In the mountainous Cauca region of southwestern Colombia, nineteen different indigenous communities from the Nasa tribe (approximately 18.500 people) live their lives autonomously from Bogota’s centralized national government. Known for their organizational capacity and sense of community, the indigenous communities of the Cauca region have a history of popular resistance in Colombia. For example in the 1920s, the Nasa collectively boycotted the taxes imposed on them by the Governor of Cauca for living and working their own land. Also, the Nasa were the first indigenous tribe in Colombia to organize themselves in a regional council, the Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca (CRIC), in 1971.
The CRIC played an important role in advocating for the indigenous right to self-governance in Colombia which was constitutionally recognized in 1991, and has functioned as a politically autonomous body ever since. Its policies are aimed at protecting and supporting indigenous life in the Cauca region. The indigenous authorities of the Cauca region provide a particularly inspiring alternative to Colombia’s civil war: the Guardia Indígena, a nonviolent community self-defence movement. This proves to be an exceptionally challenging (and not to mention daunting) task - as Cauca has long been the base of operation for many of Colombia’s most belligerent paramilitary groups and is one of the most conflict-affected areas in the country.
Indigenous communities and the peace process
Looking back at Colombia’s armed conflict it becomes clear how destructive the violence has been; 220,000 Colombians have lost their lives, 43,000 people have disappeared and approximately 7 million (roughly 15% of the population) have become displaced. When the Colombian Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2016, the negotiations were meant to address some of the root causes of the conflict between the FARC guerilla and the Colombian Government, which was mainly fought over control of the land. During the civil war, the indigenous communities of the Cauca region, which is one of the most-conflict affected regions of Colombia, were left in the crosshairs of the conflict. After the signing of the CPA in 2016, these communities expected more state support in regaining control of the territories. According to Alvaro Quiguanas - indigenous leader of the Jambaló municipality in Cauca, this has been an utter disappointment (December, 2018).
Paradoxically, the conflict dynamics in the Cauca Valley have intensified after the signing of the Colombian Peace Agreement (2016) between the FARC and the Government of Colombia. Ever since the FARC-EP rebels demobilized, their previously controlled territories have become the newest target for other violent groups, like drug gangs, militias, and private security firms looking to claim land and natural resources. In a report published in January 2018, the Catholic peace-building organization Pax Christi International identified as much as eight new violent organizations that are threatening the indigenous communities living in the Cauca Valley, ever since the FARC exited the area. Today, these violent organizations make Cauca one of the most dangerous places in the world for indigenous rights campaigners and environmental activists. Leaders tend to be killed by armed groups who are excluded from the peace process, in an effort to thwart civilian mobilisation in order to consolidate control over formerly FARC-held areas. Between January 1st and November 17th of 2018, an alarmingly high amount of 226 social leaders were killed in Colombia, the highest amount of these killings (67) occurring in the Cauca region.
To the average Colombian, these numbers are merely a reflection of a historical trend of indigenous communities’ victimization in Colombia’s armed conflict. As a response to the continued violence by both the State and the guerrilla during the armed conflict, the indigenous people of the Cauca started organizing themselves in the beginning of the 1990s. The Guardia Indígena was born and declared itself neutral, rejecting all armed actors in their territories. Today the Guardia Indígena of Cauca is a well-established and respected community self-defence movement in Colombia, which propagates a non-violent approach to confronting the armed conflict. Although the guards do not carry arms – its members only carry a colourful staff displaying their mandate – they have been relatively successful in arresting heavily armed opponents and turning them over to the justice system of the indigenous authorities and the state.
Indigenous autonomy: the Nasa’s ‘Mother Earth’-policy
Under the Colombian constitution, indigenous territories are recognized as communal in nature, unavailable for sale or rent, and most importantly; they are governed by the indigenous communities. Indigenous tribes throughout Colombia have a distinct understanding of their natural surroundings, and society is viewed as being united with nature. According to indigenous beliefs, people, animals, plants and spirits together form a great cosmic society where relations all are identical to those of humans. For these communities, the civil war did not only destroyed their livelihoods, but also took a great environmental toll. A senior member of the Indigenous Guard of Cauca was quoted in The Observer saying that “Until recently, the Cxhab Wala Kiwe (Nasa people) were absorbed in simply saving our community from war and preventing paramilitary groups from recruiting our children. […] Now there is no war, we can focus more on the liberation of Mother Earth. Extractive industries and monocultures are contrary to our belief system. People here are aware of what is going on elsewhere in the world. We know how the climate is changing. We know about contamination of the land. We don’t want that.”
In 2015, the tribes of the Cauca region started a campaign for ‘liberating Mother Earth’, in which they seek to halt the mono-cultivation of sugar and pine. When the Peace Accord was signed in 2016, and the FARC started exiting their formerly controlled areas, this campaign intensified. The first chapter of the Agreement that focuses on land reform states that land, which was taken during the conflict, should be returned to its initial owners. However without specifying what this really meant, the indigenous communities of Cauca were quick to interpret this clause as a right to reclaim ancestral lands, which they believe was taken from them by colonial forces (i.e. large international companies and landowners). The battle for land started instantaneously, staking militias (who are frequently on the payroll of land owners), rioting police and indigenous activists against one another.
This campaign of liberating Mother Earth, which has now been coupled with the reclaiming of ancestral lands in the framework provided by the CPA, illustrates exactly how violent Colombia’s peace has become. Disappointingly, the state’s security apparatus has been slow to respond to the new violent dynamics at the regional level, which has left many of the indigenous communities feeling abandoned. In this context, the Guardia Indígena now plays a more important role than ever, protecting the indigenous communities and their lands – and attempting to stabilize a peace against those who would seek to undermine it.
La Guardia Indígena
The Guardia Indígena, the indigenous guard of the Cauca region, consists of approximately 2,000 members, made up of the 19 different indigenous communities or cabildos (traditional indigenous authorities) living in the Cauca region. The Guardia patrols the indigenous territory, reports suspicious activity or people, and plays a leadership role in protecting the Nasa people, sometimes ushering them out erupting violence in their settlements or trying to negotiate with the guerrillas or army to leave the territory. To become an indigenous guard, you need to be elected by the community. It is a voluntary responsibility, and isn’t exactly for the fainthearted. As mentioned, they are often the target of non-state armed groups, mafia and state forces throughout the civil war, as well as in the undeclared battle for territory that followed the signing of the CPA. In the current context, the main threats for indigenous communities in the Cauca region mainly relate to illegal gold-mining activity (the newest source for conflict), battles over drug trafficking routes and coca crops.
During an interview in 2010, the Governor of the indigenous reservation of Lopéz in the Northern Valley of Cauca noted that “[t]he Colombian government does not represent us, so we have created our own security system. In each indigenous community individuals are selected to serve for a year defending our land. Each indigenous guard receives a cane (el bastión), which is passed on by the previous guard and which represents the authority and responsibility of the position. The guard carries the ancestral staff wherever he goes. It is received voluntarily; nobody is paid to defend his people. And although everyone in our communities would fight for our freedom, the staff indicates to those of us who have been physically and psychologically prepared during the year to defend our people and our land.”
In Colombia’s current ‘post-conflict’ context, the relationship between the indigenous population of the Cauca region and the Colombian state is, at best, complicated. In the eyes of the indigenous populations across the country, the Colombian state has systematically denied the basic rights of their peoples during the 52-year old civil war (indigenous rights were laid out in Colombia’s 1991 Constitution). Old habits die hard, and with the signing of the CPA in 2016 there are still great suspicions and disappointments that hamper the process to establish a territorial peace in these autonomous indigenous territories. It is important to note that the CPA (2016) propagates a territorial approach that acknowledges how the conflict has affected some territories in Colombia more than others, and clearly endorses that a transition from conflict to peace will not be fully achieved if efforts are not articulated and the population in the most conflict-affected territories is not mobilized around peace.
An indigenous leader of the Nasa tribe in Cauca was quoted in 2010, stating that "[b]efore the highly militarized State [of Colombia], the indigenous guard is the only defence we can exercise. We have declared ourselves neutral, without aligning ourselves with the guerrillas or the army. We are offering a peaceful solution based on ending colonization [of the lands by foreign companies at the hands of the Colombian state] and respect for life and culture. We do not have guns, and do not need guns to exercise control. And although we have received many threats, many authorities have also come to respect the indigenous guard."
An impressive achievement on behalf of the Guardia Indígena was accomplished in the Spring of 2011, when the guards successfully fended off an illegal gold-mining operation that would have otherwise caused major environmental destruction. As bulldozers were advancing up the Mondono river in the Las Canoas reserve, inhabitants were alarmed and called the indigenous guards. After warning the drivers of the bulldozers with a letter, urging them to leave the area in 15 days, the guards decided to mobilized close to a thousand Nasa and position them on the banks of the river, as well as another thousand who stationed themselves in the hillside overlooking the bulldozers. The guards informed the drivers that they had to leave the lands instantly and not come back, threatening to burn the bulldozers if they would. Ultimately, the bulldozers responded to this request and decided to leave, trailed by two thousand members of the indigenous communities, who stayed on their heels until they exited the reserve.
Challenges for the Colombian state
As the signing of the CPA has now passed its 2-year mark, it is crucial to reflect on the dire situation in some of the most conflict-affected territories in Colombia. In the Cauca region, with its predominantly indigenous population, the Colombian state seems to take the back seat in trying to mitigate some of the newest conflict-dynamics that are threatening the physical security of its inhabitants. It isn’t only a case of failing state-security, however. The implementation of the first chapter of the CPA on land reform and the restitution of land to its rightful owners proves to be a time-consuming task and more importantly; a new source for conflict that threatens the legitimacy of the Colombian state in the most fragile areas of the country.
Land distribution in Latin America is the most unequal in the world - and amongst these countries Colombia takes the prize. This trend derives from the Spanish colonial period, when many holdings were consolidated. For example in the 1960s, 0.2% of farms (mind you, these are the large industrial farms) comprised roughly 30% of all Colombian land. According to Oxfam Novib, 84% of all small farms control just 4% of all productive lands of Colombia in 2016. Having acknowledged this problem as one of the root causes of the Colombian conflict, the land restitution process in Colombia is being led by Law 1448 of 2011 (Victims and Land Restitution Law). This law allows those who have been dispossessed of land during the conflict to apply for its legal return. Furthermore, Law 1448 initiated the Land Restitution Unit. This Unit promotes special judicial proceedings and authorizes the use of unconventional evidence, given that many displaced Colombians have lost their documentation proving property ownership.
The restitution process itself is lengthy, and faces some interrelated challenges. Firstly, the scale of implementation is immense, and the estimated amounts of land to be restituted differ. Either way, by May 2018, less than 7% (7468 cases) of the total amount of land restitution cases were decided on by judges - which illustrates the vastness of this enormous task. Moving at this speed, it is improbable that the government will complete compensation for the victims before the Victims and Land Restitution Law expires in 2021. Other challenges for the process involve the lack of trust in government institutions, as well as some of the dynamics in national politics. Incumbent president Duque has made it clear he prefers to stick to the status quo - which will certainly benefit his large-landowners-containing-coalition.
One of the biggest challenges to the land restitution process however, is the continued violence in the territories. Although the FARC has demobilized, other rebels remain active. Recently, a new right-wing paramilitary group, known as the Ejército contra Restitución (Army Against the Restitution of land), has emerged in the North and Southwest of Colombia, which only increases fear and risk for those returning to their land. This development has alarmed public officials throughout the country, and may have inspired institutional collaboration in the most risk-averse areas. In Cauca, the national army and the Land Restitution Unit are working together to ensure that the populations feel secure enough to return to their lands. Needles to say but important to stress, it is paramount that the Colombian state continues to augment their presence in the territories. Especially since new paramilitary groups, along with bandas criminales (criminal gangs), continue to carry out illegal acts, pursuing political and economic agendas and colluding with security forces, government officials and businesses - all at the expense of the legitimacy of the peace process and the Colombian state.
Criminal investigations into land reform have been, at best, half-hearted, and civil society groups suspect that corporate entities may be behind attacks on land restitution claimants and leaders. That land reform remains a sensitive topic, even for the authorities, is illustrated by Ricardo Sabogal, the head of the Land Restitution Unit, who shared that “we were told to apply the law only in areas where there are conditions for people to return...we have to walk very carefully to avoid loss of lives.” As it becomes obvious how land reform in Colombia remains a hot and hanging iron and a source for popular suspicion, it is not surprising that the indigenous communities have decided to take their faith into their own hands.
Indigenous auto-defense and the Colombian state
In the face of all these complexities and challenges in the implementation of the CPA, it becomes clear that the Guardia Indígena plays a crucial role; community-led protection seems to be the only instrument of security that indigenous peoples in the Cauca region can consistently depend on. What can be learned from the ways in which these indigenous communities in Cauca deal with the new conflict dynamics that have developed in their territories in the aftermath of the CPA? An important lesson learned from the Guardia Indígena’s response in the spring of 2011, is that unity is an important factor that needs to be taken seriously in the face of outward threats. Although the spider web of interrelated challenges in the Colombian post-conflict seems discouraging for any peace builder, not to mention for a big bureaucratic monster like the Colombian State, there are ways to move forward and strengthen the peace process in the territories.
In December 2018, Alvaro Quiguanas, a member of the Asociación de Cabildos Indígena Nasa (ACIN) in the municipality of Jambaló, Northern Cauca, outlined some of the practical challenges faced by the Guardia Indígena. Some of the areas in the Cauca valley are quite secluded and mobile reception is bad, making it hard for the Indigenous Guards to coordinate between different outposts. According to Quiguanas, better infrastructural means to improve communication would already increase the capacity of the Guardia Indígena, in terms of coordination and effective mobilization. This is highly necessary, considering the high level of murder rates amongst indigenous rights defenders in the Cauca region, which has a devastating impact on the communities.
Practical solutions like these could very well provide a way forward in securing the lives of the indigenous communities, as well as in terms of building trust between the Colombian state and the indigenous authorities. Step by step, without eroding these communities’ right to indigenous self-determination, collaboration between state institutions and the indigenous authorities should be tailored at stabilizing the peace in the territories. There is a space for collaboration between the indigenous guard and the national army, in which international peacebuilding institutions like the UN, or NGO’s like PAX Christi, can play an important role in supporting policies for protecting the communities in Colombia’s most conflict-affected areas.
The most important lesson to take away from the recent violence in Cauca (as well as in other fragile territories in Colombia) is that unity and resilience of the local/indigenous communities should be seen as crucial for the stabilization of the CPA in the territories, rather than a threat to state power. Rather than letting the indigenous communities fight it out amongst themselves, the Colombian state has an opportunity to make amends with victimized communities and augment its indirect influence in regions where state-presence is historically scarce. The best way to support the process of land restitution in Colombia, and to mitigate recent conflict dynamics, might be to provide technical support to augment the capacities of nonviolent self-defense community initiatives like those in Cauca. In this respect, an important role is reserved for the international peacebuilding community. The idea that indigenous communities do not contribute to civic life in Colombia has persisted for a long time, and right now might be the perfect time to start transforming that perspective.
By: Marthe Hiev Hamidi
MA student in Peace and Conflict Research (Uppsala University) experienced in policy analysis, International Relations and democratic inclusion.