Battle for the mother land: indigenous people of Colombia fighting for their lands

The 50-year civil war is over but, in the Cauca Valley, indigenous communities are on frontline of fight against drug gangs, riot police and deforestation

A green-and-red flag flies over a cluster of bamboo and tarpaulin tents on the frontline of an increasingly deadly struggle for land and the environment in Colombia’s Cauca Valley.

It is the banner for what indigenous activists are calling the “liberation of Mother Earth”, a movement to reclaim ancestral land from sugar plantations, farms and tourist resorts that has gained momentum in the vacuum left by last year’s peace accord between the government and the leftwing guerrillas who once dominated the region – ending, in turn, the world’s longest-running civil war.

The ragtag outpost in Corinto has been hacked out of a sugar plantation, destroyed by riot police, then reoccupied by the activists, who want to stop supplying coca (the main ingredient for cocaine) to drug traffickers in the mountains by cultivating vegetables on the plains instead.

Despite two deaths in the past year, the Nasa Indians – the biggest, most organised and most militant of the 20 indigenous groups in the valley – have staged waves of monoculture clearance and occupation operations. Almost every other week hundreds, sometimes thousands, of machete-bearing activists join these communal actions, known as minga, which involve burning and hacking down swaths of sugar cane, then erecting camps and planting traditional crops including maize and cassava.

The Nasa see this in historical, spiritual terms. For them, it is the latest phase in a centuries-old struggle for land and a clash between two contrasting world views: one that seeks harmony with nature, and one interested only in extracting as much profit as possible, regardless of the impact on the people and the environment.

“Liberating the earth means defending the land,” says José Rene Guetio, a Nasa elder. “You can see the blood that has been spilled in the cause for better land and a better future for our children.”

Environmental concerns are also among the motivations. The Nasa say they should not be living in such large numbers near sacred sites in the hills, particularly lakes, wetlands and waterfalls. “There are too many of us in the mountains. That’s not good because we are destroying our water source,” said Eduin Mauricio Capaz, human rights coordinator for the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (Acin). But this position has pitted them against the law, state security and some of Colombia’s biggest property owners and global sugar suppliers.

The Colombian government sees things differently. It says the state has a responsibility to protect legally recognised property ownership and that indigenous land issues should not be confused with environmental protection. However, it acknowledges that peace has brought a destructive surge into land previously deemed off-limits because of occupation by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Farc. Deforestation in Colombia rose 44% last year. Coca production has also risen rapidly. To tackle this, President Juan Santos has demarcated more conservation areas and promised to use the army and work with former Farc combatants to protect forests.

The minister for the environment and sustainable development, Luis Murillo, said the state’s security apparatus was the answer to environmental problems, not the problem. “We need to move very quickly to establish a presence in areas where we didn’t have a presence before,” he told the Observer, noting that the government is working on measures to protect human rights and environmental defenders.

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