Threats Against Cauca Indigenous Communities Continue

Sep 25, 2012 | Human Rights, Impunity and Justice, News, Peace and Nonviolence

Threats Against Cauca Indigenous Communities Continue
September 2012 – We reported in July on the Nasa indigenous mobilization to collectively evict armed groups from their territories in the southwestern Cauca department. In dramatic actions, unarmed Nasa indigenous guards carried soldiers from a post on a sacred site, and punished community members that had joined the guerrillas. Mass media reported widely the community’s eviction of the soldiers. The FORBogota team offers this update.
By Charlotte Melly and Elisabeth RohrmoserWhat happened to the Nasa indigenous community in the last two months? Honestly, the answer could be relatively short. The press coverage, mainly showing crying soldiers being carried away from the Nasa’s sacred territory by the Indigenous Guard, seemed to stop after the government promised to negotiate and listen to indigenous representatives’ demands.

Declarations in August by indigenous organizations make for an entire two days of reading. It is hard not to be shocked by the increased level of threats; all the murders that are not being reported by the mainstream media; and by the spiral of violence disguised behind the government’s deceptive discourses about security. President Santos travelled to Cauca a second time and claimed to be guaranteeing human rights through increased militarization.

Opposition congressional representative Ivan Cepeda concluded from Santos’ speech to the Nasa people in Congress on July 25: “I do not know why president Santos invited the Nasa to congress if it was only to express homage towards Sargent García” – the crying soldier carried by the Nasa Indigenous Guard in the pictures on the press – “and not to acknowledge that the indigenous people themselves are the main victims.”

Indeed, Colombia’s war also plays out at the level of discourse: through a communications war in which stories are discovered, uncovered or covered up, depending on the interests at stake. One of the dirty methods used by the State is the creation of pro-government parallel movements as a strategy to undermine and delegitimise the work of social movements. They thus weaken the non-violent resistence movements indigenous peoples spearhead by splitting up communities and turning people against one another. During ex-president Uribe’s term the OPIC (Colombian Indigenous Peoples’ Organization) was founded, a pro-government organization. On the day before the indigenous march to Cauca’s capital Popayan demanding the de-militarization of their lands, the pro-government indigenous association marched in the same city, affirming their support for the military presence.

The Nasa’s methods are peaceful. They consist of gathering, denouncing, and organizing themselves, of painting, writing, and asking armed actors to leave their lands. The level of internal organization of indigenous associations is impressive, as is the clarity and creativity of their resistance in such a moment of violence and aggression, as well as the amount of affirmative letters and the support expressed by other communities in Colombia and other Latin American countries. The Nasas’ demands are the recognition of their right to life, demilitarization of their collective territory (which means not accepting the presenceon their lands of armed groups, including the Colombian armed forces), and an end to the defamation campaign and threats against their leaders and the people involved in the removal of troops from Berlin Hill in Torbirio in July.

Spiritual Nasa Leader Killed
The Nasa population continues to be highly threatened. Leaders have received threats from the paramilitary successor groups Aguilas Negras and Rastrojos; FARC guerrillas have destroyed houses with bombs; and the military has reportedly conducted false combats to threaten civilians, Nasa leaders say. A bomb that exploded on a road killed six children, and a family was badly injured by explosions in their home. Indigenous people still find themselves having to publicly appeal to armed groups to leave their lands.

The initiation of dialogue with the indigenous group promised by the government ended up having little impact and a disappointingly low profile. No changes have been brought about for civilians in Northern Cauca. Ministries sent their delegates to the first dialogue in Cauca’s capital city, Popayan, instead of personally attending, leaving indigenous leaders disappointed.

1185Nasa people mobilize. Photo: ACINIn reaction, the Nasa people declared themselves in permanent assembly. On August 15, 20,000 indigenous people marched to Popayan, where President Santos again came to speak about peace while simultaneously reaffirming a strategy of increased militarization.

An indigenous woman writes in her blog about the event: “Yes, today the president is coming. And he never comes alone: he arrives with his helicopters, his soldiers, and his police. He comes with his war, like in Toribio, last July 11.”

While the Nasa people were preparing the march, traveling and organizing, on August 11, healer and spiritual leader of the Nasa people, Lisandro Tenorio Troche, was killed at his home in the indigenous reserve. Two hooded men entered his house in the afternoon, and in the presence of his wife shot him five times in the head, a crime that some sources attributed to the FARC and others to paramilitaries. At the same time, another member of the same indigenous community was killed and other Nasa leaders were threatened by paramilitaries.

The Nasas’ Struggle for Life and Land
The Nasa’s rights are enshrined in Colombia’s 1991 Constitution and international human rights treaties. Since November 2011, the Nasa community, like other indigenous groups in Colombia, is covered by provisional measure 255/11 of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which protects beneficiaries’ life and security. Indigenous Communities’ lands have been defined as private collective properties by Colombia’s Constitutional Court and provided special protection in Article 330 of the Constitution, which acknowledges territorial autonomy.

The government’s insistence on the militarization of indigenous lands not only violates basic norms of international humanitarian law, but is also an obvious violation of a 2009 court order, following sentence T-025 of 2004, which gave evidence of the cultural and physical annihilation of 32 indigenous groups by the armed conflict.

Daily war in rural Colombia involves armed groups seeking civilians’ collaboration, a prerequisite to gaining control of an area. People organizing against this dynamic and wanting to stay peacefully out of the way does not fit into the logic of the armed actors. The results are threats, murders and displacement of peace activists and civilians. International humanitarian law forbids involving the civilian population in war and yet, sadly, the deep roots that the conflict has grown in the civilian population in Colombia are what continue to propel it forward.

Peace through Peaceful Means
“Northern Cauca is a strategic region to have geographic access to other departments of the country,”according to ACIN. “For more than 50 years the guerillas have used it and feel like its owners. The Colombian armed forces have declared that there is no territory in Colombia which they cannot have access to, and so they enter the Indigenous Reserves.”
1186Responding to President Santos visit. Photo:ACIN
The government’s understanding of peace is providing security to secure national resources. Security means militarization. “The strategy of the conflict and militarization is to expel us from our lands to permit the entry of multinationals and megaprojects,” declares a Nasa woman.

The indigenous people in the region say they have been resisting war for 520 years. 520 years of struggle, of displacement, of death. At the moment the indigenous movement is still gaining strength and is becoming more connected to nonviolent movements around the world.

On August 24, Nasa women stated on one of their placards during a protest: “For us life is sacred, we cannot turn ourselves around to be indifferent, we cannot get used to the violence, war is not normal, it should not be accepted, it cannot be the only option for Colombians.”

True peace for the indigenous peoples of the Cauca region can only be reached through the liberation of their territory from war and violence. This cannot be granted by increased militarization. Can we not learn from over four decades of conflict in Colombia that violence will continue to spawn violence? When will it become clear after all these years that what Colombia needs is not ever increasing militarization, but different kinds of investment and presence in areas ravaged by conflict, or simply for affected communities to be left alone and not have to live in the midst of the bullets?

The government’s obsession with militarizing every inch of the country’s territory, which has not diminished even as they announce that they want to negotiate with the guerrillas, is part of what prevents peace being able to take root in Colombia. The Nasa people’s search to reach peace by peaceful means should serve as an example to the rest of the country and to the government, so that the upcoming negotiations have a chance of ending this war.