Colombia’s Minga Protests Demand Justice, but President Duque Isn’t Listening
Since March 10, Indigenous communities, leaders, and organizations in southwest Colombia have gathered in the Sat Tama Kiwe ancestral territory in an elevated stretch of the Pan-American Highway that connects the cities of Popayán and Cali. About 15,000 people have showed up for a Minga in Defense of Life, Territory, Democracy, Justice, and Peace.
Minga is a word of Quechua origin that refers to a collective effort for the common good. It is associated with the motions of everyday life in communities where land is collectively owned. In the past few decades, mingas have served an additional function for Indigenous groups in Colombia: a means to organize their protests against “invading forces” through song and willingness to fight for a better country.
This time, the protesters were up against Colombian president Iván Duque. Upon taking office in August 2018, and again in February 2019, Indigenous leaders representing grassroots organizations have invited him to have a discussion with them in Cauca. Although the letters sent to him went unanswered, they expected the president to show up on March 12. But on that day, the president sent ministers instead. To express their frustration, the minga came down from the mountainous outskirts and toward the highway, where they blocked access to the Pan-American Highway, and by default, access to the southern part of the country for 25 days.
After 27 days of negotiations and with several preliminary agreements between the minga protesters and state representatives in progress, the Pan-American Highway was cleared. Nevertheless, the minga has continued to wait for Duque in a permanent state of assembly. Though Duque eventually came to Cauca, he was a no-show to the meeting with the minguero/as.
In official statements shared on social media, the minguero/as explained that, “From Cauca, Huila, Valle, and Caldas, we invite the country to believe in and construct a project for collective life for the buen vivir of all people. Currently, this country imposes death and affects the life plans of every being.”
They go on to say:
“This minga does not just include Indigenous groups […] but also campesinos from the Proceso de Unidad Popular del Suroccidente Colombiano (Process of Popular Unity of Southwestern Colombia, PUPSOC) and the Coordinador Nacional Agrario (National Agrarian Coordination, CNA). In addition, we stand with truck drivers, workers, students and teachers that have marched recently, and the mass civilian mobilizations in defense of the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, JEP and the Peace Accords that are now at risk of being revoked.”
With these words, the minguero/as are referring to issues that have defined the first months of Duque’s government. After defeating Gustavo Petro, the leftist candidate supported by many Indigenous groups, the president has cast doubt on Colombia’s post-conflict transition inaugurated during the tenure of his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018). In late 2016, the Santos government signed peace accords between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC) amid a deeply divided country.
In the name of anti-impunity, Duque has called for revisions of the peace accords, such as the part allowing the FARC to become a political party. He also broke off ongoing discussions with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), and objected to the appointment of judges to the JEP tribunal, which was created as part of the peace accords to pursue justice for crimes committed within the scope of the armed conflict. At the same time, he has surrounded himself with a team of collaborators known for promoting neoliberal economic policy, protecting private property against the threat of “Castrochavismo,” defending the concept of family from “gender ideology,” and providing assiduous criticism of the Peace Accords. He also did not reject fracking and reverted to using glyphosate for aerial fumigations, a practice that ended under Santos. Riding this wave, the government—not without help from the United States—has sought to establish order in Colombia. The country is increasingly plagued by chaos and conflict in a post-peace non-peace context, where murders of Indigenous community leaders continues on a daily basis.
In this way, Iván Duque has quickly confirmed himself as the protégé—or vice minister, or puppet—of ex-president (2002-2010) and current congressman Álvaro Uribe. Duque’s presidency represents a return to policies that his predecessor proudly baptized as mano firme (hard-fisted), policies inspired by Uribe’s time as governor of the Department of Antioquia. During those eight years, his administration implemented a strict military operation to disavow the existence of the armed conflict in Colombia. There was no debate, only a plan aimed at fighting narco-terrorism. In an increasingly authoritarian environment, the cost was high: social organizations—many of them Indigenous—were stigmatized as “accomplices to subversion” alongside a spike murders of community leaders, a high number of innocent victims portrayed as “false positives,” and a series of scandals and cases revealing the close connection between the presidency and paramilitary groups.
In economic terms, his government highlighted stable growth and increasing foreign investment, while inequality and poverty worsened. In the name of progress and development, the projects that gained the most traction turned over the land to all kinds of agroindustry and extractivism, along with the violence these industries bring. Not only did this exacerbate the shakedowns that armed groups used to “control” areas “in service” to transnational companies, but it also worsened chronic hunger, which, according to a study published by the Fundación Nuevo Arco Iris, “has seriously impacted on the populations most neglected by the state, in regions where biodiversity, mineral resources, and agriculture thrive.”
Threats and Resistance
The Uribista policies had direct repercussions for Indigenous and Afrodescendant people—who had been recognized as “ethnic groups” under the 1991 Colombian Constitution, giving them land rights and political power that the state must protect, with the aim of maintaining their cultural integrity. Shortly after winning his first term, Álvaro Uribe sent a clear message: “the state will not relinquish even a centimeter of land.” He repeated this tirelessly, in a way taking aim at the relative autonomy of these communities while also escalating conflict with them.
At the same time, we must take the fact that 27% or more of Colombian lands are officially designated as Indigenous territory with a grain of salt. This does not make Indigenous groups the largest landowners in Colombia, as Uribe has suggested. The existence of vast reserves in the jungle and plains does not stop the problem caused by the scarcity of collective land in the Andean region. Also, because they were located in areas rich in natural resources and difficult to access and/or isolated from urban centers, community land titles sowed widespread greed over megaprojects and territorial disputes among guerillas, paramilitaries, drug traffickers, the National Army, the National Police, and others—putting residents in the crossfire.
Through opposition to the twin threats of neoliberal policy and the violence of rival armed groups encouraged by multiple illegal factions as well as through public pressure, these communities have rebranded their practices as acts of resistance in a series of mingas in 2004, 2008, 2009, and 2017, among others: Gran Minga por la Vida y la Dignidad (Great Minga for Life and Dignity) in 2004; Minga Nacional de Resistencia Indígena y Popular (National Minga of Indigenous and Mass Resistance) in 2008; Minga de Resistencia Social y Comunitaria (Grassroots Community Resistance Minga) in 2009; Minga Indígena Nacional “Por la Defensa de la Vida, el Territorio, la Paz y el Cumplimiento de los Acuerdos [de paz] (National Indigenous Minga “for the defense of life, land, peace, and the enforcement of the Peace Accords) in 2017; among others. These initiatives have become part of the prolonged history of Indigenous struggle in Latin America, and in Colombia, in the continuity of such organized resistance movements beginning in the 1970s. Through a grassroots movement that built itself up and gained visibility in Colombia, Indigenous groups were able to counter their perceived status as a “minority within a minority”—barely constituting 1.61% of the population at the time when the new Constitution was adopted; 3.4% according to the 2005 Census. Today, they face the threat of “mathematical extermination,” according to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia.
Since then, they have crafted their mission in two directions. On the one hand, they have organized campaigns to recover the land, lodged claims against discrimination and petitions affirming their right to express their authority over health and education models and/or relations with the environment. They demanded respect from the state and the rest of society as they faced legislation that considered them minors and “too savage to be civilized,” according to the racist Law 89, enacted in 1890, which was declared unconstitutional only in 1996.
On the other hand, they have insisted on the need for a shared struggle between those in favor of a radical shift in Colombia to combat the marginalization and exploitation of the majority of the population. “the indigenous people with small plots of land, terrajeros, laborers, peasants, we are all being exploited, just like campesinos throughout all of Colombia,” noted the first of cartilla, or letter, from the Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca (the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca) written to explain their campaign.
Today, Colombia’s recognition of indigeneity is reflected in the country’s identification as a pluri-ethnic and multicultural country. The minguero/as are basing their demands on the application of this principle, and with it, the solidification of agreements that are regularly “obeyed, but not fulfilled,” as the minguero/as write, by successive governments. For example, Santos signed the 1811 Decree in 2017, which would put Decree 982, signed a decade earlier by former president Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002)—to combat the “economic, social, and cultural state of emergency in Cauca”—into effect. These decrees were supposedly enacted to help resolve a long list of problems affecting the Indigenous population of Cauca, such as territoriality, the environment, peace and human rights, their own economy, health and food security, education, housing, water, culture, family, economic development, communication, and justice. Since then, the years have passed by, but not much has happened, affirm the minguero/as.
At the same time, the minguero/as have proposed going beyond just the needs of Indigenous groups. With the creation of regional and national organizations, Indigenous communities hoped to join forces with those sharing the same concerns. The minguero/as want to present the mingas as opportunities for dialogue with diverse actors and social organizations, including Afro-Colombians, campesinos, women, students, leftist militants, those who want to reduce inequality, environmentalists, and peace activists. In this sense, the minga is not just about Indigenous unity, but also a broader movement to combat a government remiss in its constitutional obligations.
Maintaining harmony between the various groups in attendance is probably one of the major challenges the minguero/as face—as it is for grassroots movements in general. In fact, in the spaces that the mingas have provided for conversations with the regional and national governments, there is a sense of tension between validating the rights of Indigenous groups and committing to a broader struggle against capitalism and other societal ills: inequality, colonialism, exploitation, extractivism, racism, and sexism, to name a few.
Indeed, the dynamic of the minga reflects the ongoing debate over balancing demands and public policy, between recognition and redistribution. The situation becomes even more complicated when state entities jointly make agreements that prioritize some of the groups participating in this grassroots alliance, but not all of them—take, for example, the Office of the Ministry of the Interior, which is explicitly dedicated to “Indigenous affairs.” In this way, the unity of the minga thus far risks becoming precarious when confronted with the possibility of separate negotiations with the state. Lastly, the question of land continues to be very sensitive—an issue that in the past has pitted Indigenous communities against one another, as well as Afrodescendant communities and campesinos.
Despite these difficulties, it should be noted that, beyond the changing demands from one minga to the next, they are part of the same process, which reflect, exchange, and express “contradictions, experiences, and diverse aspirations.”
In addition, previous highway uprisings have opened up more opportunities for representation for Indigenous groups. The Permanent Bureau for Consultation, for example, has worked to uplift Indigenous organizations into the electoral sphere since the ‘90s. Facing such spaces of interaction and negotiation, the minguero/as insist on establishing a “government to government” relationship, in which their leaders meet with state representatives. In this way, despite being unable to prevent the persistent violence that surround their lives, Indigenous communities have been able to maintain a strong stance and resist the threat of their assimilation—and disappearance—in exchange for being recognized by the state.
Duque Never Showed
During the four weeks that the minguero/as in Cauca spent imploring the president to meet with them, Duque did not respond to their pleas. Instead, anti-riot units and border patrol officers from the Army and the National Police intervened to “guarantee” public order. Duque referred to the illegality of blocking highway traffic, and accused the minga of infiltration by armed insurgencies—in this case, demobilized FARC dissidents. And, as in the past, the minga refuted these accusations. The number of victims began to add up on both sides, with numerous injured and dead—in addition to a suspected massacre of eight members of an Indigenous Guard following an explosion. And in the past few days, pamphlets with death threats against the minguero/as have again begun to circulate.
Unions begged the minguero/as to not give in to the pressure. And the regional governments affected by the blockades requested that the president to travel as far as needed to establish channels of communication with the minga, given the exceptional circumstances of the situation and its effect around the region. In other occasions, such as in 2008, after several weeks of resisting the pressure, the “immovable” Uribe ended up traveling to La María Territory of Dialogue, Coexistence, and Negotiation in Cauca, where the minguero/as were gathered. This time, he preferred to tweet against the minga, which he says is “sponsored by terrorists.” To his credit, the president finally announced that he would visit the Cauca region.
The current president’s concerns over Venezuela, however, have led some to respond with humor, joking that Duque can’t go to Cauca because, “he’s busy […] with Guaido.” Or in other cases, some have even asked Guaido to come to Cauca so that the Colombian government will pay attention to them
Duque finally went to Cauca in early April, where he spent several days meeting with local leaders. But he skipped his appointment with the minguero/as, who waited in vain for Duque on April 9 in the main plaza. Whatever happens next, it’s more than likely that the minga will be around for the long haul in its defense of life, land, democracy, justice, and peace.
Virginie Laurent, currently a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at la University of the Andes in Bogotá and an associate researcher at the Center for Research and Documentation of the Americas in Paris. Her work focuses on social movements and Indigenous politics in Colombia and the Andean region.