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COLOMBIA: Native Protest Continues Despite Talks with Uribe

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Nov 3 2008 (IPS) - In his meeting with indigenous protesters Sunday, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe did not give in to any of the movement’s main demands, and the demonstrators decided to continue their protest, which is in its fourth week.

Uribe addresses the Minga. Credit: ACIN

Uribe addresses the Minga. Credit: ACIN

The National Minga of Indigenous and Popular Resistance ("minga" is a traditional indigenous meeting for the collective good) had initially scored a victory when the right-wing Uribe agreed to travel to the Guambiano community’s La María reservation in southwestern Colombia for the talks.

But the president arrived two hours late for Sunday’s meeting, and after six hours of negotiations, the central point on the protesters’ agenda was still unaddressed: agreements signed since the 1970s by indigenous communities and other social sectors with earlier administrations, which have never been implemented.

When Uribe attempted to leave the remaining points on the agenda for discussion with a committee of ministers, he was booed by the Minga participants, who have been demanding his direct involvement because they no longer believe in special task forces.

That is why the Minga will continue, said Ayda Quilcué, a top leader of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), one of the country’s most powerful indigenous associations. "We are going to walk the talk," she said.

Around 2,000 indigenous people and labour representatives directly took part in Sunday’s meeting with Uribe, while another 4,000 people in the La María reservation watched the proceedings on a television screen, as the talks were broadcast live by the public Institutional Channel.

Security was in the hands of eight concentric rings of members of the Indigenous Guard, who carefully searched each participant, accompanied by members of the security forces.

"The idea is to guarantee that the dialogue is not torpedoed for any reason," Silsa Arias, head of communications for the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), told the on-line Amerindian radio station Dachibedea, which has links to 36 other indigenous stations around the country.

This time there was no welcoming applause for Uribe, whose popularity ratings stand at 77 percent in the polls after six years in office and who is used to warm welcomes.

Instead, he was met by eight empty coffins – a reminder of indigenous people killed in massacres, and of Nasa leader Álvaro Ulcué Chocué, Colombia’s first indigenous Catholic priest, who was murdered by hired thugs in 1984.

The meeting began just after noon local time, with an episode that caused some tension. Uribe considered it disrespectful when some of the indigenous people present did not stand up when the national anthem was played, followed by the anthems of the CRIC and the Indigenous Guard (who were unarmed).

"We can’t say we’re operating in a framework of respect when we have been called terrorists and criminals," said Quilcué.

She pointed out that when their protest began on Oct. 11, Uribe repeatedly accused the demonstrators of being guerrillas, terrorists or delinquents.

"If we sit down during the national anthem, it is to protest against a country that does not respect cultural diversity," said Quilcué.

The new Colombian constitution approved in 1991 made a stride forward by recognising the multi-ethnic character of a country with 102 different indigenous groups (making up roughly three percent of the population), a mixed-race (different mixtures of European, Amerindian and African) majority, and white, black, Roma (gypsy), and English-speaking minorities.

But Quilcué complained of "incitement of racism" by members of parliament, where most of Uribe’s allies are under legal investigation for their ties to far-right paramilitary groups that are deeply involved in the drug trade.

She complained that the security forces cut the poles of the CRIC flags, "burned our flags, and hoisted the Colombian flag instead."

Quilcué told the president and the senior officials sitting with him that "many of you have promoted hatred against us, from within the country’s institutional structure."

"We have been asking for this debate for four years, but it took 120 people injured and killed for you to come here today," she told Uribe, who at the start of the talks said he assumed "responsibility for our words."

The agenda of the talks was established by the indigenous people and the government, with the oversight of a commission of national and international facilitators of the talks, who also ensured that each side strictly respected the limits set to guarantee equal speaking time.

The first point discussed was the brutal clampdown on the demonstrators in La María by the anti-riot police, which triggered a week of violent clashes starting on Oct. 13 that left three indigenous protesters dead and around 170 people injured, including 39 police officers.

La María was designated a "territory of dialogue and peaceful coexistence" in 1999, when then president Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) launched peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the vast southern region of Caguán. (The talks broke down in February 2002).

"But those who were invited to take part (in the talks) were handpicked. The people themselves had no participation," said the indigenous governor of La María, Elides Pechene.

"This must be a scenario for debate. But what we are demanding must also take concrete shape, because this should not only serve to make the world believe there is dialogue," Quilcué said at the start of the talks.

The second point on the agenda was human rights violations by the security forces, followed by the issues of protection and expansion of indigenous reservations and unfulfilled agreements. The last point was to include the signing of commitments, but no agreement was reached.

During the discussion, the indigenous people talked about "the rivers, streams and lakes that are dying today, and the indigenous cultures that are disappearing, like the Yamaledo community, which has only 30 members left in the Amazon jungle," said Kuna leader Abadio Green.

"Our mother nature is in danger. You have handed over our territory to multinational corporations," which has led to forced displacement, murders and selective arrests, said Quilcué.

But the president will not seek to repeal the laws – on questions like mining, forests and water – that the indigenous movement considers harmful to the environment and to native territories.

He also refuses to endanger infrastructure works or projects that exploit natural resources like minerals, oil or water by submitting them to consultation with affected local and indigenous communities, even though that is a constitutional requirement.

"We cannot allow such consultations to be turned into vetoes or delays," said the president.

Uribe was also booed when he announced that he would sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples next year, but with at least two reservations: that the subsoil does not belong to indigenous peoples but to the nation, and that native communities do not have to be consulted with regard to investment projects in their territories.

With respect to the free trade deal signed with the United States, which is pending approval by the U.S. Congress, the Uribe administration officials claimed that opposition to the agreement is "political" and that indigenous intellectual property will be respected. But they ignored the indigenous movement’s suggestion that a similar agreement be signed with the rest of the nations of Latin America.

The president also refrained from commenting on complaints that legal hurdles have blocked, starting at the municipal level, the expansion of indigenous reservations – a question that is crucial to the survival of many of the country’s native cultures, as young people without land are increasingly moving to the cities.

Referring to Uribe’s "democratic security" policy and the heavy U.S. financing of government forces in Colombia’s civil war, Quilcué complained that "democratic security has been used to kill civilians," and "Plan Colombia has been at the service of democratic security."

Although Uribe argued that "there can be no areas off-limits to the fatherland’s army and police," he later softened that stance by saying he was willing to withdraw the security forces from La María if there were guarantees that the protesters would not block the Panamerican Highway – which leads to Ecuador – again, as they had done at the start of the protest.

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