Why Are Indigenous Youth Killing Themselves In Colombia?

Indigenous children in Colombia protest in Bogota in November 2015
Indigenous children in Colombia protest in Bogota in November 2015
Sergio Silva Numa

BOGOTÁ â€" Suicide used to be rare among the native communities of Vaupés, a region in eastern Colombia with the largest proportion of indigenous residents. That’s not the case anymore. Decades of hostility between the region's native inhabitants and outsiders has had devastating results.

El Espectador sent me to investigate this increase in suicides, now a sensitive local issue, although I am not the first one to do so.

There’s Óscar Naranjo, who made the documentary “La selva inflada” â€" the Inflated Jungle. Or the physician Camila Rodríguez, who tended to patients at a local hospital for two years, and studied suicides in that time with help from the health NGO Sinergías.

After my arrival in the Vaupés capital of Mitú, Salvador Fernández, my host from the Cubeo ethnic group, asks why someone would travel to a "city of 30 streets" from the Colombian capital of Bogotá. Was I writing something about the award-winning film made here, expand=1]El abrazo de la serpiente, which shows the destruction white men wrought in the Amazon?

Salvador comes to greet me dressed in khaki trousers and black shoes and wears a baseball cap gifted by the right-wing Democratic Center party. It was one of the many freebies candidates handed out to voters in local elections. He was about to take a boat home to Macaquiño, a community of 52 families of which he says he’s “captain”. He needs the approval of the traditional community doctor to discuss the issue of suicides with a reporter. He would need two days there and back.

While I waited, I had time to listen to some local suicide stories. "I have an amazing one," a student in Mitú tells me. "There was this girl who hanged herself on a second floor and stayed like that for so long that one day, bang, her head blew up." Two friends sitting nearby laugh but grow quiet when the student confesses that he, too, had tried to hang himself.

There have been 123 suicides in Vaupés among 16 of the 27 ethnic groups in the region since 2008, when data on the subject began to be recorded. Psychiatrist Rocío Gómez says there could well have been more. Among them, 77 of the victims were aged 14 to 26, she says. While the suicide rate in Bogotá is 4.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, here it is 38. The phenomenon has been dubbed the "rope epidemic."

Locals believe the slate of suicides started in 1992, when a powerful Brazilian chieftain cursed all the communities of Vaupés after a Colombian native broke his daughter's heart. Reports of suicides have proliferated since, some in absurd circumstances: A 19-year-old girl who hanged herself for not having enough money to correct a typo in identification papers that noted her as male. A schoolboy who killed himself for not having money to buy black shoes for school.

Indigenous people protest in Bogota on Nov. 25, 2015 â€" Photo : Cesar Maria Garcia/Pacific Press/ZUMA

Salvador returns, as promised, and says the community doctor, his brother Rafael, will allow me to visit Macaquiño to report about this sensitive issue. Not least because two boys who recently committed suicide were Salvador's own sons: César, 16, and Arquímedes, 23. Salvador has four other children. "The first one was drunk," he says. "He disappeared from a party and later we found him hanging in his room. We arrived late. The other was just too sad for his brother and one day poisoned his own soup. The thing with suicide around here is, it's contagious."

There used to be no suicides before, Rafael tells me in private in Macaquiño after he's had a couple of cups of chicha, a local drink. "It's a young people's thing," he says, later adding about Salvador’s sons: “That's how it was with them, a curse."

Everything in Salvador's house had become contagious, Rafael says. Even Salvador tried to kill himself. "He had nightmares, slept badly. It was so serious I had to go down to Mitú for a solution. That is when I found a rezador a person who appeals to God who told me to "bring down the mesh. It's a barrier, if you don't destroy it, your family will soon be finished.""

"He showed me how," Rafael says. He returned home and fumigated the entire house, including drapes, nets and hammocks. "We prayed and prayed, because the remedy to that curse was to pray.” But Salvador still knocked down the house and built another one on a different plot. He was convinced of the curse's contagion, which he said had spread to other huts in the town, and even to Mitú.

The 10 religious communities present in Mitú, ranging from Catholicism to a motley group of Protestant denominations, are not indifferent to the phenomenon. The Church arrived in Vaupés in 1914 with the pope’s blessing to pursue missionary work. The most senior priest in Mitú, Father Edwin Valareso, says, "we distanced the natives from their culture and language, and forced them to see the world through Western eyes. We all helped pull the ground from under their feet." The Church was proposing the "word of Jesus" as an antidote to despair, he says.

But Martha Medrano, a female pastor of the Pentecostal Worldwide Missionary Movement, blames demons. "They are the ones inciting suicides. I know it sounds weird but that's how it is. Which is why they need a spiritual transformation, which for us, starts with a ban on vices like alcohol. This has had results in those communities which we've visited."

Irrespective of the merits of their arguments, they illustrate how the community has been straddling two cultures.

One source of conflict in the community is the boarding school system the government created to educate indigenous children, who are removed from their homes and families for months or even years.

The schooling system "taught us that progress is studying more. It convinced us, as it still does, that the best thing is to go out into the world and leave Vaupés,” says Orlando Rodríguez, a former boarding school student from the Cubeo ethnic group who now works as an anthropologist at the National University.

Increasingly, Rafael tells me, youngsters care little for their own culture and, one day, he fears, there would be no communal doctor at Macaquiño. "I don't teach my work to anyone who doesn't come and ask me to. Young people have lost interest. They are only interested in white people's things," he says.

Instead of learning medicine or cultivating crops, they prefer to work as commercial bike riders in Mitú. Living in two worlds, Orlando tells me, "provokes a highly complex conflict in their community, with their parents and with themselves, which explodes when alcohol appears. Then you have the suicides."

Camila, the psychiatrist, says, “it is a problem that combines many factors but the most serious one is that Colombia doesn't know how to address them as there is no research. It's no use taking mental health questionnaires at odds with their culture.” The solution lies in listening to the natives, she says.

José Fernando Valderrama, the head of non-communicable diseases at the health ministry, says research is underway on suicides in Vaupés. As one person told me in Macaquiño â€" it's a start.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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