Cursed by nature? Colombia flood casts doubt on future of indigenous group

Man returns to ruined home after mudslides in Mocoa, Colombia

Jairo Fernando Pantoja, 27, returned to his home on Friday, April 8, 2017 to find the neighborhood in ruin. Five family member lived in the home and one of them is still missing.
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Jairo Fernando Pantoja, 27, returned to his home on Friday, April 8, 2017 to find the neighborhood in ruin. Five family member lived in the home and one of them is still missing.

In 2008, after years of running from Colombia’s grinding violence, a group of indigenous people, the Inga, bought a 22-acre plot of land on the banks of the Sangoyaco river with the dream of building a community that would allow them to live as they had for generations.

The village was meant to be a rebirth, and they gave it the hopeful name Musu Runa Kuna, or “The New Man.” It was dotted with huts, communal farming plots called chagras and fruit trees.

This week, Inga leaders visited the hamlet for the first time since torrential rains on March 31 turned their once peaceful river into a roaring nightmare that caused one of the worst natural disasters in Colombia’s recent history.

As Marino Peña, the former governor of Musu Runa Kuna, looked at the desolate scene, full of twisted sheet metal and scattered clothes, he said the flood had done more than destroy the village. It had covered the entire plot with a thick layer of mushy sand and massive boulders that made it unfit for agriculture — or life.

“We’ve been punished in the past by violence,” he said, “and now we’re being punished by nature.”

In the week since the flood, this part of rural Colombia is slowly starting to come back to life. The Inga village sits about half an hour away from Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo department in the Southwest that took the brunt of the damage. With a population of 43,000, Mocoa sits at the foot of the Andes mountains at the confluence of three rivers. It’s considered the gateway to the Amazon forest.

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But last week’s flood showed just how vulnerable the city was, as all three rivers jumped their banks, chewing up entire neighborhoods. The floodwaters turned boulders, cars and homes into gnashing teeth on the front line of what locals say was more avalanche than flood.

The search for survivors finished on Friday, and where rescue workers once methodically picked through the wreckage, backhoes were now clearing the way. The city is still without power or regular water service, and the roar of generators fills the air.

Officially, the disaster left 316 dead, 103 missing and 1,518 homeless. But locals say the real figures may never be known. Some areas of Mocoa were so devastated that they’re being written off as a mass grave site.

Burial factory

Room has run out at one of the local cemeteries. The other one, called Normandia, has become a burial factory. Bodies found downriver are brought here to be identified and, once claimed, they’re rushed over to a mountain of empty caskets. A hired hand will dig a four-foot-deep grave for $40. A Franciscan priest hovers around offering funeral masses in bulk.

“Most people don’t want me to say too much,” Friar Lorenzo María admitted. “They’re just in a hurry to get their dead in the ground.”

Some of the burials happen so fast that bits of plastic still cling to the fresh-from-the-factory caskets. Grave markers are improvised with bits of cardboard, or broken broomsticks lashed together in a cross.

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As word of the tragedy in this town has traveled, aid has poured in. United Arab Emirates has pledged $7 million, Italy has offered 300,000 euros. The U.S. has pledged $250,000 to UNICEF and other programs to assist Mocoa plus additional material aid, and U.S. President Donald Trump personally offered his condolences to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

And while locals say they’re determined to rebuild and get on with their lives, for the Inga, the outlook seems much less certain.

Rubiela Quinchoa, 46, is the current governor of what was once the village. For the last week, she has been trying to track down survivors and, like a protective mother, trying to gather everyone under one roof at a temporary shelter.

Wandering ends

Her story is typical of the Inga settlers. She had been living in rural Putumayo when her husband was killed by guerrillas, forcing her to flee with her three small children to the relative safety of Mocoa. (More than 5 percent of Mocoa’s population is made up of people who have fled violence.)

She spent years doing odd jobs, trying — not always successfully — to keep her children fed.

“There were times we went hungry, and there were times where we didn’t have a single peso to our name,” she said, visibly exhausted. “And I was a woman trying to survive alone.”

In 2008, with the help of a Swedish charity, the community bought the plot of land for about $21,000. It seemed idyllic. Outside of town, it looked down on the river and provided fertile hillsides to grow yucca and plant fruit trees for the 99 members of the Inga community.

Those who couldn’t move there — because of their work or because they had children in school — had farming plots to supplement their income.

Quinchoa said she saw the place as a legacy for her children.

“We don’t have any family,” she explained. “This was going to be their community and family.”

But as much of her hopes that were tied into the property, she now says that neither she nor anyone else in the community wants to go back to the cursed bit of land.

“People are too scared,” she explained. “They’re traumatized.”


Jorge Peña, 45, was there the night of the flooding. Using floodlights to monitor the river, he said the scene was apocalyptic. Massive boulders were bouncing along the surface of the water, tearing down homes. As he tried to move his three children to higher ground, he could hear people screaming in the darkness. He was able to save one elderly woman from the flood, but a 13-year-old girl was dragged downriver. The next, day they found her body tangled in the brush just a few hundred yards from their village.

“It felt like the end of the world,” he said, fighting back tears. “I thank God we were given another chance and that I could save my children.”

The Inga say they’re hoping that some of the foreign aid pouring in will help them find a new plot of land where they can start over. But with so many people and so many needs, that’s an uncertain proposition.

The biggest worry is that this disaster will leave their community scattered again, each fighting to survive on their own in the city. Others, however, believe that if they can rebuild once, they can rebuild again

“It’s like we’ve had all our branches cut off,” said Marino Peña, the former governor. “But we still have our roots. We just don’t know where the land is where we might plant them.”