In search of peace: the Colombian Indigenous Movement

On Saturday, 20 October 2012, I meet with the coordinator of the Indigenous Guard[1], Juan Carlos Chindique, in the centre of Cali.  Together, we ride a motorcycle twenty minutes to Alto Napoles, a community of the indigenous Nasa people on the outskirts of the city.

As we come upon the homes stacked next to each other, leaving behind the paved streets, we can see out over the city of Cali to the rural landscapes of Valle de Cauca.  I am going there to speak with the community about displacement and resistance in the context of the peace negotiations taking place between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla and the Colombian Government.  Indigenous people in Colombia continue to be one of the populations most impacted by armed conflict and this is one of the reasons I am especially interested in their perspective.

Maria Eugenia Osnas Osnas, Governor of the community’s High Council (Cabildo Mayor), greets me when I arrive.  “In 2009, we came here—25 people from three displaced families. Today, we are 250 people that either came on our own or because of forced displacement, especially from Northern Cauca, our birthplace, where the war has been especially vicious,” she tells me.

The community of Alto Napoles says that they have installed their own electrical systems and water and waste systems.

As they show me their community and as we meet in the community gathering space, I realize how little State presence there is except for the military base that dominates the neighbourhood from above it.  The community tells me they have installed their own electrical systems and water and waste systems; the Indigenous Guard provides security.  “Supposedly, we are living on high risk land, but the truth is the City wants to build apartments here.  We live with the permanent threat of being evicted and they have tried to cut off our water.  We would also like to leave, but we have nowhere to go”—Maria tells me all of this as she shows me their homes precariously balanced on sticks covering every bit of ground on the steep slopes.

Luckily, in this difficult situation, the community of Alto Napoles is not alone.  Together with neighbouring communities, they have begun a campaign to defend their water and to gain recognition for their governing Council from the City Government of Cali. They have the support of the Association of Indigenous Councils in Northern Cauca (ACIN) and the Regional Indigenous Council in Cauca (CRIC), two organisations that represent indigenous populations in the Southwest of the country enduring similar or worse conditions to those of Alto Napoles.   The conflict and patterns of violence have maintained similar tendencies to those observed in 2010 and 2011.  However, according to National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), in 2012 there has been an alarming and disproportionate number of cases of violence and forced displacement suffered by indigenous families, especially in Northern Cauca. [2]  “It could be a geographic coincidence or a reaction to our resistance, I don’t know,” explains Maria Eugenia with a sad smile.

A history of resistance

Photo: Julián Montoni,

Later, I meet with Berenice Celeyta, forensic anthropologist and president of the Association for Social Research and Action (NOMADESC), a human rights organization accompanied by PBI.  She explains to me that the indigenous movement in Colombia has been gaining strength since the 1980s.  On 12 October 1980, the first National Indigenous Gathering was convened as a concerted effort among indigenous communities, authorities, and organisations to provide the indigenous movement in Colombia with a political and organisational structure at the national level. [3]  Progressing by leaps and bounds, they achieved recognition for the full diversity of Colombia in the 1991 Constitution[4] which opened “a new chapter in the history of indigenous mobilisation.” [5]  Since then, they have continued to be at the forefront of the Colombian social movement.

The mobilisation reached its peak in 2008 when more than 40,000 indigenous people, accompanied by groups from different social sectors, marched nearly 100 kilometres to Cali to demand that then president Alvaro Uribe Velez halt the violence against indigenous peoples and the fulfil the State’s commitments. [6]  However, they were met with the use of weapons and explosives on the part of police in addition to shots fired by “men dressed as civilians inter-mingled with police forces.” [7]  This violence resulted in three deaths and nearly a hundred injuries.[8]

“Despite the extermination to which indigenous communities have been subjected, taking action to mobilise has permitted them to denounce abuses and emerge with greater strength,” says Berenice. “The Minga [9] for Social and Communitarian Resistance began in Cauca as an initiative of indigenous communities and later included other sectors: peasant farmers, students, workers, and Black communities,” she adds.  Four years later, the Minga continues to mobilise these different populations with its program “Walk the Word” (Caminar la palabra) that addresses five thematic issues: land, war and human rights, economic policies, unfulfilled treaties, and a peoples’ agenda.[10]

Since the worsening of the conflict in Northern Cauca in July of this year, the Minga has reiterated its support of the demands made by ACIN and CRIC: “All armed actors must withdraw from the area!” These demands have encountered strong criticism from the State, the National Army, and the media. [11]  These criticisms reached their height after the destruction of several trenches, and the expulsion of soldiers and guerrillas by the Indigenous Guard. [12]

Though the Government has committed to dialogue with representatives from the indigenous movement, the conditions are highly adverse.  The communities call attention to what they perceive as a lack of good will and commitment on the Government´s behalf. [13]  This is compounded by the dozens of indigenous leaders who have been threatened or killed, the absence of a cease fire[14], and the press, which, according to CRIC, is “biased and irresponsible, with content that is racist and disdainful of indigenous autonomy.” [15]  The path towards peace in northern Cauca continues to be long and face great obstacles.

We cannot go it alone: ¡Solos no podemos!

Berenice Celeyta, forensic anthropologist and president of the Association for Social Research and Action (NOMADESC), a human rights organization accompanied by PBI. Photo: Julián Montoni

In 2009, the Minga proposed a “Congress of the People” to be held nationally with a proposal for a “transformative peace.”  It began with what were called “pre-congresses” in Cartagena, Bogota and Cali which led up to the Peoples’ Congress in October 2010 in Bogota,  then a thematic gathering about land and sovereignty (2011), and now the planned gatherings for peace (in the first half of 2013) and on women (2014).  Up to 20,000 participants come together to develop a mandate or statement to take a position on how these issues should be legislated for the Colombian people, taking into account their full diversity. [16]  “The principle achievements of the Congress are two-fold,” says Berenice: “In the first place, it’s the first movement that despite persecution and barbarity has united so many diverse social sectors and grassroots communities to present a common proposal for the country.  Second, despite the great diversity of opinions and needs, the work has moved forward, overcoming and understanding differences, and this has permitted us to formulate an inclusive strategy that is broad and diverse and also permits us to transform the current conditions of war and conflict.”

“Clearly, we have been surprised, because to date the proposals from the social movement have not been taken into consideration in  peace talks,” Berenice tells me.  “If, at this time, they are not able to generate trust to overcome the history of deceit [in these processes] and if they do not open the pathway to a true participation by the Colombian people, they could be squandering a valuable opportunity to build a peace between all, with social justice and dignity, which the Colombian people are seeking.”

This is why the Peoples’ Congress continues to gain strength and pushes to be heard.  In addition, the proposals of the Peoples’ Congress are being channelled through Common Social Path for Peace, a coordinated space which aims to bring together different social sectors, organising processes, communities and organisations for exchange and an opportunity to connect with one another in their work towards peace, with the explicit goal of demanding a place at the table in the peace talks between the FARC and the Government that began in October in Oslo. [17]

Words over guns

«In 2009, we came here—25 people from three displaced families. Today, we are 250 people that either came on our own or because of forced displacement, especially from Northern Cauca, our birthplace, where the war has been especially vicious.”

In the Community of Alto Napoles, at the edge of the western cordillera of the Andes and at the periphery of Cali, I felt very far from Oslo.   These people are the Nasa, one of 34 indigenous peoples in Colombia that were declared at risk of extinction by the Constitutional Court in 2009. [18]  They are fighting for their survival which demands the recognition of two principles that sometimes appear mutually exclusive: diversity and equality.  However, the synthesis of these two concepts has become one of the unifying principles of the todays social movements in Colombia, allowing a unity in facing the war like never before. “We start from the principle,” says Berenice very simply, “that we all want peace.”


[1]  The Indigenous Guard is a security force that is part of the organising process for indigenous Colombian communities in their autonomy and self-governance, principles recognised by the 1991 Constitution.

[2] National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC),  “Por la defensa, respeto y exigibilidad de los derechos de los pueblos indígenas en Colombia,” January to September 2012

[3] ONIC, “Historia de la Onic”

[4] Green Storcel, Abadio, “El aporte de los pueblos indígenas a un país diversoIn: Sánchez Gutiérrez,” Enrique & Molina Echeverri, Hernán: “Documentos para la historia del movimiento indígena colombiano contemporáneo”, Colombian Ministry of Culture, 2001, pg. 319.

[5] González, N. C., “¿Qué papel juegan las organizaciones indígenas del Cauca en la búsqueda de una solución negociada al conflicto y la crisis democrática colombiana?” In: L. Helfrich y S. Kurtenbach (eds.). “Colombia: Caminos para salir de la violencia.” Madrid/Frankfurt: Iberoamericana/Vervuert, 2006

[6] “Marcha indígena llega a Cali y se prepara para diálogo con Uribe”, El Espectador, 25 October 2008

[7]  “Ejército mató a esposo de líder de Minga indígena,” Semana, 16 December 2008

[8] Contravía, Documentary, “Minga 2008” (Marcha Indígena), Morris Productions, 27 October 2008

[9]  Translator’s note: Minga is a term utilised by the indigenous movement in Colombia, and now more broadly, to mean gathering together through social mobilisation and resistance.

[10]  Rozental, Manuel, “¿Qué palabra camina la Minga?”, Deslinde, November-December 2009

[11] ACIN, “Carta a los grupos armados,” 9 July 2012

[12] “Indigenas desalojan base militar en Cauca y piden mediacion de Baltazar Garzón”, El Pais, 12 July 2012

[13] CRIC, “Comisiones de trabajo entre autoridades indígenas del Cauca y el Gobierno nacional no avanzan satisfactoriamente,” 31 August 2012

[14] González Posso, Camilo, “Negociaciones en medio del terror”, Indepaz, September 2012

[15] ONIC, “Por el Derecho fundamental a estar bien informados,” 24 July 2012

[16] Peoples Congress, “Objetivos,” 8 September 2010

[17] ASDEM: “Nace la ‘Ruta Social Común para La Paz’, «la paz es también salud y educación»,” 5 October 2012; PBI Colombia: “A country in peace does not build itself up from the top,” 12 November 2012

[18] Colombian Constitutional Court, Auto 004/09, 2009


Indigenous movement: PBI.

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