Skip to main content

Indigenous resurgence: Colombia

Following an Indian upsurge in the 1980s, Colombia's constitution now contains the kinds of guarantees on indigenous autonomy that the movements in Mexico and Guatemala are demanding. Colombia's indigenous population of 700,000 is less than 2 percent of the total but officially controls nearly a quarter of the country's land mass under the new constitution instated in 1991. In these lands, they have the right to self-government based on their own traditional laws and customs.

But with Latin America's last civil war rapidly escalating in Colombia, these constitutional guarantees are eroded by armed groups which act with impunity on indigenous lands. Leftist guerillas, rightist paramilitaries and government forces all operate in Indian territories without the consent of local communities - threatening those who resist and making legal rights meaningless. The most desperate indigenous struggle in Colombia now is to resist militarization of their lands.

While Indians have supported Colombia's guerilla movements in the past, the current movements have alienated Indians by demanding support rather than building it - and leaving indigenous communities vulnerable to brutal government retaliation.

Indians are caught in the violence throughout Colombia. Local residents reported that on Jan. 24 of this year, a Colombian Air Force plane searching for National Liberation Army (ELN) guerillas in Norte de Santander department fired hundreds of shots at several homes in the village of Culebritas in El Carmen municipality. A nine-year-old girl was killed, and two other civilians wounded. On Feb. 24, the Colombian Army's 12th Infantry Battalion reported that two "subversives" had been killed in battle in Choco department. But the Council of Indigenous Authorities of Choco reports that in fact the two victims were civilians from the indigenous community of La Meseta, part of the Penas del Olvido reservation in the upper San Juan Valley. The two men had gone out hunting, and never returned. Local villagers had already formed search parties when they were told by the army the men had been killed and their bodies taken to the town of Tado. Indigenous Nasa communities in Cauca department reported that they came under aerial bombardment for several days in February by government plans ostensibly attacking the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). Nasa leaders said the bombardment, and counter-attacks by FARC guerillas, have destroyed homes, crops and livestock in Jambalo municipality.

The reports came just as the U.S. House and Senate both approved $773 million for the Andes region, overwhelmingly military aid for Colombia - an increase of more than $100 million over last year.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The reports are not new. In October 2000, members of the Embera Katio reservation in Colombia's Alto Sinu region charged that two residents of Kachichi village on the Rio Esmeralda were abducted and executed by FARC guerillas. The attackers said they had a list of 60 indigenous people targeted for assassination, and warned the community not to report the murders. This was just one of several cases in which Embera Katio leaders were killed by either rebels or paramilitaries that year. The Embera Katio have repeatedly demanded that all armed groups stay out of their territory and their decision to remain neutral in Colombia's armed conflict be respected.

The new U.S. aid package includes funds for spraying suspected drug crops in Colombia with glyphosate herbicide, and the White House has indicated it plans to spray some 300,000 acres of Colombia this year. In July 2001, Paez and Guambiano tribal members held a cross-country march on Popay?n, capital of Cauca department, to demand a halt of the aerial spraying and militarization of their lands.

Colombia's Amazon Indians, virtually isolated a generation ago, have been overwhelmed by the incursion of campesino colonists, narco mafias, guerilla groups, paramilitaries and military troops into their lands. In 1993, Colombian opposition legislators reported the presence of U.S. troops at "secret" anti-drug bases which had been built at Leticia and other locations in the Colombian Amazon without approval by the civil authorities. The allegation was met with official denials by then President Cesar Gaviria. Among those protesting the "secret bases" were local Tikuno, Yagua and Cocoama Indians, who claimed the militarization violated the 1991 Constitution, which guarantees Indians the right to self-government in their territories. Senator Gabriel Mujuy, a leader of National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), said, "It is clear for us that the most important issue is our land. Once we control our land, we can develop all our other rights, such as health and education. But as long as there are strangers on the land without our consultation, we will never see any progress."

The new U.S. aid package also includes $88 million to train an elite Colombian army unit to guard the Ca?o Limon pipeline, owned in part by California-based Occidental Petroleum. The pipeline, linking the oilfields in the Orinoco basin to the Caribbean coast, has been repeatedly blown up by the ELN guerillas, spilling the equivalent of 10 Exxon Valdez disasters into the surrounding forest since the line opened in 1986.

Occidental hoped to expand operations into the Andean cloud forests of Norte de Santander department, west of the pipeline - on the ancestral lands of the 5,000-member U'wa indigenous people. When Occidental established test wells on lands claimed by the U'wa as sacred (although outside their official reservation), the Indians repeatedly blocked the access roads with their bodies - and were attacked by the Colombian army. The entire tribe pledged to commit collective suicide if Occidental started drilling on their lands. In 2000, three U'wa children were killed when Oxy called in the military to break up a nonviolent U'wa blockade. At its annual shareholder meeting last May, Occidental announced it was withdrawing from U'wa territory after investing nearly $100 million in the area. Citing technical and economic reasons, the company denied that protests had influenced the decision.

Colombia's indigenous movement nonetheless counted this as a victory. But effective control over development plans on indigenous lands will not be realized in the atmosphere of war and impunity.