A century after thousands of indigenous people died and were displaced in one of the most brutal episodes of the Amazonian rubber boom, government officials publicly apologized for the tragedy and the victims’ descendants urged them to ensure that it never happens again.
“If the lesson is learned from the death of our ancestors, their death will not have been in vain,” an association of indigenous people of La Chorrera, in Colombia’s Amazonas region, said in a statement issued on October 12.
The statement coincided with a public apology by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, directed to the Huitoto, Bora, Okaina, Muinane, Andoque, Nonuya Miraña, Yukuna and Matapí people of the region.
“In the name of the Colombian state, I ask forgiveness of all of you for your dead, for your orphans, for those who were victims for the sake of a company, of a government of an alleged ‘progress’ that did not understand the importance of safeguarding every person and every indigenous culture as a vital part of a society that we recognize with pride today as multi-ethnic and pluricultural,” Santos said in a statement.
Messages of solidarity also came from Víctor Isla Rojas, president of the Peruvian Congress, and Culture Minister Luis Peirano, who asked forgiveness on behalf of the Peruvian people and called for “strong institutions that effectively guarantee the rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
The recognition came at the end of a week during which people living near the Putumayo River and its tributaries recalled the tragedy, but also celebrated their efforts to turn a place of death – a house built on a rubber baron’s estate – into a model primary and secondary school for Native students.
It also came a century after a British government official issued a scathing report about the treatment of indigenous people by the London-based Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company, which was established in 1907 by Peruvian rubber baron Julio César Arana.
The ceremony took place at La Chorrera, a community on the Igaraparaná River in the heart of a huge swath of land controlled by Arana in southern Colombia and northern Peru, and brought together Huitoto and Bora people from both sides of the border, whose families had been torn apart by Arana and his associates.
“It was very moving. Families have reunited after 100 years,” says Manuel Cornejo, a researcher for the non-profit Amazonian Center for Anthropology and Practical Application in Lima, Peru, and co-editor of the book, Imaginario e imágenes de la época del caucho: Los sucesos del Putumayo, on the rubber era in that area who attended the week-long event.
Capitalizing on the voracious demand for rubber in industrialized countries, Arana launched his business in 1889 in Iquitos, Peru, and later opened agencies in London and New York. Over the next few decades, he established a virtual empire deep in the Amazon, enslaving thousands of indigenous people to tap wild rubber trees and process the latex into huge balls of rubber for shipment abroad.
He took foremen to the Amazon from the British sugar-growing colony of Barbados. Photos from the era – recently displayed in a commemorative exhibit in Lima – show men of African descent dressed in pants, long-sleeved dark jackets and hats, surrounded by Amazonian people.
Arana’s henchmen rounded up Native people for slave labor, forcibly moving thousands across the Putumayo River from Colombia to Peru, especially during a border war in the 1920s.
The forced displacement “had a strong impact and has had an effect on the structure of clans” down to the present day, Peruvian anthropologist Alberto Chirif says. “The deaths broke up the structure of the clans,” which lost the people who had the role of keeping and passing on the group’s history.
Reports from the early 1900 – by visitors who were appalled by the treatment of the Natives and by British diplomat Robert Casement, who issued his report in 1912 – tell of Indians being hacked to death, burned alive, drowned or tortured for not meeting their rubber quota or for trying to escape.
The death toll has been placed as high as 30,000, although that figure may be excessive, according to Chirif, who is trying to recalculate it.
“But there was extermination,” says Chirif, who has studied the rubber boom era in the Putumayo region extensively and co-edited the book with Cornejo.
Although the publication of Casement’s report in 1912 triggered international outrage, Peruvians were divided in their opinions of Arana and other rubber barons, with some seeing them as pioneers who were developing and taming a wild frontier, while others were scandalized at the accounts of violence.
Cornejo says those debates shaped a popular image of Amazonian people as “savages” or “opposed to progress” – concepts that have been echoed in recent years by some politicians and business leaders as indigenous communities fight for control of their territories and natural resources.
In their statement marking the centennial of the tragedy, the victims’ descendants expressed concern about modern industries that have expanded into traditional indigenous territories in the Amazon, especially mining and oil drilling.
“Social and cultural responsibility must be taken into account from the beginning, during and after any activity in any territory,” the Indigenous Zonal Association of Chiefs and Traditional Indigenous Authorities of La Chorrera said in its statement.
It also noted that laws protecting many indigenous rights are still not enforced. “We have no doctors in the entire region,” the statement said. “Health service is chaotic, which causes many unnecessary deaths.”
The organization called for the Colombian government to pass territorial planning and land-use laws and provide assistance so indigenous people can implement their own development models, which they call “life plans.”
Gestures like the official apologies “raise public awareness, so that the rights of indigenous people can be demanded and enforced,” Chirif says. Cornejo adds that those gestures must be accompanied by “a different policy,” in which indigenous people are treated as full citizens.
“The point is for this history to be a lesson book,” Chirif says, “so it does not happen again.”