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COLOMBIA
Mingas: Protest and reflection
Susan Abad
12/4/2008
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Indigenous populations march for growing rights infringements.

Thousands of indigenous Colombians marched in October and November, a protest hike of more than 500 kilometers from a southwestern corner of the country to Bogota, to call attention to generations of rights abuses against indigenous Colombians.

Protesters said these centuries of rights abuses has not eased in modern times and have even worsened under the government of President Álvaro Uribe.

“Since Uribe came to power, 1,253 indigenous have been killed, and we have 18 groups that are disappearing, among them the Juhup, Yari, Yamalero and Nukak people,” said Sen. Jesús Piñacué, a lawmaker for the Cauca department and a member of the Paez ethnicity, citing figures from the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, or ONIC.

The indigenous marches again highlighted the land problem that ethnic Colombians are living with, an issue that was “maliciously handled by Uribe,” according to Piñacué.

Land: A right ignored
On Oct. 18, Uribe said in a Communal Government Council — joint meetings with community authorities — that the Colombia´s indigenous population, which comprises just over 2 percent of the national population of 44 million people, has 27 percent of the country´s land.

“The government says that the indigenous have 31.6 million hectares and this is true in formal terms and the government presents this as if it were a state concession given to these peoples, but it’s really not like that,” says Juan Houghton, a researcher at the Center for Indigenous Cooperation. “Strictly speaking, it is about what the state hasn´t been able to take from them during the colonization and forced expropriation” that the indigenous peoples have faced.

He says that 90 percent of these lands are protected areas, mainly Amazon and Pacific forests, or other areas along the Orinoquia and the semi-arid regions of the Guajira, areas that according to the Amazon Institute for Scientific Research are unfit for intensive agriculture, because the land must be allowed to rest periodically. The soil also has a high acidity level.

Another challenge is small farm size and high population density, Houghton says.

According to the 2005 census, in Cordoba, home of the Zenu reserves, 146,916 Zenus hold just 14,314 hectares of land titles. Houghton says that “they live together outside of farms belonging to just one person, like that of President Uribe who has 2,000 hectares.”

For his part, Sen. Piñacué says while the issue does involve land rights, another important facet is these peoples´ right to govern themselves on this land, and how to use the natural resources that are found there.

He says that the state does not recognize the problem and paints the indigenous communities as minority opposition to mining, oil or other natural resource exploration projects.

Article 329 of the Colombian Constitution grants administrative, political, cultural and legal autonomy to indigenous lands, but for this to happen regulations are needed to set up a new land-use zoning in the country.

Eviction legislation
Houghton notes that even though indigenous communities´ economic, cultural and land security is protected by law, the state has introduced over the time a series of norms through loopholes to violate these rights. For instance, the legislation states the prohibition of the sale of indigenous land, but at the same time it states that biodiversity and natural resources – above and below the soil – belong to the state.

As a result, indigenous lands are routinely disrespected.

“We are looking at indigenous lands that end up being just the surface,” Houghton says, now that the state can access subsoil resources and others above the soil, adding that the state could privatize water and protected areas could be granted to private companies.

Colombia´s indigenous population has also suffered some of the worst damage from the country´s more than four-decade internal war, says Feliciano Valencia, head of the human rights program of the Indigenous Councils from Norte del Cauca Association.

According to Valencia, nine of the 11 sites that the state has set up as key national security points are on indigenous lands.

A continental view
These indigenous marches are not looking only for recognition of their rights and to stop the genocide they have suffered internally, but also to create a deep debate on the Western development model, which relies heavily on environmentally-dangerous natural resource extraction, Houghton says.

“These large indigenous marches, which are sometimes seen as just protest marches, are more than that,” he says. “It´s about being together, an exercise of debate, of discussion, of living democratic power. When the indigenous march against large extractive projects, the oil industry, governing methods … it´s about identities that transcend what is local and that are thinking more on a continental dimension.”

Valencia agrees, and adds that Colombia´s indigenous peoples oppose the free trade agreement with the United States, which is currently pending approval in the US Congress, saying that it will “open the flood gates” to multinational companies to set up giant projects on their lands.
—Latinamerica Press.


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Colombia´s indigenous fight for their ancestral lands and the right to self-determination. (Photo: J.C. González)
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