We Are United in the Struggle to Win Title to Our Lands

(Translated by Rich Henighan and Susan Tritten, CSN volunteer translators)

Periferia Prensa Alternativa, Edition 32

By Carlos Gustavo Rengifo
February 6, 2009

This past July my friend Patty (we fondly call her "the Indian girl") invited me to Christiania, in Antioquia, a reservation of the Embera-Chami people, also known as the "children of the corn."  I didn’t know exactly where I was going.  On the way, Patty told me, "Caliche, you are going to become acquainted with my people.  My ignorance of indigenous issues led me to imagine I would be meeting Indigenous people like those I commonly saw in our own streets, begging for coins, quaintly and colorfully dressed, but with spirits wilted from hunger and the hot sun.  However, as soon as we arrived at the reservation, I saw people who looked more like peasants, without unusual outfits.  Though they spoke a language I didn’t understand, their words reflected the mountains, the sky, the rivers, all of nature.

Soon after we got out of the car, a "chiva," one of those big colorful buses, common to our coffee-growing areas pulled up.  Many Blacks, Indigenous and Whites were arriving.  At the Embera reception area, they spoke a familiar language of hugs and laughter that they offered each other like recently harvested fruit.  When I noticed a blackboard, I began to understand the purpose of the journey: an inter-ethnic meeting would take place there.  Inhabitants of Pacific Colombia were coming together to discuss the common climate of persecution and violence in that region due to paramilitary organizations, guerrillas, drug lords, and even the Army.  They were going to develop strategies of resistance and struggle.

This was not the first meeting; there had already been five others.  At sunset, Patty told me, "Caliche, there are Wuonans here who live in El Choco and Panama, the Esperara Sapidura, Afro-Colombians from the Rio San Juan and the Rio Naya, community members of Cupica and San Joaquin, and leaders of CRIC (the Regional Council of the Indigenous People of Cauca).  I responded with a gesture as if I understood well the ethnic geography.

The meeting was part of an Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and peasant school that met to create strategies to structure their organizing activities.  The inhabitants of Pacific Colombia were planning to defend their territories from outsiders invading, assassinating, and displacing the residents from their ancestral home.

The Rio Naya Massacre, Known to and Reported By the Government

The main reason for the inter-ethnic meeting was to share information about the human displacement in Pacific Colombia, a territory that includes the department of El Choco, the Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Narino.  One participant began to describe how the inter-ethnic relationships of Pacific Colombia, existing since 1989, were destroyed by paramilitary troops in April 2001 when they carried out a massacre in the Rio Naya valley, separating Valle del Cauca from Cauca, one of the most important and emblematic valleys of Pacific Colombia.  They killed more than 100 Indigenous, Blacks and peasants.  During the six months before this massacre, paramilitary troops murdered and dragged to the Rio Cauca about 400 people, a few at a time.  In 2000, the ELN continuously abused the local population and killed Elias Trochez, the governor of Alta Naya, accusing him of collaboration with the paramilitary organization.

This barbarity occurred although, during those six months, the communities’ defenders had issued many warning regarding these problems.  What happened along the Rio Naya, as well as throughout the rest of the Pacific regions is part of the historic Colombian land tenure problem.  Various illegal armed groups have established themselves there to change land use patterns to favor the drug business.  Beginning in the 1980s, a new managerial elite, also with resources from the drug business, established itself, intending to invest in land, livestock, agro-industrial production, the extraction of wood products and minerals, shrimp farms, fisheries and other industries.

Displaced by poisonous chemical spraying from traditional coca-producing areas (Caqueta, El Caguan, Putumayo, etc.). the drug business itself has arrived and is expanding through Narino towards El Choco.  There the FARC, the paramilitary organizations and even the Army have restricted the activities of the indigenous and Afro-Colombian people of the area.  "Now we cannot hunt as before,” says a Wuonan.  "We can’t do our normal work.  We see dead bodies floating down the river.”  An Afro-colombian says,"Whites come from outside for cocaine.  The people in charge are from Caguan, but our people are dead.”  The situation there is almost slavery.  "The indigenous people harvesting the coca spend all their money at bars owned by the very same coca growers," says another participant.  The situation is complicated by the substitution of food crops with coca.  "Communities stop sowing food crops; then when chemical spraying or food blockades begin, there is starvation."  Then, because most food has to be imported, the price rises.  A pound of rice might cost almost 3000 pesos.

Mega-Projects and the Armed Forces

As noted above, due to the great wealth of Pacific Colombia, a series of mega-projects are being constructed.  These benefit multinational corporations rather than the local population.  There is the Archimedes project, planned to channel the San Juan River to join it with the Rio Strato.  The Malaguita highway is under construction.  Ecopetrol is undertaking explorations without prior consultation with the local population, denying them any authority.  There is also palm oil cultivation and plans for extensive grazing.

In these areas, naval bases have been constructed to "protect" the projects, but these have become the principal obstacles to community organization.  One of the inhabitants of lower Cauca says, "They treat us as if we were guerrillas.  When we come to retrieve our dead, they consider us guerrillas, rather than escorting us.  The Army has even occupied the San Pedro Claver School in the municipality of San Buenaventura, turning it into a military base.”  They do this, aware that international humanitarian laws prohibit it.  This shows that the Armed Forces, with the complicity of the government and the president, are disposed to violate the law and international agreements in order to defeat the guerrillas.  (They did this too when they used the Red Cross symbol in the rescue of the fifteen hostages.)

In practice, the Army harasses and persecutes these communities.  "They treat us like guerrillas, making continuous and unnecessary searches.  They even give us free haircuts, but only as a pretext to interrogate us."  Conflict over the territory has reached a climax in which peasants, indigenous peoples, and Afro-Colombians are struggling against the government over 300,000 hectares.  "They don’t want to recognize our ownership of these lands, although we have occupied them for generations," says one of the local inhabitants.  "They want them for the University of Cauca for bio-corridors."  Lately in El Choco, they are exploiting natural resources in an indiscriminate way without local officials being able to control or prevent it.

Later at the University of Antioquia, human rights organizations discussed the situation in Pacific Colombia and the case of the Rio Naya.  In this presentation a chilling realization became evident: human displacement there is the goal of the war, not simply a by-product.  "In effect the narco-traffickers’ urgent need to launder profits corresponds with the State’s interest in modernizing Colombian agriculture.  The invitation to investors, national and foreign, to invest in modern, highly profitable agro-industrial projects, mainly bio-fuels, requires the prior clearing of population from large areas of land.”  This situation reproduces and continues the Colombian conflict over land in the ways described above.

We Want to Die Peacefully of Old Age, Not of Bullet Wounds

The first gatherings to reestablish relationships among the various ethnic groups of Naya were held in 2003.  They came to one conclusion: the different communities had to agree on a defense of their common right to the territory.  This idea grew as a lovely reflection of the belief of the Esperara Sapidara tribes, for whom the Rio Naya represents "The Big House," that is, the house were ceremonies are performed.  Therefore, the territory must be treated just as if it were the big house itself.  "We came to the conclusion," said a participant, " that although we are Blacks, Indians and peasants, we have the same problems and our territory unites us."

It was now a matter of building unity from diversity.  One indigenous person expressed it, "Kinishia Waubua," which means "the intention to fight and defend."  This meant that divisions among communities must not be allowed to exist now that they had common problems.  They considered it important to forget cultural differences in order to agree on how to live and, above all, on how to avoid expulsion from their lands.  In this way, the inter-ethnic school grew as a strategy to manage the current conflict and to defend their territory.

The assault, persecution and annihilation already described can be seen as ethnic genocide, which is slowly destroying the distinct cultures of the Rio Naya area and Pacific Colombia.  It is already destroying the customs, expressions, languages, memories, traditions, and knowledge of the native peoples,  Afro-Colombians and peasants of the region.  Because of this, territorial defense is not just of land, but for everything that develops on that land.  Territorial defense is so important because it is also the cultural defense of these communities.  The strategy for ending displacement from their territory is to force the government to give them full title to their lands.  According to them, this guarantees that they will not be expelled and that those who left in fear of assassination may return.  Nevertheless, the Colombian government has opposed this and appears to favor other interests.

The inhabitants of Pacific Colombia want to live in peace and to die of old age as do people everywhere in Colombia.

“We are united in the struggle to win title to our lands.
We are united in the struggle to win title to our lands.
We are tired of so much evil
And only want to live in peace…”

(An Afro-Colombian song of the Rio Naya)

This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.