Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

COLOMBIA: &#39Independence? What Independence?&#39 Indigenous Peoples Ask

Helda Martínez

BOGOTÁ, Jul 23 2007 (IPS) - Colombia celebrated 197 years of independence from Spain on Friday, Jul. 20. On Monday, at dawn, some 5,000 indigenous people set off on an 800-kilometre journey to ask the government, "what independence?"

"We&#39re going to the national Congress to make it known that we do not agree with laws they&#39ve passed that seriously jeopardise national sovereignty and the autonomy of indigenous peoples," Feliciano Valencia, an indigenous leader, told IPS.

Nasa (or Páez) and Guambian people started their journey in Santander de Quilichao, 100 km north of Popayán, the capital of the south-western department of Cauca.

The rights of indigenous ethnic groups to manage and control their ancestral lands, now designated reserves, and to self-government within them, are enshrined in Colombia&#39s Constitution. However, they are being threatened by laws and bills before Congress on the environment, land use and rural development, indigenous people say.

They are making their way on foot through the towns and villages on the route, but most of the journey is by bus. At every stop, they talk to local residents, seeking their opinions about current economic and human rights issues.

The planned route takes in departmental capitals like Popayán and Cali, in the western Andes mountains, and Armenia and Ibagué, in the central mountains, arriving in Bogotá, 2,600 metres above sea level in the eastern Andes, on Thursday.

"We want to tell the world that the Colombian government doesn&#39t provide the conditions for Colombians to live together in harmony, and we want to call into question the laws approved by the national Congress which hurt the rural sector," Valencia said.

He was referring to the Rural Development Statute approved in June by the Chamber of Deputies, which is to be debated in the Senate during its current sessions, inaugurated on Friday.

The government&#39s view is that the statute "aims at updating a conceptual model that will promote development and bring order and technology to the rural areas of the country," said Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Arias in comments posted on the ministry&#39s website.

Conservative legislator Pedro Ramírez, who proposed the statute, said that "it should point the way for Colombia&#39s countryside, so that future generations can make it more productive and competitive, to cope with the growing demands of globalisation."

But the protest marchers say that "this is the most retrograde law in several years."

Spokespersons for the Colombian National Indigenous Organisation (ONIC) say that the Rural Development Statute "disregards and tramples on fundamental laws and rights of indigenous peoples that are recognised in the Constitution, such as self-determination, management and control of our lands."

"Our reserves will be obliterated, because the statute establishes that third parties may have equal rights within them. The draft statute is a strategy to reorganise the country so as to facilitate implementation of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA)," they said, referring to the deal negotiated with the United States, which still needs to be approved in the U.S. Congress.

The indigenous people are protesting against "the government&#39s insistence on the approval of the FTA," said Valencia.

He is also urging people to pressure for a humanitarian agreement between the authorities and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for the exchange of FARC-held hostages for imprisoned guerrillas.

The indigenous organisations also oppose other government measures, such as the Territorial Development Plan and the Transfers Law on central government funding to the regions, as well as "territorial fragmentation proposed in laws regulating the environment, and laws favouring multinational companies in mining areas."

And they are demanding a negotiated solution to the armed conflict that has been waged in Colombia for 43 years, leaving a legacy in indigenous communities of "massacres, selective murders, abuse against children and elderly people and violence against adults, victims of cross-fire between the state and the guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers," indigenous Senator Jesús Piñacué told the media.

The most outstanding precedent for this mass mobilisation is the Popular Minga for the Dignity of Peoples, in September 2004, when 30,000 people belonging to the Nasa and Guambian indigenous communities marched from Santander de Quilichao to Cali.

A minga is a pre-Columbian indigenous institution: a meeting or assembly to achieve a collective purpose.

Today, the marchers are saying this is a "peaceful minga" for the rights of indigenous people and all Colombians who have suffered under the policies of President Álvaro Uribe&#39s administration.

"National government pressures against this minga taking place are out of order," said one marcher.

At its outset, the march did not elicit much reaction, and was not covered in the national media.

Uribe celebrated Colombia&#39s national independence day in the United States, with fellow-nationals resident in the north-eastern U.S. states of New York and New Jersey. He said that "the approval of the FTA (by the U.S.) will generate more high-quality jobs and reduce violence in Colombia."

Indigenous journalist Emilio Basto spoke in the Nasa Yuwe language to say: "As long as the Earth is in the hands of the powerful, we, her children, will continue to be slaves. Freedom for our Mother Earth!"

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags