Pubdate: Tue, 26 Jun 2001
Source: Independent  (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Author: Jan Mcgirk


Hammocks are slung between trees, and dozens of cooking fires smoulder.

Nearly 1,000 indigenous people have defied the Colombian government's 
security warnings and are keeping a public vigil for their kidnapped 
leader, Kim Pernia Domico.

Members of Colombia's 84 tribes have converged on Tierralta, in Cordoba 
province, to take a stand against being drawn further into the bloody 
insurgency that started 37 years ago and has killed 40,000 people in the 
past decade alone.

Three suspected paramiltary gunmen on motor-scooters allegedly abducted Mr 
Pernia, a 43-year-old environmental activist from the Embera Katio tribe, 
on 2 June.

"I know in my heart that he is still alive," said Marta Cecilia Domico, Mr 
Pernia's daughter. "If they wanted to kill him they would have done so on 
the spot, like they have so many others." Marxist rebels massacred 15 
villagers suspected of being paramilitary sympathisers only days before Mr 
Pernia disappeared. Search groups of determined tattooed tribesmen risk 
forays by raft or footpath into the surrounding territory in the hope of 
finding some trace of their leader.

"We want him given back to us - dead or alive," said one tribal youth. "It 
doesn't matter how long it takes." There has been no sign of Mr Pernia yet, 
and no confirmation by the right-wing United Self-defence forces of 
Colombia that they were behind his alleged abduction. But the 
paramilitaries have been in disarray since Carlos Castano, their founder 
and commander-in-chief, abruptly quit this month.

Ms Domico says she believes the paramilitaries dragged away her father to 
scare the Embera Katio into silencing their protests against paramilitary 
incursions. The 2,400-member tribe survives by fishing and growing bananas 
and rice in a lush reservation near Tierralta, but the formerly tranquil 
riverside has recently become a corridor for arms and drug smuggling. The 
tribe gets caught in the crossfire from both sides. Sixteen Embera Katio 
have been killed in the past two years alone. The outspoken Mr Pernia led 
protest marches to Bogota, angry that his tribe became "military targets" 
because of their opposition to a hydroelectric dam.

Right-wing militias have been battling against rebel guerrillas and their 
collaborators in the nearby mountains for control of this strategic region, 
and many are backed by local cattle ranchers. The rebels and the 
paramilitaries covet the resource-rich territories granted by the 
government to indigenous groups. Isolated tracts that might be used to 
raise coca crops for cocaine tempt the gunmen to close in on the Indians.

Mr Pernia, who led opposition to the multinational-funded Urra Dam and then 
demanded compensation when his tribal fishing waters were spoilt, was by 
far the region's most prominent indigenous leader. Contractors and 
businessmen were thwarted by his international appeals against the dam, and 
were enraged that the tribe might end up with a corporate pay-off from 
Canadian and Swedish firms when others lost money because of Mr Pernia's 
stalling tactics.

Half of Colombia's formerly remote tribes, whether jungle dwellers or river 
valley farmers, are now at risk of extinction, according to the Latin 
American Association for Human Rights. Massacres and civil war conflict 
split up families and drive indigenous communities into towns where their 
tribal ways and dialects are abandoned.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth