Land and the Persistence of Culture
Colombia in focus ⬿

Land and the Persistence of Culture

An indigenous Yukpa community strives to recover its land after years of conflict
A restitution claim made by over 120 Yukpa families is asking for 964 hectares of land that was taken from them over the course of Colombia's 50 year conflict.
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January 23, 2017

A community of indigenous Yukpa saw their land reduced to a third of what it once was due to violence and intimidation. Now Colombia’s Land Restitution Unit is helping the community return to their lands.

The spiritual equilibrium essential to the Yukpa community is off balance. Ancestral burial grounds have been desecrated by invaders; the trees that house the spirits are being cut down; and the wild game that Yukpa men once hunted with zeal is no longer available. The same limitations preventing the community from practicing its culture are preventing Yukpa parents from passing these activities, words, and stories down to new generations.

“The loss of culture is very real. Our children won’t know anything about the Yukpa if we aren’t rescued from extinction. If we don’t have space to preserve our culture, I guarantee that in thirty years, our culture will disappear,” says Andrés Vence, council leader of a Yukpa community consisting of 120 families living on 300 hectares in the Sierra Perijá on the border of Venezuela and Colombia.

“Culture’s longevity depends on territory.”

The yukpa believe that land is the key to allowing their culture, customs and beliefs to flourish.

There are an estimated 6,000 Yukpa remaining in Colombia, and the majority live on autonomous lands known as resguardos. Over the past thirty years, the Yukpa community living in La Laguna has been victim to abuse and intimidation stemming from the armed conflict. The community has also seen its ancestral lands become increasingly occupied by “outsiders,” whom they refer to as colonists. Now, the community is pushing back by launching an ethnic restitution claim that seeks to recover 964 hectares of land and allow the community the space it needs to flourish.

Humiliation and abuse

In 1982, the guerrilla group known as the FARC came to Yukpa territory to recruit. Andrés Vence was abducted for eight days to be indoctrinated. He and the Yukpa resisted, but then another guerrilla group known as ELN arrived the following year. After the ELN abducted several young men, Vence and his men–armed with just bows and arrows–marched into the guerrilla camp and took their children back, saying the Yukpa would not participate in any war.

A Yukpa security guard, still armed with bow and arrow.

When the Colombian military entered the scene in the mid-1990s, the situation turned for the worst. Yukpa families could no longer move freely from house to house, leading to the systematic abandonment of more than 900 hectares of land. For years, military checkpoints restricted the flow of food between families. AS if that wasn’t bad enough, paramilitary groups—who were often the same members of the military—came to the Yukpa villages at night to terrorize the community.

“They abused and humiliated us,” says Vence. “I think it was all in the hopes that we would open our mouths and say something that gave them the right to murder us.”

Andrés Vence, mayor and leader of the Yukpa community making the restitution claim.

Documented history

In 2015, the regional Land Restitution Unit (LRU) in Cesar focused on “characterization studies,” an essential piece of evidentiary material that documents the background, victimization, and suffering of indigenous communities who wish to reclaim their land. Characterization is a critical step in substantiating an ethnic restitution claim. The USAID-funded Land and Rural Development Program* partnered with the LRU to expedite the process.

Over the course of six months, researchers visited the Yukpa, where they interviewed individual members and held focus groups. They also collected materials from the government, non-governmental organizations, academic texts, and the media. The end result was nearly 200 pages of history, mapping, experience, and evidence presenting how the armed conflict contributed to the decimation of the Yukpa’s culture, livelihood, and overall prosperity.

A Yukpa woman tends laundry high in the clouds of the Yukpa lands, which rise over 3000 meters in the Sierra Perijá on the border of Colombia and Venezuela.

In addition to carrying out the characterization studies, USAID helped regional restitution offices improve coordination with partner members of the Victims Assistance and Comprehensive Reparations System and municipal officials.

“The partnership gave us operating capacity. Without this support, we would have taken another one or two years to get to this case,” says Jorge Chávez, Director of the Land Restitution Unit in Cesar.

The document will be filed as part of the Yukpa community’s land restitution claim, which will go before a restitution judge before the end of the year. By law, judges must issue a ruling within six months after a restitution claim is filed in the court. In Cesar, the Yukpa case will be the third ethnic restitution case to reach the courts, making the department an important player in the nationwide effort to heal the historic rift between the government and Indigenous Peoples.

Colombia’s indigenous communities are often the country’s most vulnerable. Over the past five years, Colombian restitution judges have issued three ethnic restitution sentences, delivering over 124,000 hectares of land back to indigenous communities.

There are currently over 24 ethnic restitution cases in the characterization phase that stand to affect over 10,000 families in Colombia.

“All over the country, there are ethnic restitution cases reaching judges. The LRU is in its fifth year and these cases are becoming more and more important to resolve. This particular case is very important because the Yukpa are losing their cultural identity, and we recognize that,” according to Chávez.

In its five years, restitution judges have issued three ethnic restitution sentences, delivering over 124,000 hectares of land back to indigenous communities.

As the Yukpa wait on the judge’s ruling, the case’s progress has emboldened Vence to mobilize the community—including the older citizens known as Yimayjas—to transmit the collective memory and cultural skills like weaving mochilas, practicing spiritual rites, and crafting shields to fend off malignant spirits.

Every Wednesday and Friday, Yukpa children attend “Yukpa studies” at the only school in the resguardo.

A favorable ruling will be key to restoring Yukpa faith in the Colombian government. “We’ve put pressure on the government for many years to do this, so our hope is temporary. We watch television, and indigenous culture is never part of the conversation. Indigenous communities are the most vulnerable,” explains Vence.

* Nicholas Parkinson works for the Land and Rural Development Program.

Nicholas is an NGO writer currently based in Bogota, Colombia and working on a large land tenure program that sets out to strengthen government land administration agencies to better serve millions of victims displaced by the violence. Over the past six years, he has worked mainly on agriculture-focused projects in Ethiopia, Liberia, Uganda and Somalia, among others. He specializes in NGO documentation and teaches local writers how to create attention-grabbing stories for their NGOs. On his weblog you can find stories from his immigrant life, some thoughts on development aid, and a strong dose of rock climbing and adventure.

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