Still showing the consequences of the genocidal violence of the rubber fever (1870-1913) and the war between Colombia and Peru in 1933, the indigenous peoples – Tucano Uitotos, Magüta, Marubo and dozens of other ethnic groups – responded positively to the proposal of the Catalan Capuchin friar Antonio Jover i Lamaña in the mid-60s.
“Friar Jover proposed bringing objects to the mission to create a space for cultural exchange; they already constitute the core of the collection we have here,” explains Mariza Ruiz, the young coordinator of the public museum of ethnography in the Colombian city of Leticia, on the so-called triple border – Colombia, Brazil and Peru – of the western Amazon.
More than a tourist destination, the museum – housed in a modern lilac-colored building a kilometer and a half from the chaotic Brazilian city of Tabatinga – is a center of learning. “30 children visit us a day, most of them indigenous,” he explains. “I am of magüta descent; Before I did not consider myself indigenous, now I do; young people identify more and more with their ethnicity”.
Here in Leticia identity is not an anecdote. Since the invasion of the Peruvian rubber tappers, the triple border, with three countries disputing the riches of the jungle and its subsoil, has only meant violence and terror for the indigenous people, despite the fact that "for them those borders are rather fictitious," he says. Ruiz. Amid the Picassian collage masks and wind instruments painted with geometric abstraction, a rifle is on display. “He was from the rubber tappers; when the friars arrived they found victims of decades of massacres”, he explains.
Fifteen years after his death, at the age of 84, Jover i Lamaña –born in Barcelona, scion of the Catalan banking family– would be scared to leave the museum and walk ten minutes to the border. It is a bustling environment of churrascarías, cevicherías and shops with three flags, with the constant hum of hundreds of motorcycle taxis that go down to the boats. But it is one of the most violent places in the three countries.
During this visit, the news of the day is of a fifteen-year-old boy hit by a stray bullet in a shootout between different groups of criminals. Tomorrow will be another death in this triple municipality, whose barely guarded borders traffic everything from drugs and weapons to protected species, such as Amazonian turtles, valued for their sweet meat.
The triple border reached international headlines in June of last year, when the indigenous ethnologist Bruno Pereira and the British journalist Don Phillips were shot to death by an illegal fisherman, after a chase along the Yavari river, which serves as the border between Brazil and Peru and flows into the Amazon, 20 kilometers from Leticia. The alleged motive for the crime: Pereira's complaints against illegal fishermen and hunters in the huge indigenous reserve of the Brazilian Yavari Valley.
The drug trafficker Rubens Villar, the alleged mastermind of the crime, has already been arrested. Dual Brazilian and Peruvian nationality, he is nicknamed Colombia and lives in a houseboat on the island of Iceland, half an hour from Leticia / Tabatinga, which belongs to Peru.
“During the Bolsonaro years, the state disappeared,” says Marcio Maura, former president of the Brazilian Indian Foundation. But the truth is that in this area of the Amazonia there is not one state missing, but three. Something similar is happening on the other jungle border, that of Venezuela and Brazil, in the central north of the Amazon, where a violent invasion of Yanomami territory by tens of thousands of armed illegal miners has been described as a genocide by the Brazilian government.
“Indigenous Venezuelans have been victims as well as indigenous Brazilians,” says Luis Salas, Carcas-based executive director of the NGO Wataniba. Likewise, “there are many Venezuelans in illegal gold mining in Brazil and Brazilians in Venezuela; Then there are the Colombians, guerrillas who have not laid down their weapons and are operating in the Venezuelan Amazon." Hence the importance of the summit of the eight countries of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (OTCA) –Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname–, held last month in Belem (Brazil).
The news that spread internationally after the summit was the failure to achieve a commitment to zero deforestation before 2030 – only Brazil and Colombia signed – as well as the discrepancies between the Colombian president, Gustavo Petro, and his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, regarding oil exploration in the Amazon. Petro is opposed, Lula is ambiguous after the discovery of an important deposit at the mouth of the Amazon.
But there were important advances. The eight countries pledged to "guarantee the conservation, protection, and ecosystemic and sociocultural connectivity of the Amazon," and to create a Center for International Police Cooperation in the Amazon in Manaus.
"The punitive is not the only solution, but it is necessary," says Salas, whose NGO has participated in meetings in Leticia on sustainable economy. There are hopes that the departure of Bolsonaro and the turn to the left in the region can facilitate a common agenda of protection and sustainable development in the Amazon.
The Venezuelan government has promised to act against hundreds of thousands of illegal miners on the border with Brazil, through Operation Autana. “One of their most notable achievements has been the eviction of the Yapacana mining camp, located in the national park,” says Salas.
On the other side of the border, Lula has deployed thousands of police and military personnel to expel the garimpeiros, although Yanomami leaders have denounced the permanence of these illegal prospectors for gold and precious stones. On the Brazilian side of the tri-border, the presence of the federal police has been reinforced to protect the environment and combat organized crime. "It will not be provisional," said the new environmental officer of the Brazilian federal police, Humberto Freire.
Petro, for his part, has focused his policy on disarming armed groups and seeking alternatives to coca production. Ecuador has just approved in a national referendum the protection of the Yasuni Amazon reserve against oil interests. Peru, immersed in a deep political crisis, may be the weakest link in the chain.
After imposing the law in the jungle, it is intended to adopt other multilateral initiatives in areas such as agribusiness, tourism and culture with the full involvement of the original peoples, the true guardians of nature without borders.
The Leticia museum wants to contribute its grain of sand. “This is a museum of diversity, anthropologists from Brazil and Peru come here, but more indigenous leaders need to come as well,” observes Ruiz.