On August 10, 2020, the governors of the six communities of the Yukpa People, who live in the Colombian Department (Province) of Cesar sent an open letter to various Colombian authorities, including the Attorney General, the Director of the Court of Auditors, the Procurator, the Ombudsman for Human Rights and the Constitutional Court, as well as to the Organisation of American States and the United Nations and to selected media. They called on the authorities, especially the Attorney General, to keep to previously made commitments, for various protective measures, and for the implementation of judgements which have been made in their favour.
The current Attorney General, Francisco Roberto Barbosa, met the six Community Governors of the Yukpa people in Valledupar on October 9, 2019, while still in his capacity as Presidential Advisor for Human Rights. One of the topics at that meeting was the death of 42 indigenous children between August 7, 2018 and August 7, 2019, i.e. in the first year of President Duque’s presidency, for malnutrition caused by environmental problems and loss of territory. One of the main reasons for this is the advance of large-scale mining. This advance meant that rivers were no longer accessible to the Yukpa where they fished, that their hunting grounds were lost, and that their territory, where they carried out semi-nomadic farming and gathering activities, was narrowed. The Yukpa live in both Colombia and Venezuela and as a binational people would be entitled to dual citizenship in accordance with ILO Convention 169. Many Venezuelan Yukpa live as refugees without rights in different Colombian cities, as Colombia denies them dual citizenship. In 2008, 2,800 Yukpa were forcibly evicted and today they live in extreme poverty in 15 cities. At the meeting on October 9, 2019, Francisco Barbosa promised to visit all local rivers with the Yukpa and to verify the state of the rivers and the territory.
Accordingly, the Yukpa are demanding that Attorney General Barbosa, along with the Director of the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, visit the places where mining companies Glencore (listed on the London Stock Exchange though headquartered in Switzerland) and Drummond (a private US company with some UK investment including from HSBC) have diverted the rivers. During an audit of the mining projects in the Serranía del Perijá, the Contraloría uncovered various irregularities, some of which are criminal in nature. The Yukpa are demanding information about how far the prosecution’s criminal investigations have come against the ANLA environmental licencing authority and the regional environmental authority Corpocesar. The Yukpa also require the presence of the Director of the State Disciplinary Board (Procuraduria) to inform them about the status of the disciplinary proceedings against ANLA and Corpocesar.
The inspection by the Contraloría revealed various examples of irreparable environmental damage caused by the mining companies in the region, as well as serious omissions by the national and regional environmental authorities. The Contraloría audit report is from May 2019 and takes into account events up to December 2018. Of the 47 findings, 36 are of a disciplinary nature and seven of a criminal nature. Under the eyes of the Ministry of the Environment, the ANLA and Corpocesar, the territory and the environment have been damaged and polluted, with negative consequences for the population, the forest reserve, the quality and quantity of the water, as well as the air quality and biodiversity. The Contraloría further criticizes the lack of reparation, compensation or restoration of the damage and the fact that even after more than two decades of mining there is still no clarity about the extent of the pollution and the consequences for the health of the residents.
The diversion of the Calenturitas River has affected two other rivers. From 2007 to 2015, five minor changes to the environmental licence of Prodeco’s Calenturitas mine were approved, e.g. the increase in production from 11 to 12.5 million tons, loading stations and two river diversions. However, all the possible damage that could arise was never evaluated. Since these were only “small” changes, there was poor handling and a lack of monitoring. For instance, the diversion of the Calenturitas river led to a change in the water flow and the amount of water and also affected two other rivers, the Tucuy and the Maracas, whose mouths were also changed. All of these consequences have been given too little consideration. The Contraloría accuses the environmental authorities of omission and legal delay, since certain investigations were started in 2010 or 2012 and have not yet been completed. Calenturitas was started in 1995 with an environmental management plan that applies to medium-sized mining, subsequent expansions were made without fundamentally new licenses or environmental management plans.
The Yukpa declare themselves frightened and threatened by the irresponsible behaviour of Prodeco. Glencore Prodeco came to the Yukpa territory in the midst of the armed conflict and confined them to the high elevations of the Serranía, even though they are nomads, in order to be able to mine coal without obtaining their Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC). The multinational companies Glencore Prodeco and Drummond, together with ANLA, Corpocesar and the Directorate for FPIC of the Ministry of the Interior, have removed over 10,000 hectares of land from the Los Motilones forest reserve to enable mining. This land traditionally belonged to the Yukpa. Rivers have dried up because of mining, and rivers are the most important source of protein for the Yukpa. On March 3, 2020, the State Council decided in the 2nd instance that no more licences may be granted until the traditional territory of the Yukpa has been delimited, and suspended Prodeco’s Palomo project, which would have created a new spoil dump. Since July 2020, Glencore Prodeco has been running a dangerous, covert and abusive campaign in which they tell workers, subcontractors, politicians etc that they are going to close the mine because of the Yukpa lawsuits and that therefore many workers will lose their jobs and the local mayors will lose royalty payments. This creates great danger for the leaders of the Yukpa people. Likewise, Prodeco tries to negotiate only with selected Yukpa authorities and not with the entire population, which violates ILO Convention 169 and the 72 mandates of the Yukpa. They also offer the Yukpa jobs in the mines in order to break the resistance to mining.
The Yukpa live in abject poverty and suffer from hunger, while the coal mines on their territory generate around 40% of the GDP of Cesar or a good 5% of the national GDP. According to various test reports, the charges from the coal mines to the state are not used for essential purposes such as water supply and sanitation, but for example for luxurious village squares and buildings. In addition, the reactions of the national protection unit UNP so far have been inadequate and inefficient; no individual and collective protective measures have been agreed for the traditional authorities and leaders of the Yukpa. For the Yukpa, the mining companies as well as state authorities such as ANLA, the Ministry of the Interior, the Mining Ministry, the Ministry of the Environment, the National Land Authority etc are responsible for everything that has already happened to the Yukpa. For this reason, the Yukpa have contacted the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the UN authorities. On September 5, 2019, the Yukpa people applied for precautionary protective measures to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
The Yukpa were stripped of their ancestral land in various ways, through land grabbing by small farmers and large landowners, through oil palm cultivation, through oil and gas extraction and large-scale mining, and through armed conflict. Due to the loss of their territory, they were squeezed into reservations on small farms in the high elevations of the Serranía del Perijá mountains. The Yukpa live as semi-nomads from hunting, gathering, fishing and shifting agriculture, but currently only have 5000 square metres of land per family. After some time in one place, they move on and let the land rest for up to ten years before they settle in the same place again. They are the only semi-nomadic people in the Caribbean region and the last of the Caribbean language group, Yukpa Ywonku. The Yukpa people enjoy special protection due to their characteristics as semi-nomads. ILO Convention 169 provides nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples with special protection for their territory, and Colombia ratified this convention with Law 21 of 1991. A large part of the traditional habitat of the Yukpa overlaps with two forest protection areas, the Zona de Reserva Forestal de los Motilones and the ZRF del Río Magdalena. With Decree 2164 of 1995, the Colombian state decided that the land of the forest reserves, which overlap with the territory of semi-nomadic or nomadic peoples, may only be used to create or enlarge indigenous reserves and only be transferred to these peoples. Despite this clear legal starting point, the state has removed over 10,000 hectares of land from the forest protection area since 1995 in order to enable coal mining.
In August 2019, the Yukpa people recognized themselves as semi-nomadic migrant farming people. Various anthropological studies and reports prove the semi-nomadic character of the Yukpa, including from several universities and from the Colombian Institute of History and Anthropology (ICHAN). This fact was also recognized by the Ministry of the Interior. As early as 1996, the Yukpa people, together with six other indigenous peoples, were declared threatened with extinction by Presidential Decree 1397 and orders were given to give priority and financial resources to the creation and expansion of reservations for these peoples. In addition, no type of project may be carried out on their territory without the prior consent of the indigenous people. In Decision 004 of 2009, the Constitutional Court also declared the Yukpa to be critically endangered due to evictions. With Decision 266 of 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that the situation of the indigenous peoples affected by violence, including the Yukpa, still contradicted the constitutional order (estado de cosas inconstitucional). In July 2019, the ombudsman’s office for human rights (Defensoria) stated in a report on the implementation of resolution 004 from 2009 that the Yukpa are threatened in their freedom of movement and in their traditional economic practices due to the continued loss of their territory, above all because of the expansion of mining and palm oil plantations. In particular, the Defensoria stated that the Ministry of the Interior did not take into account the traditional territory of the Yukpa outside of the small reservations and therefore did not confirm the presence of the indigenous peoples outside the reservations and therefore did not grant them the right to a prior hearing. So far, the government’s action plan to save the Yukpa has also been completely inadequately implemented.