrity, which culminated in significant losses for the colonists. One of the most significant recorded events during this resistance was the violent expulsion in 1637 of Spanish invaders from Emberá territory led by Martin Bueno, which left many of the colonial adventurers dead. Subsequently however, as a result of the colonists’ violent retaliation, a mass exodus occurred in which Emberá fled deeper into the tropical jungles and mountain ranges, which became their refuge.
Despite the technological military advantage of the Spanish colonists it was over a century after their arrival in 1511 that the Spanish were able to consolidate colonial control. Reasons behind this delay are attributed to the complex social and traditionally autonomous nature of individual Emberá settlements, which were coordinated under an effective single leadership of a warrior chief, or sarra, who was able to unite the communities against the common colonial enemy. In addition, heavy rains together with the harshness of the unexploited rainforest terrain, as well as infighting among the colonists over territorial control and exploitation of natural resources, are also thought to have been factors in delaying Spanish control.
Colonial domination from outsiders runs as a phased and recurring theme throughout Emberá history. The eventual retreat of the Spanish colonists in the 19th century was replaced by extended periods of aggressive evangelization by western and local Christian missionaries. History recounts corporal punishment and the forcible establishment of Emberá towns being the policies of such evangelicals who aimed to break down autonomous Emberá social structures, and religious and cultural traditions. Although the colonists were eventually able to establish control by defeating the traditional sarra and imposing a new figure answerable to the Spanish crown, as in previous epochs of Spanish colonial invasion, Emberá nonetheless put up a fierce resistance, which as a repeat in history culminated in their mass exodus into territories inaccessible to outsiders.
The colonial presence in the province of Chocó was motivated by the desire to gain access to the region’s rich and unexploited mineral and natural resources such as gold, silver and rubber. Later in the 20th century biological natural resources such as timber, palm oil, tropical plants and animals would serve to attract exploration – and exploitation – by agro-industrial, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.
Urrá hydroelectric dam
In 1951 a study was carried out by RJ Tipton projecting the viability of the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the department of Bolivar; the narrow straits of Urrá were determined as the site. In 1977 a further study was presented supporting the viability of Urrá projects I and II, but failed to mention the fact that the Emberá-Katio of the Alto Sinu inhabited the region.
In 1992 the Colombian government unveiled its proposals to implement a multifaceted development project which would include the building of a large-scale hydroelectric dam system. Subsequent studies projected that the building of the dam would necessitate extensive flooding of a significant proportion of Emberá-Katio ancestral territories and considerable damage to the natural environment, which, given how integral it is to their cultural heritage and identity, would threaten the very survival of the indigenous peoples and their traditional way of life. The Urrá hydroelectric dam project was funded by various foreign investors including Russian and Swedish multinational corporations. Despite the Constitution of 1991 and Colombia’s ratification of ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169 (1989) establishing in Law 21 (1991) the obligation of all third parties to carry out prior consultation with indigenous communities before any natural resources within their territories could be exploited, the plans drawn up in 1992 did not acknowledge the existence of indigenous communities in the region where the roll out of the project was proposed.
Since then and until the present day the Emberá community has vehemently rejected and refused to collaborate in the plans. The indigenous people have been forced to live with the ever-looming possibility of forced and mass expulsion from their traditional lands and the potential extinction of their communities and culture. As they fought legal battles against the government, multilateral investors and other relevant state bodies including INCORA through the constitutional courts, within their territories Emberá became increasingly victim to violent attacks and saw the selective assassinations of their spiritual leaders by right-wing paramilitary death squads.
Underpinning Emberá resistance throughout the whole process was the fact that the government and multinationals had not at any time carried out adequate prior consultation with their communities and as such, any go ahead of the proposals would be deemed illegal and in contravention to both national and international law. In addition, Emberá accused the government of seeking to engineer the disappearance and genocide of Emberá as a people by refusing to uphold the principles enshrined in the Constitution of 1991 outlining its duty to protect and uphold the human rights of its ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, recognized as equal citizens within the pluri-cultural nation of Colombia. As well as participation in legal processes and debates against the implementation of the dam project, Emberá carried out a process of internal consultation with the communities to be affected, which resulted in the production of a list of 105 impacts of which only four were positive. In addition, they launched widescale demonstrations throughout the country including a protest sit-in at the Swedish embassy in Bogotá in 1996.
In 2004 the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia highlighted Emberá as being one of the indigenous peoples most at risk of disappearance due to the intensity of the conflict. In the same year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples highlighted in his report that aggressive corporate activity including the wholesale extraction of natural resources from indigenous territories together with government sponsored development mega-projects such as the Urrá hydroelectric dam, also posed a threat to the community‘s survival. The Special Rapporteur urged the government to adhere to its obligations to uphold and respect the precautionary measures bestowed upon Emberá by the Inter–American Court of Human Rights in light of the violent attacks against them due to their objection to the construction of the dam. In the same report the Special Rapporteur also observed and expressed his concern on the reported cases of suicide among Emberá girls who had been forced to witness and experience horrific acts of violence and killings associated with the conflict. Such acts were indicators of the psychological damage and collective depression that Emberá women and girls were suffering as a direct outcome of the conflict.
Through OREWA Organización Emberá-Waunan (set up in 1997 with a mandate to safeguard the human rights and development of the Emberá community), and often in alliance with the ONIC, Emberá continue to petition the Colombian government to respect, uphold and protect their fundamental collective and individual human rights. Such demands include respect for their rights to life and personal dignity, food security, greater access to healthcare and the right to ethno-cultural education. Land rights also continue to be an issue of utmost importance, and Emberá have made clear their opposition to government plans to impose forestry and mining projects in their territory.
Emberá resistance to extractive activities on their lands have at times led to violence against them, including the assassination of a community leader, Fernando Salazar Calvo, in April 2015. Calvo played a prominent role in opposing illegal mining in Emberá territory and encroachment by criminal organizations. In addition to the hit man who killed him, two others were convicted in November 2018 for commissioning the attack and in January 2019 were sentenced to 35 and 17 years respectively for the killing. Violence against the community has continued since the country’s peace agreement, driven by criminal gangs with interests in the area’s gold reserves. The advocacy group WOLA has reported that armed groups are using Emberá communities as human shields in their ongoing conflict against the government and that members are still targeted by paramilitary organizations. This included Aquileo Mecheche Baragón, an Emberá activist and headmaster, who in April 2019 was taken from his home and shot dead. He had previously received multiple death threats from the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (also known as the Clan del Golfo) for his involvement in public demonstrations some months before.
Emberá have also been negatively affected by the government’s controversial anti-narcotics strategy involving the indiscriminate aerial fumigation of ancestral territories. Emberá have protested that this is causing enormous damage to both the lives and livelihoods of their communities and many people have been forced to move to other areas or become displaced. In 2013, Emberá activists demonstrated against the government’s use of aerial spraying in their area to destroy coca crops, highlighting the severe health implications for local communities, including children.
In addition to all of the above, economic projects involving massive deforestation for the setting up of over-sized palm oil and banana plantations is another serious problem and form of aggression being waged against Emberá. Mega-projects for industrial-scale cattle grazing and the unmitigated felling of trees for the timber industry also pose serious threats to the communities. Such activities are also involving the wholesale destruction of the natural environment in a region of the country known in Colombia as being the pulmon del mundo (translated into English as ‘lungs of the world’).
In recent years, there have also been a number of reports highlighting the prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) among Emberá, a practice that while apparently practised widely on girls at birth has been shrouded in secrecy even within communities, with many reportedly unaware that it was taking place. The issue only attracted wider attention in 2007 following the deaths of two Emberá girls in Pueblo Rico, and since then anti-FGM campaigners have been focusing efforts to eradicate the practice. However, the continued silence surrounding it and the lack of reliable information remain significant challenges to ensuring its eradication.
In September 2021, 350 people from the Emberá community and other indigenous peoples settled in the national park in Bogotá, denouncing violence in their territories. They were forced to abandon their former homes and seek refuge in the park. The leaders of these indigenous peoples expressed their demands to the national government, requesting guarantees for their relocation and a dignified housing solution for those who chose not to return to their native regions in Chocó and Risaralda, due to the consequences of the war. In May 2022, the indigenous residents of the park were relocated to several temporary shelters in the capital, where they awaited their final relocation back to their ancestral territories in Chocó and Risaralda.
Updated June 2023
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