Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Nasa Indians: “The Armed Groups Won’t Let Us Live in Peace”

Constanza Vieira

TORIBÍO, Colombia, Oct 6 2011 (IPS) - Indigenous children in the southwestern Colombian province of Cauca do not know what peace is. For the government forces and the leftwing guerrillas, the territory of the Nasa people is a strategic battleground.

The centre of Toribío: in the back, the police station, and nearby homes destroyed by a bus bomb.  Credit: Constanza Vieira/IPS

The centre of Toribío: in the back, the police station, and nearby homes destroyed by a bus bomb. Credit: Constanza Vieira/IPS

When asked what was the worst problem they faced, Nasa Indians of all ages responded without hesitation: “the war.” The second was “the lack of opportunities.”

The territory of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) is home to 105,000 people, mainly Nasa Indians, with minorities of Guambiano Indians, people of mixed-race origin and blacks.

The road that climbs to Toribío, the main Nasa town, winds up steep mountainsides, following the route of the Palo River. The air is warm. The slopes are lined with coffee bushes and small plots of coca and marijuana.

Every weekday at 5:00 PM, motorcyclists carry huge bags of coca leaves to two cocaine labs up in the mountains. They are middlemen who pick up the harvest from people’s homes. The indigenous people who grow coca for the drug industry are not members of the local cabildo or community council.

Two petrol stations have cropped up, one right after the other, since IPS last travelled this remote mountain road in 2009.

Mashed coca leaves are soaked and dissolved in large metal vats holding petrol and other chemicals for three days, in the first step for producing cocaine.

The leaves don’t fetch a high price in this isolated highlands region: just 20 dollars per arroba (12.5 kg). The price doubles at harvest time – or when military operations are underway.

The war has escalated in the ACIN territory, which borders the province of Tolima to the northeast. The army believes the chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), whose nom de guerre is Alfonso Cano, has his headquarters in the impregnable central Andes range in the south of Tolima.

The FARC – the country’s largest insurgent group, which has been fighting since 1964 –set off a bus bomb in front of the police station in Toribío on Jul. 9. The heavily fortified building barely suffered a scratch – the same thing that happened in a similar attack in 2005.

But the houses across from the police station were completely demolished; there is not even any trace of the rubble left. Battered columns stick out of the ruins of the houses next door.

In Toribío it is whispered that members of the military were staying in those five houses. But there was no official report of soldiers killed in the attack.

Nor was it reported that the Indigenous Guard – a force made up of unarmed civilians, which has won the National Peace Prize – saved a policeman by sneaking him out of Toribío in civilian clothes.

And nothing was said about three police officers that the guerrillas seized and took with them that day when they pulled out of town, as one eyewitness told IPS. “They were tied up and covered with black plastic” in the back of a pickup truck, said the eyewitness, a member of the indigenous guard. No one knows what happened to the policemen.

Makeshift barracks next to playgrounds and shelters

The militarisation of the northern part of Cauca has occurred at a dizzying pace; the army has not even built its own buildings yet. In Caloto, the second-to-last town along the road in the lowlands before reaching the mountains, soldiers have been posted in the sports centre – which is right next to a playground.

An 800-member highlands counterinsurgency battalion was deployed in the region in July. However, they were not posted in Toribío but in Buena Vista, a village on a steep-sided mountain with a 360 degree view – a strategic location.

The problem is that in the village, there is a humanitarian shelter for people displaced by the violence. The local people say they will protest if the military begins to construct their own buildings in the village.

The humanitarian shelters or zones can be found all around the region. They are one of the main strategies of the Nasa people to avoid fleeing their territory and joining the millions of people forcibly displaced by the civil war over the past decades.

The shelters provide refuge to people from local communities when fighting breaks out. Events and assemblies are also held in these areas, which receive support from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO).

Staple crops like manioc and plantain are grown in community gardens in the humanitarian zones to tide the shelters over in emergencies until aid arrives.

Albeiro Quihuanáz, an ACIN councillor who holds a post equivalent to that of minister in the autonomous indigenous government, carries the symbol of his authority: a gold-tipped wooden staff decorated with ribbons and wool pom poms.

Quihuanáz is a member of a high-ranking commission called the Tejido de Defensa de la Vida, whose mandate is to protect the local population and help come up with humanitarian solutions. The commission governs the 1,200-member local Indigenous Guard.

“The conflict has no schedule,” said Quihuanáz. “Sometimes the fighting goes on for three or six hours, or sometimes for three or five days.” If one of the armed groups keeps the people from circulating and accessing food and other supplies, the members of the community make the several week trek to the humanitarian zone.

At the shelters, quarters are crowded. “Sometimes people are in need of health care. And supplies like firewood, salt, matches and mattresses are needed,” the ACIN councillor said.

The humanitarian zones “have brought results,” Quihuanáz said. “We have defended lives, and territory. The minga (a traditional indigenous activity for the collective good) has continued; people have not been displaced. That’s what we have achieved,” he added.

Shifting war strategies

Edilfredo Rivera, the head of the Tejido de Defensa de la Vida, said “the conflict is intensifying because the war strategies are changing.

“In the past, the guerrillas moved around in large groups, and the army did too,” he said. That made it easier for the indigenous communities to anticipate clashes between the two sides and take measures for their own safety.

“It’s not like that now. Now they go out in commandos. In the last actions carried out, the groups of guerrillas were not large. They’re doing a lot more damage,” he said, adding that “the army is also carrying out this kind of action.”

So, said Rivera, “we also have to start rethinking the way we do things. This is affecting us.”

The Nasa people say the government does not live up to its own rules or international declarations and conventions that establish the right of indigenous people to autonomous government. They say the rebels also fail to respect international law.

“Every day more people are being killed, minors are recruited, there are rapes, massacres and bombings and a greater military presence, and the territory is increasingly polluted; there is no respect for our sacred spots, and the mining industry is moving in,” said Quihuanáz. “There is military occupation in our territory.”

On Jul. 20, the community issued an ultimatum from Toribío. “No more speeches. No more words. We are going to act.” On Oct. 12, the Nasa people will begin a long “minga” protest march to demand the demilitarisation of their territory.

The Nasa drove drug labs out of their territory in 2000 and 2009, and in September they set fire to mining equipment. They have also dismantled police roadblocks in villages and towns.

Each action they have taken has been announced far in advance – like now.

The minga protest plans to dismantle FARC camps, so they cannot be accused of being against the army. If they only go to where the army is, to protest and demand that the troops pull out and close their bases, “we’re accused of being guerrillas. So, both of them will have to go,” said Quihuanáz, adding that the police will have to leave too.

“That is the strategy. The community is saying: we are going to take action. Things have gone too far; we want peace. What is peace? Living well, on land free of pollution. Working the land, having food and supplies, so the community can live well,” he said.

“The armed groups, the war, don’t let us. Peace is when the armed groups aren’t present. That is how it has to be,” he added.

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