SEMANA/Protests | 10/28/2008 12:00:00 AM
Indigenous peoples of Colombia flex their muscles.
Violence has obscured the real issues facing the indigenous people. At issue in the Cauca department in Southwest Colombia is not a legal matter, but rather one of land, autonomy of the indigenous councils, and the strategic interests of the State.
The discussion has centered on establishing whether there is infiltration by the FARC in this protest march of 20,000 indigenous peoples that left the north of Cauca towards Cali following the Panamerican Highway, whose main objective, apparently, is to claim land that the state had promised to them. But the problem, although it has implications for public order, isn’t even a legal or security matter. On the contrary: it is a conflict that has been brewing for many years especially in Cauca.
The land reclamation has been the detonator for the Indian protest and the march along the Panamerican Highway. The disturbances last week grew in intensity as both protesters and the police increased their use of force. The deaths of two protesters transformed the social protest into a crisis of great proportions. Although the government insists that the indigenous people died while they were handling explosives- and autopsies seem to confirm that- CNN showed that at least one police patrolman fired against the crowd. The president, who had assured that the police did not open fire against the protesters, had to retract his statement in a televised statement. Why did the protest reach this point?
To start off with, this is not a simple movement of human rights, nor is it about current demands. What the people of Cauca are experiencing is a bitter political dispute that has two components: the government‘s unfulfilled promises and the political actions of an indigenous movement which grows stronger by the day. Recent governments have not been able to fulfill the obligations of reparation that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered for indigenous peoples of Cauca after the massacre of Nilo, which happened in 1991 and in which 21 people of these communities were killed by members of the Army. The reparation consists of turning over 23,000 hectares of which 16,000 hectares have already been given. As a result of the recent protests, the president ordered the immediate purchase of the lands to close this chapter that had cost blood and tears in recent years.
But the other aspect of the protests is that of the Cauca Indians, especially the paeces, known as the Nasa people. They have experienced a significant process of social organization over the past 20 years which has led them to make strong demands for greater political autonomy. They are opposed to the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Colombia and the United States, and to the government’s policy of democratic security, at least in their territory. Above all, they demand that the government ratify the Convention of Indigenous Peoples of the United Nations.
But, just as many political objectives are reached via the electoral process, the indigenous people of the Cauca have used protests as one of their main methods. Possibly because it has been the way they have historically gained what they have, that is land and political inclusion. These protests almost always have been peaceful, accompanied by the famous command baton of the indigenous guards that is the symbol of peaceful resistance. But in the last few months it has become known that in these protests there has also been a militia which faces the police, occasionally in a very radical manner, that calls itself the “grandsons of Quintín Lame.”
That partly explains why some indigenous people have launched explosive devices using ramps targeted at the police and the setting off of various Molotov cocktails with shrapnel that have injured 30 police agents. Intelligence information reveals that the commanders of the VI Front of the FARC gave orders to its members to join the protest and stir up trouble.
But all of these realities do not justify the disproportionate response of the government. In addition to the stigmatization of the Indians that has closed channels for dialogue, the evidence that at least one policeman opened fire against protesters is undeniable.
A second element that is in play in these protests is an economic one. It is important to recognize that the Constitution and Colombian law have advanced significantly in recognizing the rights of the country’s almost million and half indigenous people. While the 718 reservations, where 84 ethnic groups live, represent 27 percent of national territory, 90 % of that land is forest, paramos and Amazonian jungle- areas not suitable for farming.
Cauca is a special case because the Indians there represent 20% of the population and although they have 700,000 hectares of reservations, 46% are forests and paramos and today there are 230,000 hectares that were promised by previous governments and have not been turned over. A large portion of the lands that the Indians claim are part of a vast cane growing areas used to produce biofuels.
Business leaders and farmers complain that these lands will become unproductive in the hands of the Indians because they do not work at the same rhythm as large modern businesses. The problem is that, by tradition and also by idiosyncrasy, the Indians’ management of the earth has different cycles from that of the capitalist system. So the dilemma of the government is how to guarantee the Indians’ rights without having a negative effect on productive activity, a major concern in the country.
Something similar occurs with the exploitation of natural resources in indigenous territories, as even if the territories belong to the communities, the underground resources belong to the State and it must authorize exploitation taking into account the common good. Recently the Constitutional Court affirmed that it is necessary to consult the Indians about that exploitation that is undertaken in their territory. But precisely because of this point Colombia is one of the few countries that has not signed the UN convention on indigenous peoples, because the government believed that their hands would be tied with regards to exploitation of natural resources.
Finally, although the Constitution guarantees autonomy for indigenous peoples, there is friction on a day to day basis over how territorial sovereignty is understood. In Cauca the Indians have systematically opposed the policy of democratic security, to the extent that is has resulted in the militarization of their communities and deaths of indigenous peoples continue to be alarmingly high. “Just in Cauca during the last month seven indigenous leaders were assassinated,” said Evelis Andrade, high council of the indigenous rights group the Organización Nacional Indígena (ONIC).
That’s why the discussion that the president will have with indigenous will not be easy.