Civil Society, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Q&A: Indigenous People in Colombia “Have Become a Strong Force”

Mario Osava interviews indigenous leader AÍDA QUILCUÉ

BOGOTA, Apr 16 2009 (IPS) - There is a heavy turnover of social movement leaders in Colombia, given the frequency with which they are killed, displaced or forced into exile. And because of the dangers, those who step up to the plate can be considered veritable heroes – one of whom is indigenous leader Aída Quilcué.

“Resistance” is a term frequently used by the 36-year-old Nasa Indian, who is chief counselor of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), and whose activism made her the target of an attack that cost the life of her husband, Edwin Legarda, in December.

Thanks to the visibility she gained in her leadership role in the “Minga” (a Quechua term for collective work for the common good) of Indigenous and Popular Resistance, which mobilised more than 30,000 demonstrators in marches along roads in Colombia in October and November, she stands a chance of being elected senator in the 2010 elections.

Two seats are reserved for indigenous representatives in the Senate, and two in the lower house of Congress.

In this interview with IPS, Quilcué talks about her life and the difficulties and suffering faced by indigenous people in this country that has been in the grip of civil war since 1964.

IPS: Tell me about your husband’s murder. Is it true that you were the target of the attack? AÍDA QUILCUÉ: I was a leader of the Minga. With that mobilisation, we gained visibility and put the question of indigenous peoples’ rights on the agenda, and the accusations by the government (of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe), that we were terrorists and criminals, and belonged to the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) were proven to be untrue, at the national and international level.

One of the consequences was the attack planned after I took part in Switzerland in the Universal Periodic Review (the United Nations Human Rights Council mechanism to assess member states’ fulfillment of human rights obligations).

I arrived back in Bogotá on Dec. 15 and on Dec. 16 they killed my husband. I had a council meeting with the local authorities of Tierradentro (an indigenous reservation in the municipality of Páez, in the western department of Cauca). The military knew that at 4:00 AM I would be riding in the pickup truck that I always take to work. But it was only my husband in the truck, carrying a nurse in the passenger seat, when the army opened fire on them. (The nurse was injured but survived).

Fortunately the indigenous guard and the local council members reacted quickly, and seized the shooters, who were 37 members of the army.

An army squadron took responsibility for the killing, which was initially reported as a mistake. They said the truck failed to follow orders to stop at a military checkpoint. But later they admitted that they received the order to open fire on the truck, which was supposedly carrying a FARC leader with a load of weapons.

The investigation carried out by the authorities and the attorney-general’s office has only found those who did the actual shooting. Now we’re looking for who gave the order. When one of the soldiers who said he received the order to shoot was about to testify, he was almost killed, and now he has protection from the attorney-general’s office.

But to me it’s obvious that it was the government that gave the order, trying to show the international community that we belonged to the FARC, with this business of “false positives” (murders of civilians passed off by the military as guerrillas killed in combat).

IPS: And the 37 soldiers facing prosecution – are they in prison? AQ: No, they are at a military base, guarded by the army itself. The attorney-general’s office was going to issue arrest warrants, but we said it shouldn’t do that yet, because first we want to know who ordered the killing. The case is in the evidence gathering stage, and a public hearing, which has been seriously delayed, is to be held.

IPS: How did you become chief counselor of the CRIC at such a young age? AQ: I am the daughter of one of the chiefs of my reservation. My father was governor and today he is “capitán”, a position of lifelong authority in the reservation.

My leadership role began during the tragedy that occurred in Tierradentro in 1994 (when an earthquake caused landslides and extensive flooding of the Paéz River, claiming more than 1,000 lives). We were displaced from our homes, and I was transferred to a different reservation.

I started helping and organising the displaced at that time, and then I became a member of the local indigenous council (“cabildo”), a community educator, a health worker and eventually governor of the reservation.

From 2000 to 2005, I was president of the Regional Indigenous Council in the (western) department of Huila. I returned to Tierradentro in 2006, where I became health coordinator, and in 2007 the authorities elected me chief counselor of the CRIC.

IPS: Did you study at the university? AQ: I’m more a product of grassroots training. I went to school until the ninth grade. My training has been more practical and hands-on, in the communities.

IPS: After the murders of (at least eight) Awá Indians in February, a guerrilla arms cache was discovered in Nasa territory in mid-March. What happened? AQ: In the Jambaló reservation there were guerrilla (drug) labs, bombs and other weapons, because drug trafficking is strong there. Around 2,000 people in the reservation decided to hold a minga to get rid of the weapons; they assumed the risk and dismantled the arms cache. Luckily no one was hurt. But they are still in imminent danger as an objective of both the guerrillas and the government.

IPS: Has the guerrilla presence in the reservations intensified? AQ: It has always been intense. What we are demanding is that they respect our autonomy. Our historical analysis shows that the (far-right) paramilitaries have committed massacres, and that the guerrillas have not committed many, although they systematically kill indigenous leaders.

IPS: They’re more selective? AQ: Yes, but in the case of the Awá, this massacre was committed, and the guerrillas have stood in the way of the humanitarian mission (the search for the victims’ bodies).

IPS: Was the suspicion that the Awá were collaborating with the army proven? AQ: It’s a complex question, because the army has a presence there, as do the paramilitaries and the guerrillas. So there are continual clashes. The Awá said the army has also killed indigenous people there, but that until now they had not reported it, out of fear. I think the different sides are all responsible to some degree.

IPS: Do you think there is an agreement between the army and the guerrillas to attack the reservations? AQ: As an indigenous social movement, we have a very clear policy of unarmed civil resistance in search of a peaceful alternative. The Minga had huge repercussions in terms of national and international public opinion and support. I would say there is an alliance, because both sides are attacking us. We are hemmed in.

IPS: It seems clear that the rebels want areas of refuge, but what are the army and paramilitaries looking for in the indigenous territories? AQ: There are economic interests. The government is seeking to exploit natural resources like minerals and other sources of wealth in the reservations. When we’re talking about collectively owned territories, it means no development project can be carried out there without previously consulting the local indigenous residents.

In our view, the government’s ‘democratic security’ policies are not aimed at security, but are a strategy to militarise the territory and open our territories up to the multinational corporations. Hence, the massacres, forced displacement and murders.

IPS: Is there any other way, besides the Minga, to stop the murders and armed pressure? AQ: I believe the biggest actions are the ongoing assemblies, where people come together to mount resistance, to fight against being driven out of their territories.

Another route is legal action in the courts.

Strong support from the international community is also extremely important, because the government gets nervous when there is pressure from abroad for it to protect and provide guarantees for indigenous peoples.

IPS: Do you have a strategy to seek support from political parties, social movements and leftwing forces in the country? AQ: I think that force is being built up in Colombia. There are alternative parties and parliamentarians. We are still a minority, but we are in a process of participation, and could grow into a majority someday, and even think that there could be an alternative president.

We now have the Indigenous Social Alliance. But although we have just one legislator, we have gained a clear political space, which holds out hope for the future, to continue building alternatives for Colombia.

IPS: In electoral terms, you are a small minority, but as indigenous people you have a special strength. Are you staking your bets on a peace process? AQ: Of course. The policy of the social and indigenous movement is to build a true peace process, in which the government would not merely respond to specific circumstantial developments but would instead design real policies to structurally improve the living conditions of Colombians. That is what the indigenous movement is pressing for, through the Minga.

IPS: Is the Minga also seeking alliances with peasant farmers and workers? AQ: Alliances are important to us, and that is exactly what we are seeking through the Minga, and I hope that in the future we will have a much larger event than the one we held (in October and November). But it is a process.

IPS: Why has the state reached such a degree of violence against indigenous people? AQ: We have become a strong force. Today the social movement is very strong, especially in the Cauca region. That is not positive for the government, whose strategy, presented as the strengthening of ‘democratic security’, is not aimed at fighting the insurgency or drug trafficking, but at fighting civilians. That is why indigenous protesters are seen as criminals.

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