23 Enero 2023

The ordeal of the Caquetá River and the Miraña people

Crédito: Santiago Ramírez

The recent history of the Miraña indigenous community shows the consequences of illegal mining on the Caquetá River. A population made up of only 240 people that refuses to disappear.

The Miraña community inhabits the territory where the Cahuinarí River meets the Caquetá River. After surviving the “cauchería” (slavery and exploitation due to the rubber industry) of the early twentieth century, missionaries, and armed conflict, the arrival of illegal mining has put at risk not only its culture but its existence. A study entitled "Impacts Generated by Illegal Mining in the Territory of the Pañi Association - Cahuinarí National Natural Park", made in 2015, determined the high concentrations of mercury that the Miraña had in their bodies, which were between 15 and 19 times more than the limit that the World Health Organization indicates as not harmful to health.

The testimony of Elio Miraña, former leader of the Pañi association organization, explains exterminations, displacements that his community has suffered over a century, and the almost lost battles they have undertaken against illegal mining. The resilience of the Miraña, the one that Elio highlights so much, is the characteristic that has allowed them to get up again and again at times when everything seemed lost.

"I was born in a community called Puerto Remanso del Tigre, located on the Caquetá River, near the mouths of the Cahuinarí River. I joined to work in the leadership of the organization of the Miraña people in 2004, and I stayed there until 2015. After that, I moved to Leticia, and I currently live at kilometer six, in a town hall called Tigua.

Elio Miraña
Elio Miraña
Photo: Santiago Ramírez

Our grandparents say that there was a displacement in our ancestral territory. This recent history begins in the time of the rubber rush. We are talking about the year 1900. We, the Miraña population that currently lives in the communities on the Caquetá River, come from a river called Pamá, a tributary of the Cahuinarí. The few families who managed to save themselves went down the Cahuinarí River to Caquetá and then went to another river where the Matapí live and stayed there for about 20 years. Eleven Miraña families survived, according to the research we did to reconstruct the historical memory of our community.

Once again, they left the place with the intention of returning to the Pamá, to the ancestral territory. In that return, they established the Caquetá River. As they did not have any food or any necessary sustenance to be able to continue their journey, they stayed there for some time to organize and gather food. A few families who had hidden in the Cahuinarí also came down to meet in a place between the Caquetá River and the Cahuinarí. Everyone settled there because the people who were hiding used to say 'Why are you going to go to the Pamá if there is nothing there? The malocas, the people, the grandparents, all the people who lived there, are no longer there! We came from there, precisely because we thought you were in a better condition.'

At that moment, the missionaries arrived to look for children and young people and transfer them to La Pedrera, an orphanage, which is currently the Juan José de La Pedrera boarding school. The missionaries told us, 'Why are you going to go up there if there is nothing anymore? Your children should go to the orphanage and learn other things.' History has shown that it is a negative experience from the cultural point of view because arriving at those boarding schools made them forget what remained in them in terms of cultural knowledge, singing, language, and stories, because there was a regime of evangelization there. The missionaries considered indigenous knowledge to be contrary to the doctrine of evangelization.

These young women who live this traumatic experience, return to their territories with the implanted idea that the whole cultural heritage is something very negative. The language was considered a bad thing. These people, my uncles, grow up literally saying, 'I do not want my children to suffer as I did.' So they decided not to teach them their ancestral cultural practices and, on the contrary, teach them basic Spanish.

Pueblo miraña
 Photo: Santiago Ramírez

There is a void in that generation, the one to which my cousins belong, where their parents, who are no longer just Miraña because they have already lived with people from other ethnic groups, begin to value Spanish and the Catholic religion. This situation changed with the 1991 Constitution, which recognized the country as multi-ethnic and multicultural. It opened up a possibility, but since my uncles had already grown up in the doctrine that Spanish is the most important thing and cultural practices are not relevant, a void was generated. That is where another group of people arrived: researchers, anthropologists, and NGOs, who begin to tell the elders to speak their own language, that this is important, that their stories, their songs, and their advice are very important.

This is a very hard situation. At that moment those elders say, 'How so? If yesterday we were mistreated and punished for speaking our language, why are they telling me that now we should talk, sing and tell stories?' And that is where there is a process of revitalization of linguistic, social, and cultural values. The few who maintained their knowledge volunteered to lead and organize our people. It was not easy because, even though the missions were over, the traders started arriving and talking about furs. Then, it began to generate other types of needs where people had to work to sustain themselves.

It is in this context that the ideas of the elderly and the knowledgeable have a lot of strength to constitute the Miraña thoughts. Not only are families, and social and cultural values beginning to be reconstructed, but also practices such as community work, the construction of the maloca, and rehearsing songs and organizing dances. For this purpose, five communities created the organization of the Miraña people. If we take into account only Miraña, we reach a population of 250, but with the other ethnic peoples that inhabit our territory, we reach 420.

Pueblo miraña
Photo: Santiago Ramírez

In the 2000s, a new bonanza was unleashed with the issue of illegal mining that passed through the Miraña territory, but as people were in a process of social and cultural reconstruction and there was an expectation of achieving a good quality of life, people understood that, as in other bonanzas, this one was going to affect them. Therefore, it was not accepted, and many leaders opposed it at that time. That happened happily for us because, while in other places they accepted it and their young people were linked to certain illegal armed groups, our people did not join; they were not part of that situation.

But ten years later a second wave came. Ten years of meetings, dialogues, and agreements with institutions for the protection of the territory have already passed. People well... Let's say, they do not perceive that much has been done, but politically we were achieving it. They feel it is not enough. This situation of dissatisfaction was used by these people who came to propose mining activity be developed in our territories. Many people, especially young people, accepted. At first, they accepted and went to work in other territories, but then these people managed to convince some authorities and allowed the activity in these territories. They said that it was just a time to pay certain expenses and then they were going to leave, but that was not the case. That situation, as a colleague said, somehow broke that line of work that had been developing. That same situation led these institutions, the ones that worked with the organization, to withdraw.

The facts prove it. It was a very hard time for the organization of the Miraña people, for the people who live in this territory, because they stopped advancing in their work. Sitting with the elders and listening to them, doing the mingas, the malocas, participating in dances, healings, and protections, all that was stopped because people were doing other activities. Let's say that this situation is very complicated, but I emphasize something in the middle of that: that women were the firmest. They were always opposed to such activities. They showed firmness, they questioned the authorities, their husbands, their children, and their whole family. Surely, because of their knowledge and experience, they perceived that this was not going to end well. However, this situation was ignored because many of the leaders became involved in this activity.

The breaking point was that the authority of the Miraña people became involved in mining and left the leaders who were against that activity helpless. They even became enemies to the people themselves, as opponents of a cause that the other inhabitants believed was just. It was truly a very sad moment for many, not only inhabitants of the territory but for surrounding inhabitants, leaders of organizations, and people from the institutions that had worked with us. It was a very complicated thing... very difficult.

That is when you decide to choose a path. What to do? Because all those years that were dedicated to working, struggling, reconstruction, the organization, and valuation could not be lost. The path that I call that of the minga begins, that of the union of many people, of many institutions to think about what to do. From there, our leaders began a struggle to make visible a problem in that territory.

Pueblo miraña
Photo: Santiago Ramírez

Among all these problems, it was decided to make a study to measure the degree of contamination by heavy metals in the Miraña territory, to have evidence to say that the illegal alluvial mining activity was affecting the population. A multidisciplinary team of many institutions was organized because at that point we had already understood that something serious was happening in the territory, and it had to be demonstrated with data as that is how Westerners, white men, and institutions like it.

The study took samples of people's hair, fish, sediment, and water. The truth is that this study showed that people were indeed contaminated by mercury. At that time, I was serving as secretary general of the Miraña people. The results came and they had to be taken to the communities. It was a very tense moment, of great expectations, of people frightened because of the talks that they had heard about the implications that mercury had on health, and on life itself, not only on environmental damage.

I remember that the commissions reached the communities and delivered the results confidentially. We also had to think of a route, a path. What to do to mitigate it? In the dialogue that took place with the communities and then a meeting of the authorities with the accompanying institutions, they thought, on the one hand, of internal actions and, on the other, a route to follow. We decided to resume internally our activities of vindication, resilience, returning to that path, listening to the elderly, carrying out our cultural practices, our dances, and our protections. Thinking about diets was also very important.

I withdrew, left the territory, and went to Leticia. Let's say, personally, that this episode has marked me a bit because at that time everyone was talking about what happened, but it seems that it went into the background. Then no one else talked about it, nobody else said anything. The people were still there, the territory was still there, we are still there, and we will continue to be there.

Years passed. From here, I continue to influence culture, not politics, but how to make visible the Miraña people, to let others know that we are there. And I dream of a protected ancestral territory, where culture and language are lived and practiced, where children know their history, where our very own bond with nature is restored..."

This article is part of the journalistic special 'Amazonia, the Lost Land', made by CAMBIO Colombia with the support of the United for Forests project, the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS) and the Embassy of Norway, with the support of the embassies of the European Union, United Kingdom, Andes Amazon Fund and ReWild.