The story of four children discovered deep in the Amazon jungle, grieving, hungry and insect-bitten but otherwise uninjured despite being lost for 40 days after a plane crash, feels closer to myth or fairytale than real life. That a dog apparently accompanied them for some of this time, before itself going missing, is yet another fantastical element in a drama that has gripped Colombia and much of the world.
Feats of endurance involving children always command attention. What makes this one so astonishing is that sisters aged 13 and nine not only kept themselves going on a mixture of cassava flour salvaged from the wreck, and foraged fruits and seeds, but also helped their four-year-old brother and baby sister – who had her first birthday in the forest – to stay alive. The children, said Colombia’s leftwing president, Gustavo Petro, are “an example of total survival”.
The power of such stories has always lain in what they are seen to reveal about human nature. European versions, whether real or invented, are part of the history of exploration and colonisation. Famous books such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies imagine what might happen when men and boys are cast adrift in the wild, the veneer of western civilisation stripped away.
The true story of the Colombian jungle children is not like this. These four siblings, from the Huitoto Indigenous group, were in the landscape to which they belonged. Their survival has been attributed to skills learned by the eldest girl, Lesly Mucutuy, from her grandmother – skills also deployed by the 93 Indigenous people who helped find them. In a world that has largely forgotten how to appreciate such forms of knowledge, their survival and the care shown by the older siblings for the younger are an occasion for wonder and humility.
Amid the relief that they are safe, it must not be forgotten that the children have lost their mother. They now face a conflict between their maternal grandparents and the father of the two youngest over who should care for them. Commercial interest will bring its own pressures – offers from film companies and so on. One can only hope that they and their community will be well supported.
There is a lot at stake. Across Latin America, Indigenous groups and ways of life are under siege from multinational logging, mining and cattle businesses, and drug gangs. There could hardly be a starker contrast between the miraculous conclusion to this search and the one conducted last year for the Guardian journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, which ended in the tragic discovery of two murders. Conflict over deforestation is one of the deepest divisions in the region’s politics. When he was elected a year ago, Mr Petro pledged to turn Colombia into a “global powerhouse for life” and environmental protection. But his administration is beset by rising violence and a political scandal.
The success of the continuing struggle to save the forest, and its Indigenous inhabitants, is far from assured. The survival of these four children is a reminder of why it must continue.
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