An Inside Look at Colombia’s Indigenous Guards
Colombia in focus ⬿

An Inside Look at Colombia’s Indigenous Guards

All Photos by Robin Llewellyn
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December 11, 2017

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos may have received the Nobel Peace Prize, but peace has not come to Colombia. Social leaders and members of indigenous communities have been targeted in a wave of assassinations that has swept through the countryside during this supposed “post-conflict” era–and the state has failed both to stem the killings and to curtail the spread of illegal mining and drug trafficking.

Indigenous guards are elected by their communities and mandated to protect Indigenous lives and territory without the use of arms. Throughout both the civil war and the undeclared battle for territory and resources that has followed it–and carrying only the staffs that serve as their mandate of office–Indigenous Guards have been killed by non-state armed groups of the left and the right, by the forces of the state, and by mafias unaligned to political ideologies. Yet they have also succeeded in arresting heavily armed opponents and submitting them to the justice systems of indigenous territories and the state.

Today new challenges arise as communities consider whether Indigenous Guards should be paid and become professionals, and whether or how they should integrate their function with that of the Colombian police.

No region of Colombia has been more affected by the newest wave of assassinations than the department of Cauca in the southwest. The reservation of Juan Tama lies on the border of Cauca and Huila departments, high up in the Sierra Central. Juan Tama contains a training ground where Indigenous Guards from Nasa, Misak, and Yanakona communities regularly meet to challenge each other and themselves.

Intercontinental Cry recently had the opportunity to visit Juan Tama during one of these spirited competitions.

Indigenous guards gather for the meeting that precedes the race.

Over the course of one single day, teams of indigenous guards must go through an obstacle course that has to be completed while racing against the clock. This particular event saw a competition between Nasa, Yanakona and Misak reservations from across Cauca and Huila.

“Guardia!” In advance of the race the indigenous guards come together, forming lines for each participating reservation, that meet in the center to form a star shape. The responsibilities and values of the Guardia are pronounced, and the aims of the competition clarified. This event saw a competition between reservations from across Cauca and Huila, including reservations of the Nasa, Yanakona and Misak peoples. All Photos by Robin Llewellyn

The obstacle sees regular competitions with indigenous guards from several reservations taking the opportunity to improve their teamwork and strength.

Guards practicing on the assault course before the competition.

Children play on the assault course as guards practice before the competition.

An Indigenous Guard takes his time completing an obstacle. When racing against the clock, it becomes much more difficult.

The life of an indigenous guard is not for the faint of heart. It comes with great personal risk and an even greater responsibility, as Fredy Chikangana, a poet and ‘Amauta’ (An Amauta is a Qechua word translated to mean, “messenger from the ancestral knowledge of the Yanakona People”) from the Yanakona reservation of Rioblanco, would tell us in a later interview.

'To be an indigenous guard is to narrate between generations, to protect the rights of all.'

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Fredy Chikangana told us that, “[B]eing an indigenous guard is a great responsibility in terms of the community and the territory. It is not just a matter of carrying the staff of office without commitment: there is a mission and it has to do with culture, with maintaining harmony in the community and maintaining harmony with Mother Earth.”

“To be an indigenous guard is a question of knowing to accompany the good work of the indigenous authorities, but if an authority fails, one also has to remember one’s ultimate obligation.”

The first team that raced against the clock. This particular obstacle consists of barbed wire strung between posts.

“The ancestors had various names for the indigenous guards of their day,” Fredy explained. For instance, there is ‘Aukaruna’ which is the Qechua word for a warrior, and ‘Aukas’ who were the vigilant beings of the forests.”

“To be a good indigenous guard one needs to have physical and mental readiness. It’s not just strength, it’s also the capacity to solve problems for the wellbeing (“buen vivir”) of the community.

A good indigenous guard also understands their culture–and they “[know] how to look at different approaches to be able to help their community.”

“He or she who is an indigenous guard must above all have caution and respect for the other, but also decisiveness when one has to act to defend the territory and the community,” he continued. “There are male and female indigenous guards in the same way there is the moon and the sun. Everyone knows how to enter a dialogue with their own gender, but in defense of the land, culture, and Mother Earth all are equal and act as if woven together.”

“To be an indigenous guard is to narrate between generations, to protect the rights of all.”

Balance, athleticism, and dedication are developed throughout the course: this obstacle is only ruled completed when the guard lands and launches in one movement into a forward role through mud.

Belsi Rivera is an indigenous guard in the Nasa reservation of Nasa Kiwe. She took part in the struggle for control of the Cerro de Berlin Mountain in Toribio, Cauca, that was occupied by the army. She also works with children for the educational institute of Nasa Kiwe.

Belsi told us, “The Nasa People have a history of struggle and resistance that is based in love for Mother Earth; she is the fount of energy because according to our cosmogony we are part of her and we see her reflected in our authorities such as our governors and our indigenous guards, and more specifically in the staffs of office that are carved from chonta wood that symbolizes both territory and legitimate authority. The staffs are bound by three hoops, each symbolizing a realm within our world-view.”

“The first realm is that of above, where the ‘sxaw’, the great spirits, live. The second is the middle realm where the animals and trees share the territory of the Nasas (known as the people who are children of water and the stars). The third realm is that of below, where water lies hidden and where minerals exist and must remain.”

“There were times in the past when the people struggled against the colonists who had come to evict and assassinate us, and we took up arms to defend ourselves,” Belsi continued. “This negatively affected our ideas and our respect for life, so we renounced arms and looked again to restore equilibrium. The struggles continued with the great idea of protecting our Mother Earth, and gradually we developed the idea that there needed to be people solely dedicated to being protectors, even though all people can and should pursue such goals. The ‘kiwe thegnas’ or indigenous guards have the permanent responsibility of establishing control and protection of the territory and of defending life and our Mother Earth.”

Another team races to complete the exercise.

“The indigenous guard is very involved in protecting the community when it seeks to liberate Mother Earth from the mono-cultivation of sugar and pine plantations, and to return that land to the community which was stolen from our ancestors. When we speak of the Liberation of Mother Earth, many call us criminals, but they don’t understand the importance for us of these spaces, and that to have them appropriately used is necessary for our harmony and spirituality. These lands are today owned by non-community members who have enslaved the collective goods for their own profit, and spread contaminants in the pursuit of making capital.”

Members of the community watch the race. The crossing the bog on a pole proved the most popular spectator attraction.

Jesus Bacca Guijano is an indigenous guard in the Nasa reservation of Munchique los Tigres, who has sought to protect water sources from the impact of mining and an unauthorized waste dump, both controlled by businessmen of the Sadovnik family. When Bacca led opposition to mining as president of the local JAC (neighborhood action committees – Junta de Accion Comunal), one of the Sadovniks sought to paint him as a member of the ELN guerrilla group. Bacca was detained but found not guilty. Today, the current governor of Munchique los Tigres is enabling an institutional process that would ensure the continued operations of the Sadovniks’ mine and dump sites. Bacca has continued to speak out against the plans; last month, reservation authorities placed charges of calumny against him.

“As indigenous guards, the staff is a symbol of resistance and of the survival of all the community: of all who continue to live committed to the reservations and the territories. To me it’s symbolic of every member of the community of Munchique los Tigres, not just the indigenous guards,” Bacca told us.

After crossing the pole over the bog guards enter a mud-tunnel. Obstacles develop strength but also test competitors with mental challenges such as claustrophobia.

“Our Nasa reservations are guided by planes de vida (plans of life – multi-year strategies for self-government) that are agreed in open sessions of the community, and our plan de vida says that we were born of water. Our mandate as indigenous guards is to liberate land [members of Nasa communities are involved in a struggle for land with local sugar haciendas, as well as with owners of operations within reservations such as the initiatives of the Sadovnik family] together with the members of the community who don’t have land. We are also obliged to liberate the sources of water, and the people understand this well. People can’t be legally persecuted by the indigenous authorities for liberating the land when it’s our mandate.”

The latest charges against me haven’t been investigated in front of a communal assembly; they’re just another example of the attacks that are causing disharmony in the territory and in members of the community. Frequently, we who have denounced the rubbish dump have received death threats from the paramilitaries such as the Aguilas Negras and Clan del Golfo. The governor is the legal representative of the community, and the governor must consult with the community in an open assembly. We haven’t seen this which has caused disharmony.”

Competitors race towards the finish line.

“As indigenous guards we must not receive funding from the state because we’d lose our identity; however it would be a good idea to have projects that would assist not ourselves but our families, so that if there is little work available they could still feed themselves when we are away serving with the indigenous guard.

I believe in a concept of the territory as being open for those who come from outside, who come here and respect it and want to live amongst us as members of the community. All can be members of the community.”

As the day came to a close, the Indigenous guards formed in lines to hear their final times; but in the end, the scores didn’t matter. Everyone agreed that the value of teamwork was a lesson all competitors shared–and because of that shared learning, all competitors won.

Indigenous guards pose for group photos after completing the exercise.

Guards from a reservation in Huila gather for a group photo after completing the race.

Indigenous guards pose after completing the race.

A clean guard gets surprised by the muddied competitors.

Later on, the Guards debated about how to encourage greater participation of female guards in future competitions.

They also spoke about the importance of maintaining readiness so that they can respond swiftly and effectively to the violence that is now taking place.

Indigenous guards of a reservation in discussion after the competition.

“For Indigenous Guards”

A poem by Fredy Chikangana

I only understand how to be a Guardian of the heavens,

For which one needs to know to be calm in the storm,

To have the clouds as good counselors and the sun as

The father that illuminates the path and

accompanies one into the darkness.

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