We must recognize that we have hit bottom and that war dehumanizes and dehumanizes us," — Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia
This week marks the 15th anniversary of the kidnapping and assassination of Menominee leader Ingrid Washinawatok El Issa. It also marks a new set of peace talks between the many forces of Colombia, in particular the government, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC.) Those talks are currently being held in Cuba.
Though her passing seems long ago now, I knew Ingrid well, and I often ask myself the question: “What would Ingrid do?” She was a good friend, and colleague of mine when we co-chaired the Indigenous Women’s Network together for a decade. In her life she led an exemplary role in the international indigenous community. Also known as Peqtaw-Metamoh (Flying Bird Woman), Ingrid served as the Chair of the NGO Committee on the United Nations International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples, and as the Executive Director of the New York-based Fund for Four Directions.
She is also known for her death. She was kidnapped and assassinated March 4 in Venezuela. FARC kidnapped Ingrid along with Hawaiian activist Lahe’ena’e Gay and environmental activist Terence Freitas when they left U’wa territory after helping to create an Indigenous education system. The U’wa people were protecting their land from Occidental Petroleum’s oil development plans. She is missed always.
I ask the question, “What would Ingrid do?” when I am vexed with our world and my own people. I also ask that question because I believe some of Ingrid’s hopes are being actualized in peace talks being held in Cuba to address the longest hemispheric war.
The Huffington Post reported that“Colombia's internal conflict has claimed at least 220,000 lives since 1958, and more than four of every five victims have been civilian noncombatants. From 1996 to 2005, on average, someone was kidnapped every eight hours in Colombia and every day someone fell victim to an anti-personnel mine, according to a newly issued 434 page report entitled ‘Enough Already: Memories of War and Dignity.’”
The report documents 1,982 massacres between 1980 and 2012, attributing 1,166 to paramilitaries, 343 to rebels, 295 to government security forces and the remainder to unknown armed groups. It estimates the number of Colombians forcibly displaced by the conflict at 5.7 million. We must keep in mind that we U.S. taxpayers have an interest in this: For many years, the United States financed a significant amount of the Colombian military budget and provided many weapons as a part of the unsuccessful War on Drugs.
The report was produced by the National Center of Historical Memory, which was created under a 2011 law designed to indemnify victims of the conflict, and return stolen land. The law prefaced peace talks currently being held in Cuba with FARC, the country's main leftist rebel group.
I live in a country which spends a third of my tax dollars on the military, so I do not know actually how peace is found. So say that you wanted peace. How would that work out?
When the prospects of talks were announced, the U.S. Institute for Peace scholar, Virginia Bouvier, discussed the significance of this set of peace negotiations on the Institute’s website.
She began by pointing to a big problem: “The distribution of wealth in Colombia is one of the worst in the world and has become more pronounced in the last decade….” Then she notes that, “The parties have agreed on a limited, five-point agenda that will include land policies, political participation, the end of the conflict (this would include among other things questions of ceasefires and cessation of hostilities, security guarantees, and addressing paramilitary violence), drug production and trafficking, and truth and reparations for victims.”
Agrarian policy is the first item on the agenda for the peace talks, co-sponsored by Norway, Venezuela and Cuba. The order of the agenda is important. Often parties choose to begin with the easier items in order to build confidence and show early results. Here, the parties have agreed to begin with the issue that is perhaps the most difficult – who owns the land.
“Land has been at the crux of the insurgents’ agenda from the start, and there seems to already be at least some basic agreement between the sides on the need for structural change,” writes Bouvier. “Land reform or restitution of lands, victims’ rights, and reparations have been front and center on the presidential agenda since Santos assumed office.”
After 50 years, nothing is simple. As Bouvier notes, “Once the cessation of hostilities occurs and a final accord is reached, the real work of peace-building, recovery, and reconciliation will begin.”
For the U’wa, the struggle to keep oil development out of their land continues. They are a people who live in the cloud rainforest, a pristine territory until mining, oil companies and accompanying military forces came their way. They are also a very strong people who refused to subject themselves to the slavery of conquistadors 500 years ago, and continue this commitment.
On February 24, 2015, the U’wa issued a statement announcing that “The Magallanes gas exploration block has been completely dismantled. Ecopetrol S.A. has removed all the machinery that had been found there in a demonstration of respect for our rights as an indigenous people.” Their struggle to protect their land from other oil , mining and pipeline interests successfully continues.
In their statement, the U’wa said, “There continue to be serious threats to our territorial integrity. This includes the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline which continues to have environmental, territorial, spiritual and cultural impacts. It puts at risk the life of the U'wa people in the midst of the armed conflict still being experienced in this region of the country. As if this weren't enough, the government's mining and energy policies continue expediting environmental licenses and an accelerated process for interventions within the Sirirí and Catleya oil blocks, found within U'wa territory. Also, mining concessions have been issued within the U'wa Unified Reservation in addition to the most recent mining license approved along the sacred Cobaría River, a tributary which runs through the heart of our titled territory.
“We reiterate our call to the Colombian people and to the world that it is necessary to re-evaluate the actions that threaten the life and existence of Mother Earth. We have been one of the indigenous peoples who have foreseen the serious consequences that have begun to manifest themselves given indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources.”
I hope there is peace in U’wa territory as well. War dehumanizes. Peace reaffirms our humanity. I think Ingrid would echo that.
"Sovereignty is that wafting thread securing the components that make a society. Without that wafting thread, you cannot make a rug. Without that wafting thread, all you have are unjoined, isolated components of a society. Sovereignty runs through the vertical strands and secures the entire pattern. That is the fabric of Native Society." — Ingrid Washinawatok El Issa
Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabe, is an American Indian activist, environmentalist, economist and writer.