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Awas unite to fend off threats
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
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Indigenous group on both sides of the border need each other to protect their land and autonomy.

Members of the Awa indigenous people of northern Ecuador and southern Colombia say that despite the political border dividing them they need each other to fight a common threat: the appropriation of their lands.

Since 2007, the 32,555 members of the Awa people, who live on close to 435,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) on both sides of the border 317,000 hectares (783,000 acres) in Colombia and 116,560 hectares (288,000 acres) in Ecuador) have been undergoing a unification process to maintain their lands.

According to the Plan de Vida, or “Life Plan” that the Awa’s four groups – the Awa Centers Federation of Ecuador, or FCAE, and in Colombia, the Council of Awa Elders of Ricaurte, or CAMAWARI, Indigenous Unity of the Awa People, or UNIPA, and the Association of Indigenous Councils of the Awa People of Putumayo, or ACIPAP, have been forming since 2007 through a series of debates, unity will help fellow Awa members face this phenomenon, and recover their culture and identity.

“They´re killing us in Colombia”
According to Freddy Guanga, of CAMAWARI, the main problem that Colombia´s indigenous people are facing is defending their reservations.

“There are resources on the reservations that interest all the armed players,” Guanga said. “So they have incursions on our lands, they kill us and make us disappear. They´re killing us in Colombia.”

CAMAWARI, which represents 10,500 Awa, has reported 10 Awa dead, 10 disappeared and 13 detained as a result of armed attacks between 2007 and 2008. Some 430 Awas in this organization were displaced during that period, the group says, belonging to 120 families.

A group of these families came to Lita in the northern border province of Imbabura in Ecuador.

“We´ve come looking for our families, for our own people so they can help us,” said Alba Cantincuz, an Awa woman displaced by armed groups in Colombia.

There, the Awa sought help from their Ecuadorian sister organization so they could be inserted into communities on that side of the border.

Ecuador´s Awa: forest defenders
It is also difficult for Ecuador´s Awa population to defend their lands, since they are settled in the last remaining area of the Chocoanos forests, recognized as one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Cedar and chandul trees are highly coveted by the forestry industry, which uses marginalized Afro-Ecuadorian workers to illegally exploit this resource on their land.

“We are people of the jungle and we can´t live without the jungle. That´s why we´re going to defend it even with our own lives,” said Jairo Canticuz, land defense coordinator of the FCAE organization.

The group has proposed many legal measures for government protection, from criminal lawsuits against logging companies to injunction requests.

But they have lost the majority of their cases because of the strong power the logging companies have over the judicial system. The Awa now will have to confront another industry in Ecuador: mining companies.

Fighting for autonomy
Olindo Nastacuaz, president de la FCAE, notes that these communities are located in a strategic area, rich in natural resources.

“That´s why we’ve been under pressure from various players, whose interests are political, military and economic,” he said, adding that the so-called Plan de Vida aims to put a stop to the trend.

Members of the Awa people have prioritized autonomy, defense of lands and cultural and identity protection in its joint plan with the other Awa groups, each of which require international cooperation.

“Only unity will make governments respect us, make the armed groups respect us,” said Carlos Asley Cantincuz, a member of the Colombian group UNIPA.

The Plan de Vida defines autonomy as the ability of these peoples to make their own decisions about their lands, the Awa way of life, their own government based on the people´s principles.

In Ecuador, the concept of autonomy is written in the new constitution, approved last September, where the country is declared a plurinational state. The incorporation of foreigners in national life is based on a declaration of universal citizenship.

This is not the case in Colombia, where legislation has become increasingly lenient toward the exploitation of natural resources on these lands and the disregard for indigenous rights, a major obstacle for the Awa Plan de Vida´s objectives.

Autonomy also includes the recognition of traditional authorities as well as economic proposals that strengthen identity, the sense of permanency and use of natural resources according to the customs that this people have maintained.

The Awa are also aiming to maintain their culture as many of its members have become integrated in mestizo society.

“Now we only have language,” said Jairo Canticuz. “We should revise our clothing, our food, our justice system.”

The Awa are clearly facing many challenges with adverse legislation, and even violence, but they have vowed to overcome these obstacles. What´s missing now is support from the two governments.
—Latinamerica Press.


Awa delegates meet to discuss ways to protect their lands. (Photo: Luis Ángel Saavedra)
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Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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