“They only see our water, our land, our trees. They don’t care about us. They want the land — without the people on it.”
These words are not of a Palestinian farmer but of Justo Conda, governor of Lopez Adentro Indigenous Reserve in southwestern Colombia, whose community was repeatedly threatened with displacement under former president Alvaro Uribe Velez. Uribe, recently appointed by the United Nations to investigate Israel’s fatal attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, has a notoriously horrific track record on human rights. Less explored are the clear parallels between his government’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples of Colombia and Israel’s abuses of the indigenous people of Palestine.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced people in the world, numbering as many as 4.9 million. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement more than 286,000 Colombians were uprooted from their land in 2009 alone. Approximately ten percent of the Colombian population has suffered forced displacement, many of them indigenous communities, afro-Colombian descendants of former slaves, and campesinos (farmers).
Like Israel, Colombia is the largest recipient of US military aid in its hemisphere. Six billion US tax-dollars over the past ten years have placed Colombia third in the world for US military assistance, after Israel and Egypt. Armed with US weapons and political backing, Uribe’s government and other armed actors have forced out millions through extrajudicial assassinations and terror tactics, clearing the way for the exploitation of natural resources by the government and multinational companies. Always in the name of security and the “War on Terror,” Colombian soldiers have burned villages, ransacked homes and destroyed the livelihoods of communities who have taken the radical decision of staying on their own land.
For many indigenous communities, this is not the first time they’ve been uprooted. With the Spanish invasion five hundred years ago and the founding of Colombia three hundred years later, indigenous peoples have been repeatedly forced to flee their fertile valleys rich with water and minerals, moving further and further into the Andes mountain ranges where the climate is harsher and the land less arable. Now the government wants to take even that land, leaving the communities trapped — community members say if they head higher into the mountains they may be threatened by guerillas who are fighting to maintain control of those areas, while going down into the valleys they will face aggression from paramilitaries, corporations and the army.
There is something eerily familiar about this violent and calculated expulsion and it is no surprise that Israel has now become Colombia’s number one supplier of weapons, advisor on military organization and intelligence-gathering and model for “fighting terror” (“Report: Israelis fighting guerillas in Colombia,” Ynet, 10 August 2007, as cited in “Uribe’s appointment to flotilla probe guarantees it’s failure,” Jose Antonio Gutierrez and David Landy, The Electronic Intifada, 6 August 2010). But like the Palestinians, the people of Colombia are not prepared to abandon their homes and livelihoods without a struggle. Almost twenty years ago, up against a military armed to the teeth, the indigenous communities of southwestern Colombia developed their own form of protection: La Guarda Indigena (The Indigenous Guard).
Standing before the flag of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca in the indigenous reserve of Lopez, Governor Conda explained:
“The Colombian government does not represent us, so we have constructed our own system of security. In each indigenous community, individuals are selected to serve for one year defending our land. Each indigenous guard receives a staff, passed down by its previous user, which represents the authority and responsibility of the position. Guards carry their ancestral staffs everywhere they go. It is received voluntarily; nobody is paid to defend their people. And although everyone in our communities would fight for our freedom, the staffs indicate those of us who have been physically and psychologically prepared during the year to defend our people and our land.”
Governor Conda added:
“In the face of a highly-militarized state that consistently denies us our basic rights, the indigenous guard is the only defense we can exercise. We have declared ourselves neutral, allied with neither the guerillas nor the army. We are offering a peaceful solution based on an end to colonization and respect for life and culture. We have no weapons or guns. We don’t need weapons or guns to exercise control. Our guards stand outside our gates, armed only with their colorful staff — a symbol of our strength and our values. And although we have received many threats, many authorities have also come to respect the indigenous guard.”
Conda explained that at the end of each guard’s term, he or she chooses a successor and the authority and responsibility rotates. Next to Conda, the current community guards stood up one by one, a diverse group of men and women; young and old; a pregnant woman; a village elder. They held the staffs, each meant to reach as high as its carrier’s heart.
Colombia’s indigenous communities have a long history of popular resistance. In the 1920s, tribes collectively boycotted taxes imposed by the government on indigenous people to live and work on their own land. Since then, councils have been formed to decide how to recuperate territory and resist expulsion. Although their presence preceded European colonization, indigenous Colombians are often treated as foreigners and invaders.
The response to organized indigenous resistance to displacement has been brutal. Last year alone, four members of the small Lopez Adentro community alone were assassinated (“The Struggle for Survival and Dignity: Human Rights Abuses Against Indigenous Peoples in Colombia,” Amnesty International, 23 January 2010 [PDF]). According to human rights advocate Felix Posada, 1,400 indigenous persons were assassinated during Uribe’s eight-year tenure, representing one percent of Colombia’s total indigenous population. Colombia has the highest rate of indigenous killings in Latin America, numbering 114 last year, reported Posada behind bulletproof doors in his office in downtown Bogota.
Right-wing paramilitary groups are suspected in many of the incidents, despite the Uribe administration’s claim of their demobilization in 2006 (“Colombian Paramilitaries’ Successors Called a Threat,” Simon Romero, The New York Times, 3 February 2010). The “disarmament” was widely seen as a publicity stunt in which individuals dressed up as militants handed over their guns in photo-ops in exchange for a handsome reward. Countless cases have confirmed collaboration between the Colombian army and the paramilitaries (renamed “organized delinquents” these days), the latter often doing the dirty work in exchange for power and immunity.
In October of 2008, following direct action by the Indigenous and Popular Minga (Community Mobilization) of La Maria in Piendamo, soldiers entered the municipality and vandalized cars, forced inhabitants out of their homes with tear gas, stripped men in front of their neighbors and set fire to residents’ huts, beds, bicycles and even children’s dolls (Video: “La Maria Piendamo,” 22 October 2008). A mass march from La Maria was met with soldiers and helicopters, leading to a stand-off of stones, sling-shots and ancestral staffs versus the army’s tear gas and live ammunition (Video: “Minga de la Maria Piendamo,” 22 October 2008). If Uribe’s administration’s chosen response to wooden, ancestral wooden staffs was bullets, what could he possibly say to Israel’s killing of nine Turks who may have been carrying chair legs?
The gravest threat of all faced by Colombia’s indigenous population is cultural destruction and extinction. Of Colombia’s 102 indigenous tribes, 32 percent are in danger of disappearance. Eighteen tribes have fewer than two hundred persons remaining. One of the most important forms of resistance for many communities has been the preservation of language, cultural values and traditions.
Until recently, the state-imposed educational system mandated schooling in Spanish, but today native languages are taught in classrooms on the reserves. The people have won other victories along the way as far back as 1991 when the new constitution finally recognized the diverse ethnic identities of the Colombian people and their rights to preserve their land and culture. But too often the constitution and laws are ignored in favor of other interests, notably expanding control over natural resources.
Unwilling to continue waiting after twenty years of unkept promises, the indigenous communities of the Cauca and Valle de Cauca regions of southwest Colombia have joined together on a common platform of four priorities: unity, land, culture and autonomy. The vision is a complete one, with freedom conditional on the fulfillment of each element. Another member of the Lopez Adentro community explained: “Peace is not simply an end to war. Peace will come when indigenous rights to land, culture and self-determination are respected. There can be no peace through the destruction or submission of the indigenous population.”
This definition of true peace is a timely one as Israel and the illegitimate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas resume negotiations while ignoring the fundamental requirements of justice for the Palestinian people, including their respective rights to land, culture and self-determination.
It is difficult to imagine a leader as enthusiastic about Israel’s repression tactics as Uribe being a fair judge as to the legality of Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. His former administration’s close relationship to the Jewish state alone precludes him as an impartial investigator. And although there are notable differences between the situations in Colombia and Palestine, the likeness of the Colombian and Israeli governments’ responses to indigenous resistance is unmistakable. It would be not only out of character but downright hypocritical for Uribe to hold Israel accountable for the same type of behavior that characterized his own presidency.
Meanwhile, the sumoud and resilience of the indigenous Colombian people persists. Governor Conda continued, “Just as we have for five hundred years, we will continue to struggle and move forward. In fact, we are ready to work harder than ever.”
All images by Anna Baltzer.
Anna Baltzer is an award-winning lecturer, author and activist for Palestinian rights. Author of Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories, she is contributor to four upcoming book on the subject. For more information visit www.AnnaInTheMiddleEast.com.