Colombia: Indigenous Peoples Still Plagued by Violence Amidst Reconciliatory Talks
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Colombia: Indigenous Peoples Still Plagued by Violence Amidst Reconciliatory Talks

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January 17, 2013

A lot is riding on the ongoing peace talks between the Colombian National Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army (FARC–EP). Delegates from both parties exclaim that “the talks aim for real peace, which Colombia needs and deserves.”

While there isn’t a Colombian that has not been affected by this five-decade-long internal conflict, the indigenous communities have been hurt most severely. They continue living in fear of assassinations, forced displacements, unjustified arrests, and encounters with explosives and abandoned, yet still active, mine fields, all while their political liberties are highly restricted. In the first nine months of 2012 alone, 11,000 indigenous people were displaced forcefully, 78 were killed and 47 received death threats.

The peace negotiations have been designed to focus on issues beyond the end of the armed conflict, such as land reform, protection of citizens’ right to exercise political opposition, drug trafficking, and the rights of the victims of the conflict. The talks reconvened on January 14th in Havana, Cuba.

However, in the meantime, clashes between the rebels and Colombian forces continue, with thousands of indigenous people caught in the crossfire. Before the talks began, President Juan Manuel Santos rejected rebel calls for a ceasefire, saying military operations would continue until a final agreement has been reached: “I’ve told them there will be cease-fire and we will stop any military operation when we reach a final agreement,” said Santos. “And if I see that there’s no progress, that they are simply trying to buy time, I will stand up and continue business as usual. And that’s why there’s no cease-fire, no decrease in our military operations, operations and my government agenda will continue as it was until then.

On the other hand, the FARC called for a unilateral two-month ceasefire on November 20th in honour of the peace talks and the holidays. However, FARC Commander Ivan Marquez does not see the ceasefire as an indication of peace: “Peace does not mean that arms go quiet, that we no longer use our arms but it means transforming the state structures – the economical, financial and military structures.” Marquez expects land reform to be the main priority of the talks.

While both parties approach the negotiation table with different priorities, fighting in the highlands of Colombia continues to ravage indigenous villages. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) reported that there has been an increase in confrontations between the armed groups on indigenous territories since the start of the reconciliatory talks.

Ignoring the communities’ pleas for the respect of their physical and cultural integrity and autonomy, the government and FARC continue to impose their agenda on the indigenous communities, regardless that Colombia signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in April, 2009. The declaration upholds the Indigenous Peoples’ right to their land and to protection by the state.

The Spanish colonizers and Colombia’s subsequent rulers had exploited the indigenous population in the country for centuries. The indigenous peoples have seen their lands expropriated to wealthy landlords and armed groups, and have been relocated higher into the mountains where the farming conditions are quite unfavourable.

Today, the indigenous people of Colombia constitute 3.4% of the population, or 1 million in a country of 43 million people. Of them, 80% of are situated in the Andean departments of Cauca, Nariño, and La Guajira, and comprise a total of 90 distinct indigenous populations. According to the Colombia’s Constitutional Court, at least 27 of those populations are at risk of disappearing as a result of the armed conflict. The ONIC reports that 18 of them are already at acute risk of extinction.

At the onset of the FARC movement, many Indigenous Peoplse saw them as an alternative to the traditional elite state actors: “At the beginning, the guerrillas were helping the indigenous in their fight against the landowners,” states Father Roattino, a missionary who has worked in Cauca for over 3 decades. “But things have changed dramatically.” The Indigenous became the most vulnerable victims due to their communities’ strategic location for the drug cartels the FARC has depended on to finance their military needs. Big plots of land were turned into minefields to protect drug trafficking activities, thus endangering and displacing entire villages.

According to the UNHCR, Colombia has one of the highest numbers of internally displaced people (IDP’s) in the world. There are about 3 million registered IDP’s in Colombia, of which an estimated 41,000 are indigenous. However, indigenous displacement often goes unregistered due to the remoteness of indigenous territory, lack of access to public services, and cultural barriers.

If not displaced, Indigenous men, women, and children are sometimes recruited to join the FARC’s activities and oftentimes assassinated if they show resistance. The ONIC reported the murders of about 1,980 indigenous people just between 1998 and 2008.

Under Colombian and international law, members of indigenous populations are entitled to special protections by the state from forced displacement. However, the government has done very little to protect the indigenous, and are also reportedly responsible for countless atrocities of their own: “In the last 10 years, the Colombian army has been responsible for over 3,000 extrajudicial killings, numerous forced displacements and forced disappearances,” reported Rampietti for Aljazeera. The government argues that they solely aim at guerrilla fighters; however, ever so often they accuse innocent civilians of cooperating with the guerrillas and stage attacks and raids on whole villages.

The indigenous communities of western Colombia are most affected by the conflict; the Nasa people from the Cauca Department in southwest Colombia, the Embera Chami from the Risalarda and Choco Departments in the western central region, among the numerous indigenous reservations in the northwest highlands.

Most recently, on November 17th, 2012, the national army came down on the community of Kwe’s Kiwe in La Gallera, terrorizing the households of civilians and causing the death of Maria Eugenia Diego Rivera, a 20-year old Nasa woman.

In December, 127 Embera Chami people were returned home, after having taken refuge in Bogota for the past 10 years. While portions of their land were finally, the ONIC reported concerns of their safety, as well as the lack of infrastructure and resources in their homeland to support their return.

Doubts about resettlement strategies for the Embera is are justified, especially since threats, intimidations and displacements continue. Local officials state that in the first week of December, 400 Embera people were forced to flee their homes and take refuge in the town of Tado, where security and resources for the displaced are minimal. Fifteen people are reported to have been killed during the confrontations by the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second largest guerrilla force in Colombia.

Some of the most targeted victims of the conflict are indigenous leaders who speak out against atrocities committed by the FARC and the national government, and stand for solidarity and respect of their traditionally owned lands.

In northern Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the leader of the Arhuaco people, Rogelio Mejia Izquierda, survived an assassination attempt on Nov. 8. The car he was riding in was shot at more than 40 times; yet he miraculously survived the attack. This assassination attempt brought about the remembrance of the murders of three Arhuaco leaders two decades ago by Colombian army men who have, to this day, gone unpunished.

On December 12th, Jesus Dalmiro Lopez Moreano, an elected governor from the Association of Town Halls of the Awá Indigenous Groups of Putumayo, was murdered brutally in the municipality of Puerto Caidedo. The Awa people have seen many of their leaders fall into the hands of paramilitary rebels. Local leaders state that such attacks demoralize the organizational and communitarian spirit of the Awás and ask for such violence to end immediately, stating: “We have nothing to do with the internal conflict in Colombia.

Indigenous political leaders who aid the indigenous communities in urban areas have also been targeted for their activism in recent months. In the last few weeks, two central indigenous leaders were brutally assassinated. Ismael Hurtado, known for his participation in the council of Chikarigua, was gunned down in Medallin. Reinaldo Domico, a leader of the Embera indigenous communities in Deveiba, was killed in front of his whole family during their New Years Eve celebration by an assassin described as “non-indigenous.” According to the Indigenous Organization of Antioguia (OIA), Domico had previously received threats from a neo-paramilitary group known as the “Urabeños.” Only too often do indigenous leaders become victims of paramilitary groups, who see their leadership as a threat to their hold on power in both rural and urban communities.

On December 10th, the International Day of Human Rights, the ONIC published a statement that the assassinations of indigenous leaders directly impact the communities’ organization, and thus weaken their capacity to protect themselves from the country’s internal conflicts. The Ministry of Human Rights states that between January and November of 2012, 19 indigenous leaders were killed, 7 of whom were Nasa from the Cauca region.

Long-lasting peace may be far from reach due to the two main actors’ divergent priorities while the Colombian government prioritizes demilitarization of all paramilitary forces, the FARC seeks immediate land reform and systematic changes. FARC’s Ivan Marquez, sees agricultural reorganization as the central landmark for peace, and calls for popular participation in the creation of an integrated agricultural development and the termination of latifundia forenization of the territory.

The added complexity of identifying who the real aggressors are also intensifies the conflict and makes reconciliation appear even further off. The FARC make up just one of many armed groups that contribute to the violence in Colombia. If the FARC does lay down its arms, the government will still have to deal with other rebel, paramilitary and drug-trafficking groups.

However, progress has been seen on some fronts, especially when it comes to including civil society in the talks. Colombia’s Congress, with the help of the UN, held the first public forum on November 4th in the southwest city of Pasto, Nariño department. However, local organizations have demanded to be further engaged in the process.

Regional roundtable meetings were also designed to “guarantee the extensive participation of different regional social sectors, including organizations of farmers, indigenous peoples, afro-Colombians, women, union workers, students, human rights defenders, youth, environmentalists, LGBTQ communities, peace initiatives, churches, guilds, businesses, academics, social researchers and victims of the conflict.” The meetings have been held throughout the country and have addressed agrarian reforms and political participation. They are anticipating continued discussions related to victims, which will directly influence the Indigenous Peoples’ involvement in the peace talks.

Being the primary victims of this 50 year conflict, the Nasa, Awa and other Indigenous Peoples want to be a part of the reconciliatory talks. On November 22nd, the ONIC and the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) outlined the “Indigenous and Popular Peace Proposal,” demanding that it be taken into account during the peace talks. The proposal emphasizes issues of territorial and traditional autonomy, and the opening of talks to popular participation. However, the indigenous communities’ involvement is yet to be determined.

Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International, stated: “Respect for human rights must be at the top of the agenda in the forthcoming peace talks between the government and the FARC. Without a clear commitment from all the parties to the conflict to end sexual violence and other human rights abuses there can be no lasting and stable peace in Colombia.” While all parties hope for a long-lasting resolution to the conflict, there is no group that awaits peace more anxiously than the indigenous communities, which continue to live in fear of assassinations, displacements, and destruction of their cultural and territorial autonomy.

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