Aid groups partner up with Indigenous communities in Colombia as conflict rages on

The MSF team walks through Pie de Pato, Chocó, towards a training day for community agents on 8 March 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Daniela Díaz Rangel)

In Colombia’s Pacific region, ongoing armed conflict in isolated areas has spurred international aid groups to rethink how access can be ensured to vulnerable populations, by training locals to respond to needs.

CHOCÓ, Colombia — “We can’t hunt. We can’t care for our crops,” said Arsenio*, the leader of Puerto Alegre, a small Emberá indigenous community in the Alto Baudó region of Chocó in northwestern Colombia. He was referring to how ongoing fighting has left thousands of Emberá under “forced confinement” – lockdowns or movement restrictions imposed by armed groups.

“We call it ‘going up the mountain’. It isn’t just for our survival needs,” he explained in early March. “It is an integral part of our culture as well. When we can’t practise our customs, it often leads to depression.”

He blamed the recent suicide of a young girl from his community on violence and a series of forced confinements imposed by armed groups that control the region. For those caught in cycles of worsening violence in Colombia’s Pacific coastal regions, conflict has become simply a part of daily life.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), one of the few aid groups present in this region, has seen the effect the violence has had on basic services for the population.

“Ongoing armed conflicts and a lack of any real health system complicate long untreated problems in Chocó,” Guzmán Botella, the group’s logistics coordinator in Chocó, told Geneva Solutions. “We often find our access severely limited by conflict.”

In 2016, a peace accord between the government and the leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), had left Colombians hopeful for peace after decades of conflict. But after FARC disarmed and rejoined civil society, a host of new armed groups or new iterations of existing criminal structures quickly moved to fill the power vacuum left by FARC fighters.

The two largest armed groups in this Pacific coastal region are now in open war with one another: leftist rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) – also known as the Gulf Clan. Originally from the right-wing paramilitary forces that fought alongside the government during the civil war, the AGC is now the country’s largest drug cartel.

Civilians, meanwhile, have been caught in the crossfire.

“The rhythm of the conflict changed,” Sigfredo Pautt Vega, a head of mission in Chocó at Doctors of the World, a humanitarian NGO. “Before, there was only the FARC. But then came AGC, the army, the ELN. The conflict spread and worsened. Territorial dispute is worse than when one group controls the region.”

Leftist president Gustavo Petro, who took office last June, had promised to move away from the aggressive military strategies of previous administrations and bring what he calls “total peace” to Colombia by negotiating directly with big criminal groups.

But on 20 March, two months after agreeing to an informal “bilateral ceasefire”, the Gulf Clan resumed attacks on civilian infrastructure, putting the renewed peacebuilding efforts on hold.

Peace talks with ELN also suffered a blow last week after an attack by the guerrilla group left nine military soldiers dead in the northern part of the country. The government’s peace delegation is due to meet on Monday to decide how to proceed.

Despite ongoing dialogues between the government and multiple armed groups, limited progress on the political front hasn’t translated into reduced violence on the ground.

“I haven't heard anything about ‘total peace’,” said Arsenio. “These ceasefires have not affected us at all. A confrontation [between two armed groups] in December resulted in explosions just outside of our community, and forced confinements are common.”

Aid access along conflict-ridden river networks

Outside of urban centres in Chocó, there is little to no transportation infrastructure. In Alto and Medio Baudó, in the interior of the department, communities are completely isolated. The only way to travel to villages in the dense jungle region is via the network of rivers that crisscross the region.

Aid groups operating in the region, such as MSF, Doctors of the World and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), travel six to twelve hours by boat from the nearest urban centre, Istmina, to provide services to communities largely isolated from conventional medical care. Most of the region lacks any basic government services, including basic health care, potable water, and in many cases, even electricity.

“We are trying, through direct medical attention and efforts to strengthen communities, to mitigate some of what affected populations are experiencing,” said Yohana Vinasco, field doctor for MSF, which also delivers emergency food supplies to the communities.

Graffiti used by armed groups to mark their spheres of control is omnipresent. Aid groups have to confront ever-changing dynamics on the ground, where a host of armed groups fight for territorial control.

“MSF is usually the first to arrive and the first to provide direct services in these zones,” said Botella. Nonetheless, he confided: “Security for us is an ongoing issue. We analyse each new situation independently.”

While humanitarian organisations are prohibited by authorities from interacting directly with armed groups, MSF instead relies on community leaders in areas where such groups operate to act as intermediaries.  “We do not enter regions where armed confrontations are happening, nor regions where lockdowns are being actively enforced,” Botella said.

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Arsenio, an Indigenous Emberá leader from Puerto Alegre speaks with Médecins Sans Frontières representatives in Pié de Pato, Chocó, 8 March 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Daniela Díaz Rangel)

Caught in the middle

According to official data, more than 68,000 people self-identified as Indigenous in Chocó, most of them as part of the Embera Dobidá community. The name translates as "the people of the river". The greater Emberá nation stretches from Ecuador to Panama.

Indigenous peoples have suffered the brunt of the effects of the conflict in Pacific coastal regions. Although they make up less than five per cent of Colombia’s population, more than 50 per cent of people who were forcibly confined in 2022 were Indigenous.

A total of 433,580 people in Colombia were victims of “forced confinement” last year, according to a January report by the NGO Human Rights Observatory of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC).  Chocó, Antioquia, Córdoba and Sucre were the most affected departments. Some 6,293 people, including Indigenous people, were also displaced by active fighting between armed groups in Chocó in 2022, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recently reported that  2,628 of the 6,780 victims of forced displacement due to conflict in January, in the regions of Chocó, Nariño and Arauca, were members of the Emberá community. Most communities living in rural areas on the Pacific coast have also been subjected to forced confinement numerous times in recent years.

“Gender-based violence, violence related to conflict, sexual assaults committed by members of armed groups and forced recruitment are all commonplace,” Guzmán explained, adding that some “regions formerly controlled by residents for farming have been mined, to prevent other armed groups from utilising the land”.

Colombia registered 515 victims of landmines and other explosive devices in 2022, according to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC).

Indigenous residents travel by boat in Santa Catalina de Catrú in Altó Baudó, Chocó. Boat travel is the only means of transportation to leave the area, 9 March 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Daniela Díaz Rangel)

Working with the community

In an effort to adapt to changing conflict dynamics, and persistent forced lockdowns, MSF has been implementing a “decentralised health model” that consists of training residents within the communities as educators and in basic medical skills. Their strategy is to leave behind a self-sustaining basic system when their five-year mission ends.

The approach has allowed the group to access communities amid constant lockdowns imposed by armed groups, which prevent communities from tending to their crops, hunting or fishing, further endangering vulnerable populations in regions where food insecurity is high.

“Our connection to the land is deeply cultural,” said Daniel Chamorro, an Emberá who now works as a community liaison for MSF. “Being prevented from engaging in our most basic cultural customs is incredibly stressful and often results in severe depression.”

The confinements have added to the trauma the populations have experienced from long-term exposure to violence, MSF told Geneva Solutions.

Chamorro, who grew up in Chocó, is one of 21 young people who have been trained in Alto and Medio Baudó by the organisation in mental health protocols, first aid and humanitarian protocols.

He said the violence has affected the Indigenous community in other ways. “Internal conflict within communities has increased,” he said. “We have also seen [voluntary] recruitment of our youth into these armed groups. The monthly wage (armed groups) they offer can be tempting for someone who suffers from the economic stress of extreme poverty.”

Argiro Tunaay, an Emberá from the Arrado community, was chosen by his people to be trained by MsF as a health promoter. March 8, 2023..JPG
Argiro Tunaay, an Emberá from the Arrado Indigenous community, was chosen by his people to be trained by Médecins Sans Frontières as a health promoter, 8 March 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Daniela Díaz Rangel)

Incorporating local knowledge into aid response

MSF’s model seeks to empower the communities where the group provides medical attention. The NGO’s trainers offer courses in basic medical care, reproductive health and the identification of mental health problems to community liaisons, often doctors of traditional medicine, midwives or community leaders.

Argiro Tunaay is another one of them. “The conflict has Westernised us,” he said, referring to the community’s traditions.

“We have been forcibly removed from our customs, and often our homes, by these armed groups. Any solution to these problems must have our communities in mind and respect our ways.”

He welcomed the aid organisation’s efforts to make community members responsible for preventative and long-term care, citing aid efforts in the past that merely addressed the community’s immediate needs. “When those projects ended, we were left with the same problems as before,” he said. “This isn’t a real solution.”

“Even the help sent (by aid groups) can be damaging if this is not kept in mind,” he continued. He cited a case of food delivery from another NGO operating in the region that included highly processed and preserved foods, which elderly members of his village could not digest and became sick.

“I want to be part of making a difference,” Tunaay said, explaining that MSF efforts to incorporate the Emberá have helped avoid the “colonising attitude” of some previous aid agencies. “We are part of the solution, and that is fundamental.”

*Arsenio requested that his last name not be used due to security concerns.