Friday, April 21, 2006

Nomadic Amazon tribes in crossfire of drug war


Sitting in a hammock, Wembe uses a knife to sharpen palm tree branches into arrows. He greases each point with poisonous curare and attaches a wad of wild cotton on the nocks. A 6-foot blow gun rests nearby.

Altos de Agua Bonita, Colombis (AP) - He should be performing the hunting ritual in the Amazon rain forest. Instead, he is forced to do it in a makeshift camp on a riverside plain outside San Jose del Guaviare, the provincial capital.

Eighty Nukak-Maku Indians settled here two weeks ago, emerging from the jungle malnourished and fearing for their lives.

After hunting and gathering for centuries and surviving only by avoiding most contact with outsiders, the nomadic clan has been caught in the crossfire of Colombia's violent drug war.

Their fate is representative of the Amazon's once-flourishing tribal population. The United Nations estimated in 2003 that 300 indigenous tribes live in the Amazon basin, but only about 60 remain in isolation, most of them in Brazil and Peru.

The first members of Wembe's clan arrived in the Guaviare area, 170 miles southwest of the capital, Bogota, in 2003. In recent months, the refugees' numbers have doubled as leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries have battled in their territory.

Coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, flourishes naturally in their lands, and provides the warring groups with huge revenue.

"Go, walk there ... guerrilla very angry," Wembe, who uses only one name, offers in broken Spanish.

The Nukak are a branch of the Maku family of nomadic Indians who have journeyed the northwest Amazon River basin of current-day Colombia, Peru and Brazil for thousands of years. The Maku branches are tied by a common ancestral language.

When settlers began to encroach on the area in the 1960s, influenza killed most of the Nukak. Deforestation has cut their food supply and led to malnutrition.

Only 500 tribe members are believed to survive. About half live in settlements such as the one near Guaviare, said anthropologist Jorge Restrepo. A smaller group has settled in a nearby village built by missionaries.

"There's no precise testimony or evidence about why the groups fled, but without a doubt it was precipitated by the colonization of the jungle by armed groups and coca growers," Restrepo said.

Traditionally, the Nukak live in small clans of 15-40 people who pick up and relocate every few weeks, gathering fruits and seeds and hunting monkeys and other mammals, the anthropologist said.

Now sedentary, the group depends entirely on the government, aid workers and individual donors, who arrive daily bearing clothes, bread and other gifts.

"The disconcerting effect of being away from their territory is softened a little by their curiosity for the people who've come to help," Restrepo said.

Javier Maldonado, a doctor who is helping the group, worried that the Nukuk will never be able to return to their nomadic lifestyle.

"They're trying to adapt themselves to a new life, but they're tired," he said. "They're accustomed to long treks in the jungle, but now that they've stopped walking they're adopting Western habits that are impossible to reverse."

Still, even here, the clan maintains many of its traditions.

Around a pit of dying embers, naked children play under the watchful eye of their mothers, whose foreheads, noses and cheekbones bear a decorative lined pattern made of red dye from the spiny red fruits of the achiote shrub.

Restrepo recommends relocating the Nukak to a safe jungle area, holding out hope they can resume their traditional way of life. But that's possible only if the guerrillas promise to leave the Indians alone.

Etero, a younger member of the tribe, thinks that's unlikely. Crafting a flute from tiger bones and adorning it with colorful feathers, he vowed "never to return ... the guerrillas kick us out."


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