QUIBDO, Colombia – The thick jungles of the Colombian province of Choco on the Panamanian border was paradise to 117 Embera Indians who grew crops and had all the game they could hunt and all the fish they could catch on the Munguido River, which one day went from being a source of food to an escape route to save their lives.
“I was the indigenous governor there, and let me tell you we were so happy, none of us ever experienced hunger, least of all the kids. If I wanted fish I went to the river, if I wanted venison I went on the mountain, and if what I wanted was turtle meat, no problem. We had everyting, especially our freedom,” Hortencio Tanikamo told EFE.
But then the violence of Colombia’s armed conflict forced the Embera leader and his people to leave the jungle, and now he lives in a hut built on stilts in the Solano Bay neighborhood, perhaps the poorest in the Choco capital of Quibdo.
Choco itself is known as one of the most underdeveloped of Colombian’s provinces.
The Indian doesn’t exactly remember the date when they all decided to pick up and leave the reserve, but they recall very vividly that it was because “two armed men came and killed two of our people.”
On small wooden canoes known as “pangas,” Hortencio and another 116 people rowed down the river “the whole blessed day” until they reached Solano Bay, also a refuge for blacks and mulattos displaced by the prevailing violence.
It was the only place they found where they thought they could start a new life, but it hasn’t been that easy. They are now reduced to living on a small plot of land where they scrape out a living and live in wooden huts without public services, and where several times they have been caught in the onslaught of the Atrato River’s raging currents that have swept away the chickens they raise to add some protein to their poor diets.
“We preferred to escape on the river. We don’t know who killed our people but the fear of getting killed ourselves made us come here, where all we have is night and day because we have no land to cultivate and the fish in the river are no good,” Hortencio said, while observing from his hut several women cooking rice on a communal bonfire, likely their only meal of the day.
The only jobs to be had are at sawmills in the area that pay the Indians some $10 (30,000 pesos) a day to load up lumber or clear the brush with machetes.
“That’s all there is,” Omar Ibamia, brother-in-law of Hortencio, said bitterly, adding that “no government” has helped them improve this situation that began in 2003, the year they arrived at Solano Bay.
And so they went from having “everything” to managing to stay alive by raising some chickens and a dozen pigs in a wooden corral built on tree trunks.
Hortencio is sure that, if the government were to provide the necessary help. they and another 1,500 Embera Indians living in the urban center of Quibdo would return to their reserve without thinking twice.