By J. Fernanda Sánchez Jaramillo, Special to EL ESPECTADOR, September 22, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The indigenous people report from the countryside about social and territorial advocacy and recovery, or liberation of Mother Earth. Nevertheless, the context for carrying out that work is very hostile.

The Peace is elusive in Cauca Province. So far this year, 17 of the 115 leaders and human rights defenders, and six of the 36 demobilized FARC combatants who signed the Peace Agreement have been killed in this province in southwestern Colombia, according to information from the Institute for the Study of Development and Peace (Indepaz).

According to Indepaz, out of the 1,166 murders registered between November 20, 2020 and April 19, 2021, 275 took place in Cauca, as well as twelve of the 68 massacres committed between January and August 29 of this year.

Leonardo González of Indepaz explains that there is territorial dispute between legal and illegal actors, mining, sugar refining, monocultures of pineapple for ethanol, lumber exploitation, extensive cattle ranching, concentration of land ownership, petroleum projects in the mountain range, hydroelectric projects and then the indigenous people who are seeking reclamation, restitution, recovery, and titling of real property.

The geo-strategic location of Cauca turns it into a corridor for trafficking of cocaine paste and marijuana, and the territory is disputed by gangs of the ELN, the AGC, the Black Eagles, the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column of the GAOR (Residual Organized Armed Group), the Jaime Martínez group of the GAOR, the Carlos Patiño group of the GAOR, United Guerrillas of the Pacific, R.A. 30th Front, and Segunda Marquetalia.

Ever since the Spanish conquest, legal and illegal actors have tried to plunder the indigenous peoples, while they resisted, even at the cost of their lives. In the year 2009, the Constitutional Court warned in its Order 004 about the danger of exterminating the indigenous peoples of Colombia. The pressure they suffer is continuing. On September 5, a senior adviser, Alfonso Díaz, of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) was the victim of an attack by the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column of the FARC dissidents in Caldono (Cauca).

Dangers that keep multiplying

In the midst of this panorama, the indigenous reporters are reporting from the countryside on their social and territorial grievances, and the recovery or liberation of Mother Earth in Cauca.

They are working in a hostile environment and confronting multiple risks. Fabiola León, the representative of Reporters Without Borders (FRS) told EL ESPECTADOR,The first risk starts with the concept of what is a reporter. It has been difficult for this country and even for the organizations to understand that these reporters are carrying out an exercise in communication, and that popular, indigenous, and campesino collectives are exercising their right to free speech. There is a lack of regard for what it is to provide information, and that puts them in danger because they are not considered legitimate.”

According to the RSF representative, there are levels, hierarchies, among information workers, and they tend to think that information coming from reporters from a community, neighborhood, city, or militants is not valid; the debate starts there. “The indigenous people have a big effort in Cauca to create the approach to their own communication,” adds León.

Communicating from the heart about Q procedures for the liberation of Mother Earth is vital, because the roots of that struggle are in the Cacica La Gaitana[1], Juan Tama[2], and Quintín Lame[3], but that brings with it additional dangers, because it was in that context that the indigenous reporters Efigenia Vásquez, Erley Campo, and José Liz were killed.

Freeing Mother Earth is part of the Platform of the Struggle for the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (Cric). Its paragraphs 1 and 9 establish: 1) recover the land in the reservations and defend the ancestral territory and the living spaces of the indigenous communities, and 9) Recover, defend, and protect the living spaces in harmony and equilibrium with Mother Earth.

 Eldemir Dagua, who has worked for 15 years in communications says that, “There are a lot of risks that we indigenous reporters have, particularly because our work requires us to accompany community assemblies and mingas in making their complaints, in mobilizing the people, informing the people how to act conscientiously when facing the realities and problems that occur in the countryside,” points  out Dagua.

When the reporters carry out that role, it doesn’t please those groups that are present in the province. They have been persecuted for their work, threatened, and their radio stations have been attacked. “Our reporters have been pursued, threatened, and in the northern part of Cauca we have several situations that have taken place. I remember my comrade Abelardo Liz, from Corinto, and Rodolfo May, who, well, they blinded him. They wanted to weaken our ability to communicate, they wanted to shut us up. But here we are, continuing to strengthen our process,” Dagua emphasizes.

A labor that is not always recognized.

The violence has affected the indigenous reporters who work in the countryside to make sure that people have information about what’s going on in their communities, in the majority of cases voluntarily and without being paid.

For Yamilk Sánchez, an indigenous reporter from the town of Totoró, and coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Communications Media of Colombia (Red AMCIC, or AMCIC Network), to be a reporter implies risks because they are focused on human rights, and they sometimes receive collective threats.

The indigenous reporters do their work without any protection, and they travel around in the countryside without knowing what might happen. And if one of them is killed, there are persistent difficulties in obtaining justice in a country where there is impunity for 78.8% of all crimes against journalists, as reported in EL ESPECTADOR.

One of the obstacles to obtaining justice, indicates Adriana Hurtado, the President and Legal Representative of the Colombian Federation of Journalists (Fecolper), is that “they assume in the investigations that the person who is really acting as a journalist/ communicator, generally the authorities say that they were participants in the liberation of Mother Earth or the indigenous guard, etc. In that way they are delegitimizing the activity that the reporters are carrying out in order to make these social processes visible.”

Fecolper knows of cases of reporters whose situation has gotten worse in municipalities like Santander de Quilichao, where in spite of having security plans, they find their right to a free press is limited because of the armed groups that are located there.

According to Angela Caro, attorney for the Foundation for a Free Press in Colombia (Flip), another barrier to getting justice when there is a crime against journalists is that, “in the investigations by authorities, they don’t always connect the attack with the journalistic activity; it’s not part of their hypothesis for the investigation. That shows a disregard of the dangers to public order in a province like Cauca, where the risks to this work are increasing.”

At the same time, when one of the communicators is murdered, “They don’t look at the context, they don’t map it out, look at prior actions, criminal record; it’s almost always threats and harassment. That’s why we think it’s important to listen to the victims, to their families,” Caro adds.

The situation is complicated in Cauca. The governor of the Pioyá Reservation in Caldono (Cauca Province), is aware of the risks, and he appreciates the indigenous reporting in the context of the resistance of these peoples.

Their reservation is no stranger to violence. There the dissidents obstruct the territorial control carried out by the Indigenous Guard, and they killed one of the three indigenous reporters whose lives will be described in EL ESPECTADOR in the next production of this special.

There are no guarantees in the countryside, says Diana Jembuel, spokeswoman for Externado University and a member of the Misak indigenous group. “Cauca is one of the red zones where the indigenous leaders are experiencing more war. That’s why they are afraid to talk, to file a complaint, and to be visible. There is no protection, so that a reporter in the same place where events occurred can send out information; there is a gap of inequality between indigenous reporters and the others, because there aren’t funds to pay them very much and besides that, there are not many women with a voice in the communication systems.”

During the XVI Congress of the Cric, the importance of indigenous communication, their own communication, focused on the communities’ plans for their living was reaffirmed, and the responsibility to share the message of Mother Earth and the social struggles was highlighted.

The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (Cric) believes that, “The indigenous reporter is supporting the defense of Mother Earth, the revitalization of the wisdom and cultural practices, the political and organizational empowerment with clarity, conscience, and determination. The process of communication is in itself a space for learning that has always been strengthened by the different territorial dynamics of the indigenous movement.” 

The indigenous reporters are vital because they make visible what is happening in places where the major media don’t come. The armed groups know them, and that’s why they are running greater risks. “Reporters are being threatened. They tell us to stop reporting, but we are going to keep on doing it, and to continue in resistance, not just from Cric but also with our own reporting,” assures Yamilk Sánchez.

* This is the second of five reports on the murders of journalists, especially in the Province of Cauca (Colombia) where indigenous reporters María Efigenia Vásquez, Eyder Arley Campo, and José Abelard Liz were murdered between 2017 and 2020. This journalistic investigation is possible thanks to the scholarship furnished by the Justice for Journalists Foundation (JFJ), a foundation for international investigation of crimes against the press. JFJ is an NGO headquartered in London (United Kingdom).

[1] Cacica La Gaitana was a 16th century indigenous heroine.

[2] Juan Tama was an indigenous leader, chief of the Vitoncó between 1682 and 1718.

[3] Quintín Lame was an indigenous leader in the early 20th century.

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