FARC rebels opposed to peace descend on Amazon gold

Rodrigo Almonacid

Santa Sofía (Colombia) (AFP) - As Colombia's FARC rebels prepare to sign a historic peace deal with the government, dissident guerrillas are reportedly clinging to their guns deep in the Amazon rainforest, targeting its gold.

In the past few months, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government have wrapped up a deal to end 52 years of conflict, a faction of fighters from the rebels' First Front has come out in opposition to the peace process.

According to a local official, at least 40 of them have taken up positions inside the Yaigoje Apaporis National Park in southeastern Colombia, a remote expanse of lush rainforest on the Brazilian border.

The park's more than one million hectares (2.5 million acres) are home to isolated indigenous groups and also hold sizeable reserves of gold.

Five renegade guerrillas have already approached indigenous leaders there and warned they must "submit to their conditions," according to the local official, Paulo Estrada, a rights ombudsman for the state of Amazonas.

"Their 'conditions' are basically that the indigenous peoples refuse to work with international aid groups, reject the presence of the state and submit their leaders and resources to (the fighters') orders," he said.

He raised concern about the wellbeing of the local indigenous populations, which have had little contact with the outside world and may not be immune to its diseases.

"The indigenous peoples who live here are very vulnerable to any outside presence," he said.

- Gold, not politics -

A faction of First Front rebels declared their rejection of the nearly four-year-old peace process in early July, vowing to continue the armed struggle the Marxist guerrilla group launched in 1964.

The FARC, which is due to ratify the final peace accord at a national conference this week, responded that it would brook no dissent.

If Colombians vote in favor of the accord in a decisive referendum on October 2, FARC members are supposed to leave their mountain and jungle hideouts and turn in their arms at 28 demobilization sites.

But estimates by the government and private analysts predict around 10 percent of the FARC's 7,500 fighters may refuse.

It is one of several complications facing both sides as they seek to wind down a war that has drawn in multiple left- and right-wing armed groups and criminal gangs across the decades, leaving 260,000 people dead and 45,000 missing.

The government is still fighting a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) -- which has an estimated 2,500 fighters -- as well as drug gangs.

Colombia is the world's largest cocaine producer, and narcotics have been a key funding source for various armed groups involved in the conflict, including the FARC.

Illegal mining has also been a lucrative funding source.

Analysts say that, rather than politics, is likely behind the renegade First Front movement.

- 'Abandoned by the state' -

The Yaigoje Apaporis park is known for its large gold deposits, and "some speculate" it also has oil and uranium, said Alvaro Pardo, director of a mining studies center called Colombia Punto Medio.

"It's an area with a lot of gold," and "it appears there's a large hydrocarbon field that extends to Ecuador and Venezuela," he said.

Those aren't the region's only riches: it is also home to 362 species of birds, 152 species of reptiles and amphibians and around 400 species of butterflies, according to the national parks service.

The presence of renegade rebels planning to plunder the park's gold and other resources is causing concern for the environment.

But the guerrillas appear determined.

"They told us they're going to keep fighting to the day they die," a local community leader told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

There is little local officials can do.

Community authorities' demands to leave the zone have come to nothing, despite two meetings with the rebels.

Park director Diego Munoz said four rebels showed up at one of his offices on June 22 demanding a boat and fuel. When staff refused, they took them anyway.

He worries his rangers may have to quit the area.

The rebels "say this is a zone that's been abandoned by the state. That they have won," he said.