Colombia: Indigenous People In Middle Of Someone Else’s War


By Susan Abad

The torment 13,000 people are living in the southwestern department of Cauca and especially those in the municipality of Toribío, is not new. “We have spent 50 years enduring a war that is not ours and suffering the deaths of hundreds of our brothers,” Giovanny Yule, former member of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, or CRIC for its name in Spanish, and past advisor of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, told Latinamerica Press. Toribío alone has seen more than 400 guerrilla attacks and 14 acts of harassment since 1983.


The community’s patience ran out July 8, when members of the country’s main guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, launched a cylinder bomb into the Toribío hospital, in the north of the department, critically injuring a nurse. Twelve other people received minor injuries in the attack. Given this new attack by the guerrillas and the impotence of the military and police forces to contain them, the CRIC convened more than 1,000 members of the Indigenous Guard in the main town square on July 16 to determine actions of civil resistance.

As a first step, a group of people — mostly indigenous Nasa, who were winners of the National Peace Prize in 2000 — dismantled the trenches surrounding the Toribío police station, demanding that they withdraw to other locations away from the community’s homes.

On July 17, 500 indigenous guards climbed to the headquarters of the Army’s 8th Alta Montaña Battalion on the Alto Berlín mountaintop, forcibly removing the troops in order to re-occupy a space they consider sacred.

Hours later, the Army and police took back the military installations by force, killing one indigenous person. Two days later, another member of the community was killed in the conflict.

Luis Evelis Andrade, president of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, or ONIC, told Latinamerica Press that “more than 1,500 members of our communities were assassinated between 2002 and 2010 during this conflict.” In a statement to the press, Gabriel Pavi, ex-mayor of Toribío and indigenous advisor, blames guerrillas, paramilitary and security forces that “in order to attack the other, cause displacement, deaths and injuries.”

Cannon fodder for armed groups

“The national government does not understand the application of ideas, of thought, of the worldview of indigenous peoples. More specifically the Nasa people of northern Cauca,” said Yule, noting that this population, also called the Paez, lives on the banks of the Cauca River. According to the Ministry of Culture, there are around 180,000 Paeces primarily in the departments of Cauca, Valle Cauca, Tolima and Huila.

Yule said the indigenous community “decided to remove the guerillas, remove the armies, because every day has been an armed conflict, every day the people are caught in the crossfire, we are cannon fodder for these armed actors.” The Constitutional Court of Colombia in 2009 issued the Auto 004, he added, which ruled that there are 33 indigenous communities in Colombia that risk extinction, and that one of the contributing factors is armed conflict.

He denounces that behind the denial of autonomy, despite the provisions of the Constitution, there are other interests: “The national government through the Ministry of Mines [and Energy] and multinational corporations is plotting an entire legal strategy to exploit the gold and oil and minerals and water in our territory. Right now there are 900,000 Ha (2.2 million acres) in the department of Cauca already being processed at the Ministry of Mines. Although we have 540,000 Ha (1.3 million acres), between snowcaps, rivers and mountains, we only have 104,000 Ha (257,000 acres) that can be farmed. The rest are nature reserves that we protect.” One of the country’s main water sources, the Colombian Macizo, is also in Cauca, “and that’s what we’re defending,” Yule said. “That Mother Earth that we want to be the equilibrium, the harmony, the word, and the coexistence without weapons.”

Yule also emphasized that the demand of autonomy by these countries is legal. The 1991 Constitution granted the indigenous communities autonomy to self-rule, according to their ways and customs, as well as the ability to administer justice, he said. Yule cited Article 7, which recognizes and protects Colombia’s cultural diversity, Article 10, which declares indigenous languages as official, Article 246, which declares that indigenous governments can exercise their own judicial system, Article 329, which acknowledges the indigenous territories, and Article 330, which grants indigenous authorities some powers and states the communities can determine their own development plan and safeguard natural resources.

Autonomy denied

However, in conversation with Latinamerica Press, former Constitutional Court Justice Carlos Gaviria said that “the Colombian state recognized in the Constitution of 1991 that Colombia is a multicultural country and that must be respected, but although the Constitution grants territorial and judicial autonomy for indigenous peoples, this does not mean that they can secede from the State.”

It’s important to note the 1991 Constitution, which is still in place, grants indigenous communities the right to prior consultation, which is currently difficult in practice due to the lack of regulatory procedure.

President Juan Manuel Santos, interpreting the Constitution, said the State cannot yield even a millimeter of land. He sent 700 troops to enforce security in Cauca, while Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, Todd Howland, said the conflicts in the department have displaced 6,000 people.

Yule reaffirmed that while the community wouldn’t rescind its demands, they are willing to discuss with the government a peaceful resolution to the conflict. “We have always said the word is our means of communication, and the word is the essence of understanding each other,” he said. “We want the government to understand that we are fighting for our rights, that we aren’t guerillas or drug traffickers or terrorist, like they have tried to stigmatize us. The Nasa community is not going to take up arms to claim our rights, because for that we have the strength and wisdom of the word. We’d die before leaving our land. Because outside of our territory, we’re dead.”

Latinamerica Press

Latinamerica Press is a product of Comunicaciones Aliadas, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Lima, Peru, specializing in the production of information and analysis about events across Latin America and the Caribbean with a focus on rights, while strengthening the communications skills of local social leaders.

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