Barnes & Noble
September 16, 1928
It was dark. Sixty-three people were trapped in a coffin-like air pocket in the cramped attic, one on top of the other. A flashlight would come on then quickly be turned off to conserve the batteries. Except for two small vents at each end of the attic, there was no other opening but the trap door down to the raging waters. The house trembled as the water tried to lift it off its foundation. They had to make ready to escape. There was only one way out - through the roof.
September 16, 1928
The night 2,500 people died.
South Bay Barge With her stomach inflated by her unborn baby, Maribell had to carry herself higher than the others, exposing her body to the furious wind. She fought each gust as they crawled forward along the lock wall until she could go no further. Fighting each gust, Lee turned to her and yelled over his shoulder, "Get on my back."
Carefully, lifting one hand at a time, she wrapped her arms around his neck. Sheets of cold hard rain slapped their faces. Lee desperately grabbed onto the lock wall, digging his fingers into the slippery wet planks. Slowly he pulled the two of them along. Finally, they reached the edge of the lock where they were able to leap, one by one, into the pitching quarter-boat barge, which had drifted back close to the wall. Soaked and cold they ducked inside the cabin where the other 200 residents of South Bay were huddled. Maribell broke down and cried. While crawling along the lock wall Maribell heard in the dark, the screams of town’s people being swept away in the current -- cries that would haunt her for her entire life.
"I had the unique privilege of interviewing over forty 1928 hurricane survivors, all in their 80s and 90s," Mykle relates. "Killer 'Cane is their story."
Robert Mykle's Killer 'Cane: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928 was instrumental in reclassifying the 1928 hurricane as the second-deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
According to the National Weather Service, Robert Mykle's Killer 'Cane: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928 was instrumental in reclassifying the 1928 hurricane as the second-deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. In a book review to the American Meteorological Society, Rusty Pfost, the meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in Miami wrote:
"(Mykle's) justification for the higher number makes sense. In fact, instead of the official count, the National Weather Service should adopt an estimated death toll of 2,500 for the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane, marked with an asterisk that the true count will never be known. The change would be more accurate, and would solidify the Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 as causing the second worst death toll from a hurricane disaster in the United States (after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900)."
The Florida Historical Library Foundation
Killer 'Cane and its survivors are captured in film by the Weather Channel's series Storm Stories. www.weather.com/newscenter/stormstories/
THE WINE BATTLE
La Batalla del Vino
The moment the car came to a halt, I knew we were in trouble. From the back of the van alongside us, a group of young men unloaded an impressive array of long-barreled weapons. Dressed in white with red bandannas at their throats, they were obviously battle-hardened veterans. With quick precise movements, the platoon-sized group cocked and loaded their arms. But these weapons were not Kalasnikovs-47s or Colts M-16s. They were Mattel high-powered water guns loaded with red wine. Spotting my clean white shirt and pants, they aimed their guns at me. Instinctively my hands flew into the air. They laughed, then took pity and, without firing a shot, set off in search of bigger, better game. I followed as they joined a long line of like-dressed participants snaking up the steep slopes of a small craggy mountain capped by a diminutive chapel or ermita dedicated to the local patron saint, San Felices.
Everyone carried a container – buckets, large plastic bottles, backpacked fumigation pumps and even tanker trucks – loaded with wine. Halfway up the mountain, in the shadow of the saint’s statue, a large throng of people made ready to dance, sing, and shoot thousands of gallons of red wine at each other. This was the La Batalla del Vino, the Wine Battle of La Rioja.
JUNE 29 – THE WINE BATTLE
The day begins early. Groups of people and families can be seen as early as 6 a.m. marching out of Haro for the 7-kilometer walk to the rugged hilltop where a small chapel and statue of San Felices watch over the rolling plains of La Rioja Alta. By 8:00, a long line of white-dressed celebrants is winding its way up the hill.
Battle weapons on the ready.
Naively, I assumed I could observe this unique celebration as a noncombatant. As I quickly discovered, no one is neutral in the Wine Battle. As I followed the thousands of people streaming up the rocky outcrop, I noticed that strategic spots along the climb had been staked out by bushwhackers and snipers. Along the steeper sections, wine already poured from up above.
At 9 a.m., Mass was celebrated in the small chapel or emrita de San Felices. It was crowded, the humidity was high, and everyone was sweating wine. Immediately after Mass ended, the battle began. Bands of musicians blared jotas and rancherias as a dancing throng of nine thousand people fired torrents of red wine at each other. Women, especially the young and attractive, were treasured targets, though no one escaped a thorough drenching. Anything white, new, or clean was offensive and attracted a soaking.
It literally rained wine, as if Dionysus had gone mad. Even the hallowed walkway to the sanctuary was no safe refuge. Wine showered down seemingly from the heavens themselves. The arid ground turned to mud and streams of wine flowed down the hillside. A few battle-weary participants tried to find refuge in the rocky escarpments above the fray. Taking pictures was a high-risk endeavor. Unless a camera was wrapped tightly in plastic. It was in peril of a thorough wine soaking – a use definitely not recommended by the manufacturer. In less than an hour, 60,000 liters of red wine shot into the air.
“The Spaniards sure know how to party,” a smiling German tourist drenched in wine said–clearly, a keen observer of the obvious.
Another victim in the Wine Wars.
While a relatively modern 15th century phenomenon, the Wine Battle finds its tradition in the ageles prehistoric ritual of sacrificing the fruits of one’s labors. Still, to a wine lover like myself, all that fine Rioja wine soaking into the ground seemed a deplorable waste.
And after wine? Food, naturally. Scores of bonfires flamed in the parking lots and picnic areas. Families and Peña clubs grouped around the fires, braising meat and warming precooked pots of snails, sausages, veal and lamb.
With appetites sated, the tired, shell-shocked, purple army afflicted with more than a few hangovers, slowly retreated towards Haro. Though fatigued and battered, they were not yet finished. The wine warriors gathered in the main square, where they formed a long procession that paraded throughout the town, singing and dancing. Eventually they made their way to the bullring for a vacilla, where the tired celebrants played matador on the arena sands. The two- year- old wild calves or vacillas ran frenetically around the arena. clearing large swaths of celebrants in their paths. More than a few people got tossed by the animals, but all in good fun.
On Monday everything returned to normal, so I made the requisite visit to the local wineries or bodegas that had been closed for the festival. Most of the wineries have tours, and each has a slightly different philosophy regarding winemaking.
At Bodegas Muga, Isaac Muga accompanied me on an extensive tour. On the site they not only extract, ferment and store their wine, but they also make their own oak barrels–all to ensure the highest quality. After a tasting of the Muga line of wines, I had to heartily agree that they had succeeded.
I gained an interesting insight into a national idiosyncrasy.
“A Spaniard will not buy a bottle of reserve wine,” he said. “He’ll buy an expensive crianza but never a reserve. So for the domestic market, we bottle some reserve as crianza.”
However the Spanish mind works, the idea of drowning a hillside with wine must rank high on the curious list. La Batalla del Vino may be one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. For those who love wine and aficionados who want to experience firsthand a unique, unspoiled local celebration with few tourists--the Wine Battle is a must.
From the porch of the last house in the Colombian cow-town of San Juan de Arama, I had an unobstructed view of a scene out of Conan Doyle's Lost World, the flat-topped mesa mountains of the fabled Sierra de la Macarena. Jutting off the back of the high Andes mountains, the Sierra de la Macarena is an obscure geological anomaly blanketed by a living evolutionary laboratory. It has been called a biological hothouse and that hothouse is on fire. Through indiscriminate burning by peasant farmers, the Sierra de la Macarena is in danger of being burnt away. This unequaled world with its huge warehouse of biodiversity waiting to be unlocked is about to be lost forever
What makes the Sierra de la Macarena so unique is its location, the convergence point of six major ecological and geological systems, each exerting its own singular pressure on the local flora and fauna. The end result is a high rate of mutation.
During the Cretaceous the Sierra formed as a part of a series of massive uplifting of Upper Proterozoic rocks into a highland mountain range. The highlands rested on the western edge of the South American Precambrian shield and stretched from Colombia through Brazil to Venezuela and the Guayanas. It was the time of the dinosaurs and the 'Amazon' river flowed west to the Pacific. Largely made up of soft sandstones the highlands fell victim to rapid erosion that sculptured a series the mesa mountains. Plate tectonics doomed the western half of the highlands. The Pacific Oceanic Plate slammed into the South America Continental Plate uplifting the Andes mountains, sending the Amazon and the Orinoco rivers flowing to the east, eroding the last vestiges of the great range. Only the highlands in Venezuela, Surinam and the Guyanas in the east and the Sierra de la Macarena a thousand kilometers to the west remain. Between the two are the vast grass plains of Venezuela and Colombia known as the 'Llanos'. This is home to the vaqueros, Spanish cowboys, and Guajibo Indians. It is the stuff Western movies are made.
Caño Canoas - Sierra de la Macarena, Colombia
The importance of the Sierra was recognized early in the last century and in 1948 the Colombia government designated the area a national park. Demarcated by the Guejar and Guayabero rivers, the park included the Sierra mountain range and enough bottom land to support the migration of the highland animals to the lowlands during the dry season. The national forestry service INDERENA was designated its protector and a few cabins were built around the edge of the park for the rangers.
At the northern base of the Sierra where the grass lands give way to the jungle is the cattle town of San Juan de Arama. A well paved road connects it to Villavicencio, the largest city on the eastern flank of the Andes. In 1971 when I first visited the area it was connected by a tortuous dirt road ride of seven hours. The ultimate end of the road town peopled with bored women and men who drink too much, it is the parody of the hundreds of little villages that dot the Llanos. Yet San Juan de Arama was founded in 1539 by Germans making it one of the oldest European settlements in South America.
The Germans had come from Venezuela. The Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Charles V, granted a pearling concession at El Coro on the Venezuelan Caribbean coast as collateral for a loan given by the Welser banking house of Ulm, Germany. Anxious to maximize profits the Germans set off on a number of exploratory expeditions with the hope of finding the fabled El Dorado, city of gold. Crossing the Venezuelan Andes to the Llanos grass plains, their leader, Nicolas Federman marched his European and Indian army along the hem of the Andes. Two years and twelve hundred kilometers latter he reached the Sierra de la Macarena which blocked further progress to the south.
His Indian guides informed him El Dorado laid somewhere to the west in the Andes. He built a settlement at San Juan to protect his supply lines back to Venezuela and set off up the Andes to Bacata, present day Bogota, capital of Colombia. Bacata was the capital of the Zipa, chief of the Chibcha Indians. He was El Dorado - The Golden One, who ceremoniously would wash his gold dust covered body in the sacred Lake Guatavita. There Federman discovered the Spanish from Cartagena on the north coast of Colombia had beaten him by six months to El Dorado. He was forced to return to Venezuela and San Juan eventually disappeared. A second San Juan was formed and it prospered until the civil war of the 1950s when taken over by insurgents it was bombed by government airplanes. The present San Juan was rebuilt soon after.
The horizon of San Juan is dominated by the Andes to the west and the Sierra de la Macarena to the south. These two very different mountain ranges, in age, geology, form and direction, exert different influences where they meet. Animals and plants from each of the different ecological systems intermingle creating a more competitive environment and a higher rate of natural selection. The Sierra is at the spot where the Llanos grass-lands change over into the largesttropical jungle in the world. Again each has its own distinctive flora and fauna competing with each other. The Sierra is on the cusp of the dry plains to the north and the rain forest to
La Sierra de la Macarena National Park
the convergence point of six major ecological and
south. Finally, the Macarena is on the edge of the Orinoco drainage basin where it meets the headwaters of the Amazonian river basin drawing together the immense biological pools of two of the greatest water sheds in the world. All of the distinct eco-systems; the jungle, the grass lands, the river basins, the Andes, the dry plains and rain forests each brings it own biological and physical influences to play at one precise convergence point making the Sierra de la Macarena one of the world'smost uniquely biological diverse areas.
A Jungle Walk
For all its urbanity San Juan is a good jump off point for an initial exploration into the Sierra. In places the jungle still creeps up to the town limits. Just after dawn on the outskirts of San Juan Howler monkey's echoing roar can be heard in the distance. Squawking jungle parrots and multicolored Macaws can be observed flying overhead. Within a day's walk is the bend of the Guejar river where it cuts out of the tablazo at the edge of the Sierra into the lowland plains. Mount Renjifo, the highest peak in the Sierra is visible from San Juan and was our immediate destination. December and January, the beginning of the dry season, is the best time to enter the Sierra de la Macarena. The rains have stopped and the trails are dry enough to hike with ease yet the vegetation is still green and healthy and the rivers run clear. Accompanying me were my godson, Eduardo Betancourt, and Freddy Ortiz both born in San Juan. We had backpacks and enough food to carry us over for two weeks. Hammocks, freeze-dried food, mosquito nets, first aid kit and cooking equipment were all tightly packed. A jeep was contracted to take us to the banks of the Guejar river. During the dry season jeeps can cross the river. However, rainy season run off was still pouring out of the mountains making jeep crossings impossible.
Galilean Caracara - one of the reported 412 species belonging to 63 families of avifauna found in the Sierra de la Macarena.
At the river bank I slung on my old Kelty expedition back-pack that had taken me during the last 25 years from the 18,000 foot Sierra de Cocuy to the depths of the Putumayo jungle. It felt heavy. Soft living and a bad back are not kind to a back packer. I was determined to pace myself and contract mules to carry the pack when available. I had learned something in the last 30 years.
Keeping an eye out for electric eels we waded up to our waists across the Guejar river. Officially we were now in the national park. I had crossed the same spot in 1971. Then I had been greeted by a massive green wall of jungle and a flock of parrots protesting our trespass. Large tracks of pasture and plowed fields had replaced the forest. White and red Cebu cattle grazed along the banks of the Guejar. The muddy path was now a gravel road.
"What a shame," I said.
"Progress," my companions answered with shrugs.
With no horses available we walked the three hours to the settlement of Mesopotamia. I could hardly believe it. Thirty years back this was virgin jungle. It had taken me nine hours of hard hiking to reach this point. The town was a haphazard affair with an air of impermanence but that would change. The wooden buildings rotting rapidly in the tropical heat would be replaced by stucco and cement edifices.
We stopped at the edge of town where I had slung my hammock around a pair of trees by a stream that now served as an open swear. It was littered with plastic bags and cans. As I looked at its fetid waters I could not believe this was the same pristine stream where I had bathed and drank. I knew there would be changes but never imagined this much damage could have been done in so short time. Purchasing last minute batteries and food we headed out of town not waiting on a pair of promised mules. The lowland fields seemed to stretch up to the base of the Sierra. The lowlands are needed to support the wildlife in the Sierra. During the dry season the animals migrate out of the Sierra as the streams dry up and their food supply vanish. Without protective cover they would be easy prey to armed farmers, cattlemen and hunters.
As we walked toward the Sierra two mule trains of ten mules each dragged large cut logs of exotic hard woods lumbered past us. After growing coca and marijuana, logging is the most active business in the jungle.
Patches of jungle inter-spaced between farms begin to shade our path. The jungle patches became more frequent until late afternoon we arrived at the last farm house. In the middle of a roughly cleared plot, a raised palm leaf and split bamboo hut gave welcomed relief from the hot afternoon sun. The air smelt of smoke.
The Burning Season
The owner, Don Issac, and a neighbor who was helping him were typical colonos, literally colonists. They are the pioneers of the rain forest. They are landless, very poor single men who with little more than a hatchet, a hammock and a shotgun set off into the jungle to find a spot to clear. It is dangerous work. With medical help days away disease and injury are constant fears. Loneliness is their only companion.
First they cut down a few large trees some soaring forty meters high. Then they burn away the brush and branches. The first year they plant a crop among the charred trunks of fallen trees. Four months later they bring in a poor harvest of corn or sorghum which they carry to the nearest town usually days away. After a few years the trees rot into the soil and the fields are cleared making farming easier. However, the soil nutrients of the initial burnings have been depleted and the harvest is not as bountiful. The poor soil can support grass and many of the fields are converted into pasture.
The colonos never really escape poverty. Yet they do have one asset. Their land. If they are lucky they will find a wife to share their hardships. Though most after a few years sell their farms and then set off deeper into the jungle to repeat the process. They are a special breed of pioneers. These are the same people that settled the eastern seaboard of the Untied States then the American west. They possess the same determination wrought out of poverty and the improbable hope of a better life.
We accepted Don Issac's invitation to camp for the night.. He welcomed the company and we wanted more information on what lied ahead. He served us the Colombian national drink, tinto, black coffee sweetened with an unrefined auburn sugar called panella. As he handed us the demitasse cups of coffee he said apologetically, "You'll have to excuse me. As you see I have no woman."
Towards evening we accompanied the two men to a cleared area half a kilometer away. There they had gartered up a huge pile of brush against one side of the clearing. The rest of the field had been freshly burnt. We climbed over ash covered trunks, some still smoldering from the morning fires. They set the last pile on fire. We watched lavish flames leap-frogged up the forest face reaching thirty and forty meters into the heavens. It was a spectacular sight. In hypnotic fascination we gazed in silent almost paralyzed awe. The intense heat of the fire singed my face and cold goose bumps
shot up my spine. The power of the flame. Prometheus unbounded upon the jungle. In the fire's light a hellish glow danced on the satisfied ash covered faces of the farmers. They were winning. They were winning the battle for survival. And in their lives there are not many victories.
After a river bath we shared the meat we purchased in town slung our hammocks on the huts polls and slept. At dawn we set off for Mount Renjifo. Before leaving we thanked our hosts and inquired as to what laid ahead.
Cano Cristales, Meta Colombia.
The river of the seven colores.
"There are no more farms. But stay to the right side of the stream," Don Issac said. "and don't go down stream to the east. They're growing coca and might not like strangers walking around. Very dangerous." He smiled.
We went west.
Leaving the charred spaces the forest gently closed in around us. The hot suffocating air of the cleared fields gave way to a cool air-conditioned air stilled by exuberant growth. The verdant canopy closed in over head and the sun retreated behind a blanket of deep greens and blacks. Sounds were muffled by the forest and the rug like damp floor was soft under foot. The tree trunks rose in straight majestic columns giving us the feeling we were in a medieval cathedral. It was a holy place. It was a place to worship. The floor was immersed in a twilight netherworld nearly void of vegetation. Some colorful exotic funguses glowed on the floor and an occasional spectacular orchid blown loose from high above would find rest on the ground. We marched in silence absorbing the wonder around us.
Oscelot - Tigrillo
The path rose shapely and then disappeared. The jungle floor gave way to hard rocky soil and the undergrowth changed into scrub sabana forest. An occasional outcrop afforded a clear view of the plains below. We groped our way up the steep embankment until finally near noon the top of Mount Renjife surprised us. On a rocky ledge just below the peak we rested with unobstructed views of the Llanos to the east and the Amazon jungle behind us. From our vantage point in all directions as far as the eye could see scores of pillars of smoke rose to the sky in a Dantesque dance. It looked like a army of Huns had descended upon the plains pillaging and plundering, determined to leave nothing alive. The smoke was forming a cloud blanket of its own that tinted the sky brown. A city like haze settled on the horizon. From this distance the destruction takes on monumental proportions.
It was the burning time; the beginning of the dry season. It was the clearing of the forest. The destruction of Bob Dylan's 'haunted frightening trees', the epitome of man's congenital fear of the forest. The landless attacking the jungle with a vengeance in a timeless action now reaching its infernal crescendo. Like Lot I turn my gaze away for fear of turning to salt. We had seen enough and made a hasty retreat into the soothing shelter of the jungle.
Descending the mountain we camped at the first stream, ate and were in our hammocks by eight. The scenes of the burnings were very disconcerting and I wondered what could be done. Frustrated by impotence I knew there was scant little I could do and like so many I shrugged. Here was a great natural resource being destroyed and few people outside of Colombia even knew of its importance.
Still, as I laid in my hammock back under the protection of the forest an immense feeling of well being swept through me. The camp fire burnt out and the nocturnal cries took over. The hunters and the hunted searching for food and mates in the dark. The night sounds were always hauntingly reassuring to me. Like primordial sirens humming a lullaby they sang me to sleep.
The Natural World
Naturally, the jungle is full of animal life though most of it is difficult to see. Insects are well represented as the welts on my arm and legs attested. There are seven types of large cats in the Sierra: the mountain lion or cougar whose range covers all of the Americas, the black panther, two spotted tigers, one called the butterfly tiger as its spots resemble butterflies and two species of ocelots. There are the endangered speckled bears, tapirs probing the underbrush with their proboscis, along with herds of Peccaries and wild boar. The former travel in herds of up to 200 strong and are considered the most dangerous mammals in the jungle for their large number and the ferocity with which they defend their herd if attacked.
Hoatzin - One of the most primitive birds alive.
Groups of monkeys dominate the trees. A pair of squirrel monkeys so unfamiliar with humans they approach us curiously. Capuchin and spider monkeys criss cross the upper reaches of the canopy searching for nuts and fruits while keeping a watchful eye out for Harpies, the world's largest eagle. Large turkey like black Parjuels cry out and take off through the woods with crashing sounds. Many small birds dart in and out of eye sight, too many types for even an avid bird watcher as myself to identify. Colombia has the greatest number of bird species in the world and after Indonesia the second most number of plants.
The Macarena's biodiversity attracted the attention of the most famous Amazonian biologist Dr. Richard E. Schultes who in 1954 collected specimens on the tablazo and climbed Mount Renjifo. One specimen he collected was 'one of the most significant phytographical discoveries of the last two decades.' It was the missing link that proved "there has been a major migration of Andean plants eastward towards the Guiana Highlands."
The forest is divided into three distinct levels; the high forest canopy, the middle forest dominated by monkeys and the floor where the larger mammals roam. Most of the activity takes place above prying eyes at the canopy tops. Sometimes along open areas, around rivers and some fields we were able to catch glimpses of some of the flora and fauna that inhabit the canopy Most however are never seen except as blow downs. Vegetation while sparse in the deep jungle is nearly impassable along streams and places where fallen trees have given the sun light a chance to reach the floor. The muffled forest is broken by an occasional crashing sound of branches falling; part of the forest's constant renewal process.
Since seven years old I have a pet obsession. I entertain myself with an on going search for salamanders. Literally no log goes unturned. I have a strange fascination for these amphibians however, to date I have found none in South America.
The next morning we headed south where a day's walk brought us once again to newly burnt fields. Finally we reached the navigable part of the Guejar river above the town of Vista Hermosa where we camped. Our next objective was to visit the coy color spectacle of a unique moss covered stream known as Caño Cristales.
Howler Moneky at rest.
At dawn we contracted one of the ten meter dugout canoes called a piragua for the 77 kilometer ride down stream. Powered by a seventy horse power outboard motor these boats have not changed much since man first populated the Amazon jungle. Parts of the river snaked
through thick jungle areas where monkeys came down to the river to drink. We spotted one lone caiman sunning itself on a river bank, the spot where the Federman expedition said river travel was exceptionally dangerous due to the large number of alligators along the banks and in the rivers waiting to dine on the passengers of capsized boats.
The boat dropped us off at the headwaters of a fast moving stream ten minutes from the colono town of La Macarena. The vegetation had completely changed. The high jungle is here replaced by the Llanos grasses and stunted scrub sabana trees. A brisk two hour walk across the grass sabana brought us to Caño Cristales. Known as the stream of seven colors, Caño Cristales is a natural wonder in its own right. The bed and rocks of this river are covered with mosses and algae which for much of the year appear as dull green and brown water plants. The water level regulates the among of sunlight reaching the plants. At certain times of the year depending on the water level the mosses 'bloom'. During the rainy season the mosses are too deep for all the colors to bloom and during the dry too shallow. There is a window between the dry and rainy seasons where the water level is just right and the mosses display their rainbow of colors. The spectacular blooms create an array of colors. Though remote, the spectacle has attracted a few adventurous travel agencies who have begun a type of ecotourism that flies tourists to the town La Macarena.
Cano Cristales, Meta Colombia.
The river of the seven colores.
We contracted another canoe to take us up river where above the First Rapids is a cliff soaring a hundred meters high covered with Indian paintings and drawings. It is the largest such mural of its kind in the Americas. Archeologists speculate the authors of this work were Guahibo Indians or a tribe preceding them as the present day Indians know little about the symbols or their significance. I had to ask myself why did they draw these figures as high as they did, some are nearly invisible from below and how did they get up there?
We returned to the town of La Macarena. The next day we caught a plane that flew us to Villavicencio and on to Santafe de Bogotá.
Behind the exotic and fascinating facade of the Sierra de La Macarena lies a double ominous presence. The Sierra and the lowlands are controlled by guerrillas and drug cultivators. The area is home to the FARC the oldest guerilla group in Latin America. This is basically the same group that had briefly controlled San Juan in the 1950s. Large swaths of forest are being burnt by coca and marijuana growers. These are the only two cash crops the poor soils of the cleared jungle can economically support. The guerrillas charge a 'tax' on the drugs grown and refined in their areas. Neither the armed groups nor the subsistence coca growers much care for the viability of a natural preserve. They are more interested in profit and survival. Geopolitical forces add to frustrate any real conservation attempts. A natural park a scant five hours drive from a major metropolitan area of seven million people is subjected to extreme human pressure. With a national government more interested in containing guerrillas movements conservation becomes a low priority. Squatters burning jungle inside a national park are much less of a political liability than landless peasants who are potential insurgents.
The partially completed Trans-Andean highway will run from Venezuela through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru to Bolivia along the edge of the eastern Andes. It will cross the gap between the Andes and the Sierra dividing the two ranges by a paved highway. The road is already paved to San Juan facilitating the influx of land hungry colonos.
Dumar Aljure and Guadelupe Salcedo Liberal guerilla leaders in the 1950s, La Violencia
At the same time governmental agencies often work at odds with each other. INDERENA the forest service tries to keep settlers out of the park while INCORA, a land reform agency, distributes titles to colonos in the park. INDERENA has inadvertently contributed to the destruction of the national park. In the 1960s a permanent camp was constructed in the middle of the lowland forest to study the Macarena. A trail was cut from the Guejar River through the jungle and a house was built. Groups of scientists now had a convenient place with which to study the area. However, the agency could not constantly patrol the park and the trail became a path for new colonist to settle deeper in the jungle and clear the forest. The national government has little real influence in the national park and less in the Sierra itself. Governmental fiat will not save the Macarena. The local people resent government intrusions into their lives especially when it keeps them from land. No legislation will stop these people until a viable economical alternative is available to them.
Saving the Forest
Can the Sierra de la Macarena de saved? I believe that a practical nongovernmental initiative can rescue the Sierra. The same method can usedin other areas in the Amazon and the world. From the air the patterns of colonization are easily spotted. The colonized jungle is a chess board of cleared areas and forest. These cleared patches can be purchased from the colonos then united into medium size areas which can be looked after by one local family who are needed to keep a 'claim' on the land and prevent recolonization. The family would work the farm on a small scale and leave the rest of the area to revert into jungle. This should take one generation. Ideally through education and a changed political climate the situation should improve enabling a more sustained protection program. The farmers would be able to retire from the area allowing it to completely revert back into jungle. This is a real alternative using economics. Legislation does not work.
Meanwhile the burning continues. At the alarming rate the Sierra de La Macarena is being destroyed time is short. The jungle does have miraculous recuperative powers. With a little nudging and nurturing it can be saved and the Sierra de la Macarena is worth saving.
The Emberas: Colombia's Tenacious Indians Under SiegeNovember/Noviembre 1998
by Robert Mykle
In the Choco-Uraba area of northwestern Colombia lies the vast Murindo rainforest, one of the largest virgin tracts of jungle left in South America. Harboring an enormous variety of species of flora this last tract of undefiled jungle in northern South America has been called rather euphemisticly, the lungs of the world. Here, unfolding in a microcosm of long running national conflicts, is a fierce human and natural drama that threatens the viability of an Indian tribe and an irreplaceable biosphere.
Jutting off the back of the Choco Department, like a question mark, the isthmus of Panama provides a convenient land bridge for the immigration of flora and fauna making the Murindo rain forest an important biological convergence point that has created an immense melting pot of genetic material. With the second heaviest rainfall in the world and a tropical clime, the Murindo rainforest incubates a vast species creating pool, making it one of the world's most diverse bio-systems.
Deep inside the protective reaches of the Murindo jungle dwell the native Embera Indians. Living for the most part along rivers at village sites like Guagua and Ilsas they etch out a living from subsistence farming, fishing and trading goods they make in the local towns of Murindo, Mutata and the turbulent port-town of Turbo. The women continue to wear their traditional colorful skirts that resemble those worn by the Seminole Indians in Florida, but the men bowing to marketplace realities, for the most part dress in •civilized' clothes when away from their villages. Many work in the sprawling conflict ridden banana plantations of Uraba. After finishing their time of labor they retreat back to their villages and isolated farms deep in the Murindo forest. Here in the relative protection of the jungle they continue their traditions and culture. Most important to the Emberas is the protection of their lands and the vast jungles covering them. The Embera Indians are the environmental gatekeepers of the Murindo rain forest.
While many native South American tribes have been decimated or out right exterminated through contact with Europeans, the tenacious Emberas have survived with much of their culture intact. Unfortunately, the Emberas are now engaged in a violent struggle that could see their tribe annihilated.
The Emberas Meet Francisco PizzaroIronically, the Emberas were one of the first South American tribes to come into contact with Europeans. In the early 1500s the Spanish founded the first settlement in South America at the Acandi area near the Panamanian border, where they hoped to mine the abundant alluvial gold found in its streams. The Spaniards came into contact with the Cuna and Embera Indians. The colony failed however one of its junior members, Francisco Pizarro, went on to Peru and conquered the Inca empire.
Today the Emberas continue the 500 year struggle - fighting to keep colonizers out of their lands. In order to placate landless peasants the Colombian government has encouraged people to settle in virgin lands and bring them into production. The colonist usually armed with only an axe a hammock and determination stakes out a tract of land, cuts away the forest, burns it, then plants a subsistence crop of bananas, manioca, corn or beans. These plots are called •mejoras' or improvements. Unable to sustain crops for any length of time the land is usually converted into pasture for cattle, sold and the colonist moves deeper into the jungle to repeat the process. After establishing their subsistence farms the colonist farmers lobby for new roads to bring their produce to market and to further penetrate the rain forest. Most of the Emberas live along the easier transit routs along the rivers and are opposed to any roads being built in the area. Roads have served only as access to their traditional territories by colonists who slash and burn the jungle away in order to plant subsistence crops of Yuca, corn, rice and of course coca.
Sometimes jungle clearing is done on a more massive scale. A few years ago a major logging company planned to clear cut the virgin forest bordering on the Embera's reservation. Through astute political and legal moves the logging was halted and the company left the area. It was a first for a Colombian Indian tribe.
"This was one fight the Indians won," said Marcos Galan a local sociologist at National University. "For once the white-man's law worked in favor of the natives. This has embolden other tribes like the Awas fighting Occidental Petroleum."
The Emberas try and patrol their vast lands, to prevent illegal colonization and logging but there are only a few Indians and colonists have encroached repeatedly on their traditional lands. Aside from encroachment from the •white' settlers, the Emberas have to battle te special rights claims, recognized by the new constitution, of the majority black community. The Choco Department has a black majority concentrated in the cities and along the rivers. These are legal recognized as black communities or "communidades negras"and have certain rights to land use. The blacks, like the •white' colonos, settle on the Indian's traditional lands and compete with the Indians for land use especially along the rivers that still serve as the only transportation routes.
Civil War in ParadiseColombia is entirely crossed north-south by three branches of the Andes. Two of the world's greatest rivers, the Orinoco and Amazon, drain its waters. It has coast lines on the Caribbean and Pacific and of course it abuts Panama creating a geologically recent land bridge to North America. Colombia is called the emerald country not only for the high quality and quantity of it gem emeralds it mines but because most of the country is still covered in verdant jungle. For biologists Colombia is a paradise. Unfortunately, the very geography that makes Colombia a biological paradise makes it perfect for guerilla war.
Today Colombia is racked by a three way civil war. The forty years guerilla war against an indifferent government has escalated in recent years as millions of dollars from drugs, extortion and kidnaping filling the guerilla coffers to purchase new arms. In recent years a new armed force has emerged - the paramilitary and Autodefense groups. Virulently anti-guerilla the paramilitary have engaged in a vicious campaign against the guerillas and their collaborators that has resulted in many human rights abuses on both sides. As in most civil wars the people who suffer the most are the innocent. As one group takes control of an area, reprisals against suspected enemies are carried out indiscriminately an many parts of Uraba have suffered through innumerable violations and tragedies. Whether by design or circumstance many Emberas have taken sides in the civil conflict. And a mini-civil war is raging between the various clans. The plight of the Emberas has become an almost forgotten side show in this forty year guerilla war.
The Choco-Uraba area of Colombia is one of the most strategic areas of Colombia. Leftist guerillas use Uraba and its proximity to Panama as a transit point for many of their arms as well as a quick trip with their extortion and drug money to deposit in Panamanian banks. Without money and arms the guerilla movements can not exist. The paramilitary and the Autodefense Groups understand this and have taken as one of its chief objectives the capture and control of Uraba. The major towns have been brought under paramilitary control forcing the guerillas deeper into the jungle. Deeper into the lands of the Emberas.
"We Indians are neutral in this conflict," I was informed by Guzman Dominico one of the Indian leaders of the Organization Indigena de Antioquia, OIA, the organization the represents the Indians in Antioquia including Uraba.
Neutral though they may want to be, many Indians have taken sides in the conflict weather through conviction or survival. Thus they have opened themselves to the repeated reprisals perpetuated by each side.
"Mario Casima and his son were killed by guerillas," I was told by the mayor of Mutata.
Mario was the headman for the Mutata Emberas. I had a number of opportunities to work with Mario and found him to be a quite and very knowledgeable person who defended his people's rights.
Later the paramilitary entered the villages of Islas and executed Emberas they accused of collaborating with the guerillas who control the area. The vicious cycle continues and unless peace is achieved it might spell the end of the Emberas.
"The bottom line in this conflict is poverty," said Raul Murillo a local school teacher. "There are many social injustices in Colombia. But nothing justifies these massacres by the guerillas and the paramilitary. Nothing."
Numbering a few thousand the Emberas have fought tenaciously to preserve their culture. Where enslavement, culture genocide, and official isolation and neglect have not destroyed the Embera people, the present violent conflict might succeed.
Tribal PreservationThe tribe is trying to acquire land through lobbying the government to make new reservations to trying to purchase lands now legally owned by colonists. They are far from being a wealthy tribe and are frustrated in their efforts to acquire land they believe is important to protect their reserves. . The irony is that the Emberas have the potential to become on of the wealthiest tribes in the Americas. Underneath their traditional lands is a mountain called La Rica that is perhaps the largest undeveloped copper deposit in South America. That in its self is another concern as a potentially great force that could change their culture. But most the Emberas realize that they can not waddle in rank poverty for ever and that progress does come at a price. Eventually the economic realities will over take them and perhaps consume them.
Will the Emberas survive? Most likely. A tribe of people as resolved as the Emberas will always survive. Will their culture survive? A more tentative possibility. And whether their beloved Murindo rainforest weather the storm will depend on many factors most of which are beyond a few thousand Indians fighting to preserve and persevere under most adverse conditions. There can be no question if the Emberas relinquish their vigilance the survival of the Murindo rain forest will be in doubt. If there is a tribe that can endure it is the Emberas. Change is inevitable but if left alone the Emberas and their charge, the Murindo rain forest, will survive if not prosper.